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Herbert Eiden, "In der Knechtschaft werdet ihr verharren ...": Ursachen und Verlauf des englischen Bauernaufstandes von 1381. Trier: Trierer Historische Forschungen, Vol. 32, 1995. 529 pages plus maps.
ISBN: 3-923087-31-4

 

Reviewed by Grover C. Furr

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Published 20.10.1998

This volume is the most important treatment of the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Herbert Eiden has masterfully synthesized the scholarship, both that directly on the subject, and that in important areas which bear directly on it, such as economic, demographic, and social history. To that he has added important new primary research of his own into the manorial documents which record the Revolt. Even more significant is Eiden's historical methodology, a model of a materialist approach which takes economic, social and political context fully into account, while rendering the peasant rebels a degree of agency - of intelligence, organization, and freedom - which historians rarely concede to any but the "great figures" of history. In doing so, Eiden takes issue with some of the major historians of the Revolt, who have typically subscribed to one or another form of "determinism".

This is a truly seminal work. Eiden's thorough review of the scholarship on the Revolt itself, from Réville a century ago to research in scholarly articles published as late as the early Nineties, grants the reader an overview of the secondary material unmatched in any other publication. But Eiden also includes incisive and detailed reviews of major studies in social and economic history which bear, directly or indirectly, on the Revolt. In addition, Eiden's own significant primary research into unprinted, and hitherto unstudied, manorial sources in the counties where the Revolt was strongest, in itself represents a major contribution to scholarship. A work which demonstrates a mastery of a great body of secondary scholarship, which represents a significant original contribution to the study of primary sources, and which, finally, engages the vital but intimidating issues of historical methodology with great sensitivity and intelligence, this book is an outstanding achievement. It should be the future point of departure for all serious students of the Revolt. In fact, all students of the social history of late medieval England would benefit from its excellent summary of contemporary scholarship of many important aspects in that field. Though lengthy, this review in no way aims to summarize Eiden's work. Rather, it begins with an overview of significant aspects of Eiden's study. After that will come brief discussions of each chapter.

Major Aspects Of The Book

In Chapter I, 3, and throughout much of Chapter II, Eiden engages the work of other historians of the Revolt and of the social history of late medieval England. He takes issue with the "Toronto" school of J. A. Raftis, who proceed from a model of a "harmonious, organic" peasant society (48). He takes issue with M. M. Postan and others who might be termed economic determinists -- indeed, much of the historiography of the Revolt in the first half of this century might well be termed "economic determinist" (38-40); Eiden returns to this point again at the very end (448). He examines and rejects the widespread view that the Revolt was "unnecessary" (Postan; Prescott), and likewise the similar view that it was mainly a "riot" and a settling of personal scores (Prescott, III,5 -7; Réville, III, 8), to be assimilated to rural crime. He is in greatest agreement with the British Marxists such as Rodney Hilton, Christopher Dyer, Rosemond Faith and others, in their view that the peasantry showed conscious political agency, including shrewdness in using legal means of protest and, most important, a high degree of organization in the planning and execution of the Revolt itself. He appreciatively examines Gerlinde Mothes' explicitly Marxist (East German) work as well (225, n. 45; 457-8, n. 51). Among his useful reviews of scholarship is a good outline of the major issues of the "Brenner debate" (47 ff.).

Eiden demonstrates the essentially conscious, political nature of the Revolt in several ways. One of the most striking is his emphasis on ideology. Like Steven Justice, whose 1984 work Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 proceeds from a study of the neglected role of literacy among the peasants to suggest a richer interpretation of peasant consciousness, resistance, and culture, Eiden recognizes the evidence of the rebels' conscious political organization, of collective political (including legal) action in pursuit of their economic interests. He also points out that the rebels' opponents realized this as well when, on several important occasions, they punished rebellious words more severely than deeds.

For Eiden, the Peasant Revolt is a distinctively revolutionary event against feudalism. Drawing upon Dyer's work, he concludes that "the majority of the rebels studied either held land under unfree conditions or were themselves unfree" (433-4). The demands at Smithfield and Mile End could not have been fulfilled within the framework of the prevailing feudal system. Furthermore, the peasant rebels demonstrated a consciousness of their role as makers of history in the consistency with which they made certain demands, and in the high degree of organization they showed both before and during the Revolt. In contrast to Andrew Prescott and many others before him, Eiden stresses the purposeful, conscious and collective of the peasants' political activity.

