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From the author of Agincourt comes a new interpretation of the Peasant’s Revolt. Two University of Sheffield second-year history undergraduates put it to the test:

Frankie Baldwin, 2nd year history student

Juliet Barker’s England Arise begins at the deathbed of the “charismatic and commanding figure” of Edward III. The opening chapter, aptly named “End of An Era”, sets the scene, exploring the fragile political situation from which the peasants’ revolt – the focal point of the book – would emerge. One cannot help but view Barker’s description of the final years of the sickly and delicate king as a striking metaphor for the fractured country of England that had begun to break down and rot from within, creating a sense of foreboding for the upcoming story.

In subsequent chapters Barker takes us through Britain with a chronological and geographical sweep. We follow the pattern of revolt as it made its way across England. While the chapters are segmented in an effective and (for a student) very helpful way, each is linked, relating its subject matter directly back to the structure of the uprising and its origins. Through both structure and content Barker’s book reveals the revolt as the product of many different events.

Some of these events were beyond any form of human control, such as the knock-on effect of the Black Death that was devastating Europe at the time. Others were the consequence of a more localized plague: villages and towns alike were subjected to relentless poll tax hikes. Barker’s analysis of these two different ways of life within the context of the riot harks back to the work of Rodney Hilton, whose ‘Popular movements in England at the end of the Fourteenth Century’ highlighted the importance of the collaborative activities of those involved in the riot to its subsequent successes in widespread mobilization.

Not only does Barker hone in on a variety of different geographical focal points within the uprising but she takes this further by exploring a series of individual characters who featured in the revolt. These vary from instigators of the revolt like Wat Tyler to noblemen like John of Gaunt.

However it is Barker’s focus on common ‘nobodies’ and their lives, pieced together from varying popular documents, rather than her studies of iconic figures, that adds an additional layer to England, Arise. Within each of these stories Barker creates a new image of the nature of the revolt. The role of Richard II himself shown via the lives of those his rule affected, such as his ‘pardoning a thief who had been sentenced to death after being caught red handed’ in 1397.

This intricate piecing together of intense detail combined with expansive coverage of the subject creates a thoroughly comprehensible book that never bores or over-saturates the reader with information.

Isabel Bowden, 2nd year history student

Juliet Barker creates a very convincing argument for the reasons behind the Peasants’ Revolt by looking at contemporary tax records and judicial sources, rather than focusing on more traditional sources such as accounts written about the revolt by chroniclers. Her focus on the everyday life of ordinary people really brings the book to life with entertaining stories about real people woven in among the more expansive arguments.

In this book there is a clear focus on History from Below in that Barker focuses on English citizens and their motivations for the uprising, rather than the reasons given by contemporary politicians (who persuaded Richard II to rescind his agreement to the requests of the rebels) and chroniclers who dismissed the peasants as rebellious scum.

Barker’s writing is easy to follow as she demonstrates how the rebels focused their anger on those responsible for their repression: landowners and monasteries, and in particular those who held the charters that kept the peasants in servitude. She explores the loyalty of the rebels to the young King Richard II, and their hatred of the nobles surrounding him. Barker suggests that the king actually supported the rebels and sympathised with their cause, as shown by his agreement to end serfdom, among other things, at Mile End. Barker points out that the chroniclers distort this event in their retellings of it, in particular Thomas Walsingham, who claimed that the letters stating Richard’s agreement to the peasants’ demands were extracted by force.

The flow of the book is helped by the way that Barker divides it very clearly into different factors of the revolt, making a confusing sequence of events much easier to comprehend. She looks at the events leading up to the revolt, revealing that increases in taxes did not take into account changes in population or levels of poverty and wealth. While tax reports are not the most enthralling of sources, Barker finds in them new and exciting evidence, showing how the parish tax introduced in 1371 caused anger as it was levied on every parish in the kingdom, even those that had previously been exempt. The poll-taxes are also highlighted as a cause of acrimony, alongside the war with France which these taxes was financing, putting a strain on the country as a whole.

The book’s focus on the events surrounding the revolt, as well as the revolt and rebels themselves, makes it highly informative and readable. Even tax reports seem interesting and important as an insight into the lives of medieval peasants.

Juliet Barker, England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt (Little Brown, 2014, 528pp, ISBN: 978140870335).

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Tags : book reviewmedievalnew bookspeasants revoltrevolutionsundergraduate
Frankie Baldwin

The author Frankie Baldwin

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