In addition to his important work as a synthesizer of the secondary literature and in focusing on important questions of historical methodology, Eiden has made a major contribution to the study of primary sources of the Revolt, particularly as concerns the social background of the rebels. (II.8, 166 ff., and especially 175 ff.; see also his summary, IV, 2, 435 ff.). This work both clears a path for further, more detailed study of the social basis of the Revolt, and provides support for Eiden's major conclusions concerning the revolutionary and class nature of the Revolt. Eiden has recently published a summary, in English, of some of the important findings of his primary research in History 83 (1998), 5-30.

Finally, the last chapter (451 ff.), and especially the final section, Ergebnisse ("Results"), are masterful summaries of Eiden's conclusions. They should be read by themselves as a succinct outline of his interpretation of the Revolt, against which future scholars of this subject will be measured for many years to come.

In the remainder of this review I will indicate some points of particular interest in Eiden's work, with appropriate comments.

Chapter I contains a review of the primary sources: Chronicle account, literary texts and sermons, legal, tax, and manorial records. Notable here is his description of his own considerable research into manorial records (33-34), and a good, clear paragraph outlining the method to be used in the volume (36). Eiden then gives an excellent brief survey of scholarship on the Revolt during the past century. This is followed by a briefer review of research on the social and economic background of the Revolt (45-49). The final paragraph contains a neat summary of the chapter as a whole, as does each chapter - a very helpful feature of Eiden's presentation.

In Chapter Two, "Economy and Society in the Fourteenth Century", Eiden explains that the reaffirmation of the ideology of the "Three Estates" in fourteenth-century England reflected an aristocratic attempt to reassert traditional privileges precisely when this was no longer possible. He discusses the contradictions within the system of feudalism, emphasizing the overriding importance of the issue of freedom from servile obligations. As a result of the Statute of Labourers, even free peasants were economically harmed by feudalism, since they could not hire labor, as landlords did. There is an excellent summary paragraph on page 84.

In II, 5, Eiden accepts Butnell's concept of a "feudal reaction." The plague accelerated previously existing trends in economic and social development - in brief, the sharpening tension between landlords and peasants evident throughout the second half of the fourteenth century. Though better off economically, the serfs' social position had not changed, and this bred frustration and a consciousness that the system itself was at fault.

Section 4 of Chapter 2 admirably summarizes much secondary work on the specifically urban contradictions of feudalism, essential to understanding the sympathies of many of the London lower classes with the rebels as well as the related revolts in smaller urban centers. Throughout the several sections of Chapter II (including section 5, "Money, Prices, Wages", section 6, "The Hundred Years War and Taxation") Eiden is careful to outline the overall economic basis of the revolt, which he sees as grounded in, but not determined by, the economic crises of the century. In the otherwise fine summary of scholarship in Section 5, I feel Eiden does not break through the mystification surrounding the concept of "economic development", common among scholars in this field, though he points out the differences among the "demographic" and "monetarist" schools of economic historians.

In Section 6 Eiden points out that, though economic contradictions were indeed sharpening, it was the political contradictions - themselves based upon, but not mechanistically determined by, the former - which most clearly laid the basis for the revolt. The rebels specially sought out for attack gentry and others associated with tax collection or with enforcement of the Statute of Labourers.

Eiden's summary and discussion of scholarship on the political state of England (II, 7, "Crime, Corruption, "Public Opinion'"), shows how enforcement of the Statute meant a closer interweaving of the judges and landed aristocracy. Perceived as "corruption", this nexus might better be understood as the intensification of class rule and exploitation by an increasingly desperate landowner class. Political poems of the time - Eiden draws upon Thomas Wright's old collection - reflects the rising tide of complaints against government officials at this time. This is evidence of peasant discontent because, like Justice (whose work he acknowledges here), Eiden argues that many peasants could read - indeed, written communication was vital in launching the revolt.

Section 8 discusses "peasant disobedience and opposition before 1381". Here Eiden draws heavily upon his own primary research, especially (175 ff.) on the manors where, contrary to scholars of the "Toronto school", he finds much evidence of class antagonisms. Organized and conscious peasant oppositional activity, especially collective action, has been all too often underestimated, but St. Albans, among other places, show it forth clearly. Notable in this section is the spate of peasant appeals to Domesday Book. There is an excellent summary on pp. 186-7.

Throughout his long, detailed, and very valuable third chapter titled "Chronology of the Revolt", Eiden concentrates upon the consciousness and purposeful political activity shown by the peasant rebels, taking issue with many other scholars, but especially with Andrew Prescott, whose important unpublished dissertation on the judicial records of the Revolt he fully acknowledges. In contrast to most previous scholarship on the Revolt, but like Christopher Dyer and others of the British Marxist school, Eiden is especially concerned to emphasize the high degree of organizational skill evident in the course of the rebellion. The excellent summary is on pages 232-3.

Section 5, "The Rebels in London (June 13-15)", continues this line of interpretation, stressing the purposeful, political nature of rebel actions against Prescott, who sees mainly "riot" and "personal revenge", and the revolutionary, and mutually complementary, nature of the Mile End and Smithfield demands. Sections 6 through 9 cover the rebellion in the counties, pointing out that the rebels' political organization transcended county boundaries (309 ff.). Eiden notes the vexed phrase "magna societas" which occurs in several sources, but strangely does not take a position on the controversy about its meaning - does it mean something like "great society", perhaps the peasants' name for their organization or even their final goal of a reconstituted non-feudal England? Or does it mean, as most scholars now believe, simply "big mob"? Eiden's convincing demonstration of the peasants' high level of organization and political awareness suggests the former may be possible, but he remains silent on the issue. Once again there are excellent summaries at the end of each section, especially at the end of Section 7 (pp. 313-15).

Section 10 of Chapter III, "The Government's Reaction and the Judgments Against the Rebels", provide Eiden with yet another opportunity to focus on the importance of politics, and especially of the political consciousness of the rebels. The fates of Ball, Shirley, and Preston show clearly that the authorities believed the rebellion was more than mere riot and revenge. Words were often punished more harshly than deeds, as the fate of these three rebels demonstrates; the authorities' desperation to snuff out any leadership that might incite a new rebellion shows they believed organization was key to the revolt.

Eiden's analysis suggests some areas of interest which he does not explore. For example, the plot to kill the King alleged of the new conspiracy in Maidstone, Kent, disclosed in late September, 1381, suggests that the allegations made, for example, in the mysterious "Confession of Jack Straw", may have not been far off the mark. Dobson, Ormrod and others have remarked upon the government's "moderation" in the suppression of the Revolt; Eiden suggests (402) that the authorities' limited response was forced upon them by fear of setting off yet further rebellion.

Chapter IV, 2., "The Rebels' Social and Economic Position", including as it does the results of Eiden's own substantial research into the manorial records of the Revolt, represents a major original contribution to our understanding of who rebelled and why. Here too, his analysis leads him to stress the importance of political ideology and agency, or political consciousness, on the part of the peasant rebels and others, rather than falling back, as do so many accounts of social-economic background, upon some form of determinism.

Chapter V is an admirable, comprehensive statement of Eiden's conclusions concerning the Revolt, beginning with an enumeration of five significant results of the Revolt. Throughout Section 1 he hints - without, however, stating as much explicitly, as I believe he should have done - that the rebels' political activity made feudalism untenable, and contributed importantly to its demise. Eiden thus starkly disagrees with many scholars that the Revolt was "historically unnecessary" (Dobson), a "passing episode" (Postan), and specifically with Prescott's recent and authoritative dissertation. An excellent passage (462-4) criticizes mechanistic concepts of historical change and causation, and refers approvingly to the works of the British Marxists like Hilton and Dyer. "Such an interpretation considers the Revolt not as a unique and fundamentally ineffectual event, but as a high point in the struggle between landlord and peasant" (463). Section 2, "Results", pages 465-70, is simply the finest brief summary of the significance of the Revolt in print, and serves as an admirable conclusion to Eiden's indispensable study.

This book has put English-speaking students of the Peasant Revolt -- a term, incidentally, upon which Eiden insists at the expense of the now-common "English Rising" as he concludes peasant interests were central to it -- in a quandary. Relatively few have sufficient German to really be able to read the book. Yet it is the essential work on the subject, one with which every future student of the Revolt will have to contend. Furthermore, the author has informed me that he is prevented by other scholarly tasks from translating the work himself. Hopefully some academic publisher will undertake to support a translation sometime in the future. Unfortunately, this does not seem imminent.

Until then, there is no better argument for spending whatever time is needed to acquire a good reading knowledge of German than to then be able to avail oneself of this invaluable study. Of course, the rewards for the medievalist of a good reading knowledge of German are many. It opens the door to studies in journals such as Anglia, Archiv, Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift, and the dissertations noted in Deutsche Bibliographie / Hochschulschriftenverzeichnis and the supplement to Anglia, English and American Studies in German - Summaries of Theses and Monographs. Then there is the rich literary heritage of Germany itself.

 

KEYWORDS: Middle Ages, medieval, peasants, revolt, 1381, feudalism, crisis
REVIEWED BY: Grover C. Furr
AFFILIATION: Montclair State University
E-MAIL: furrg@alpha.montclair.edu

Originally published in Prolepsis: The Tübingen Review of English Studies

                                                                                                                                                                                       


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