An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 14, 2021

1381, 2021, And All That

Below please find Alfred Thomas’ response to Miriam Müller’s Revolting Peasants, Neo-Nazis, and their Commentators, itself a response to his original piece, Politics in a Time of Pandemic. We will end the published collegial exchange with this third contribution. However, both colleagues may continue the discussion, perhaps together with others, on our Facebook page, I am pleased to note that several of the readers of this exchange have already decided to include it in their spring courses on late medieval studies and medievalism. This is exactly the kind of communication Medievally Speaking would like to engender. After all, our own position toward historical events needs continual revision and reinterpretation, and questions of temporality and temporalization are at the heart of our work.   Richard Utz, editor



1381, 2021, And All That

I read Professor Mueller’s response to my essay with great interest and respect for her learning, but I would like to clear up a couple of misunderstandings.

First, I never claimed that the rebellion was exclusively focused on London. As my colleague points out, the Peasants’ Revolt originated in the countryside and moved gradually toward London. It was mainly the Kentish rebels who confronted the King at Mile End. I was writing a blog, not a monograph, so I think I may be forgiven for not providing a history of the rebellion in its entirety. I don’t think it is quite fair to accuse British historians of Londocentrism. Juliet Barker has written an excellent history of the rebellion as a whole, including many learned chapters on the provincial roots of the rebellion. Given these roots and the similar provincial origins of the invaders of the Capitol, I think Professor Mueller’s focus on the regions actually strengthens rather than undermines my modern-medieval parallel. 

The second caveat I have with the author’s response is its rather Whiggish assumption about progress. She states that the medieval rebels wanted equality. Well yes, they wanted to abolish serfdom, and that was a good thing, but they were hardly socialists in our sense. Their loyalty to the king complicates any notion that these people were modern progressives. In fact, it could be argued that their loyalty to the Crown cost them dearly when the king reneged on his promises.

The temptation is to project our own liberal values onto past people or movements we approve of. There is a long tradition of this from William Morris idealizing the English peasants of the fourteenth century and the Czechoslovak philosopher-president T.G. Masaryk identifying with the Hussites as a progressive movement. The sad truth is that the Hussites would have burnt liberals like Masaryk at the stake as a heretic. Historical objectivity is not only a desideratum, it is an imperative if we want to avoid repeating the disasters of history. 

I never denied the peasant component of the rebellion, merely that the revolt was more heterogeneous than the name Peasants’ revolt implies. Here too the analogy with the American storming of the Capitol is intriguing: there was even a Hassidic Jew from Brooklyn involved in the assault on the Capitol! Hardly a homogeneous mob of Southern rednecks.

Thirdly, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to assume that the rebels would have murdered Jews along with the Flemish weavers if the former had been around in London at the time of the assault on the Tower. If English writers like Thomas of Monmouth and Geoffrey Chaucer could imagine the killing of Jews for alleged wrongs in their writing, it is hardly unreasonable to assume that the killing of real Jews would have taken place in 1381. As a literary historian, I can find numerous examples of how discursive violence ends in real violence. As the great German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine said: “When one begins by burning books, one inevitably ends by burning bodies.”

Finally, I want to make it clear that I was not saying that the two events were the same, merely that they share certain similarities. If we undermine the impact of pandemic then and now, we do so at our own peril. What late-fourteenth century England and twenty-first century America have in common is a political crisis that correlates with a biomedical crisis. The crisis is marked by the breakdown or failure – call it what you will – of ideological ruling systems: feudalism in the fourteenth century, democracy now. We have only to look back to the catastrophe of the twentieth century to see what a fragile thing democracy can be and still is.

Alfred Thomas

January 12, 2021

Müller: Revolting Peasants, Neo-Nazis, and their Commentators

Miriam Müller

It is understandable to observe current political events and be tempted to draw comparisons to what superficially may look like historical precedent. Yet to take such a path is fraught with problems. In a recent contribution by Alfred Thomas it is argued that two rebel crowds, those of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the pro-Trump supporters with their far right agenda – albeit separated by over 700 years – have quite a lot in common, and might even appear similar, especially if we consider that both uprisings occurred at times of pandemics. Yet they do not.

On the one hand I am pleased that the peasantry – or may I say the rebels – of 1381 are being drawn on for analogy and inspiration to explore and explain the events we recently observed on our television screens when a Trump-supporting mob entered Capitol Hill and thereby directly attacked the core of liberal democracy in the USA.  The shock of these events reverberated across the globe – I was watching events unfold sitting in our living room in Germany, at the same time as friends were following events in other parts of Europe and the Americas – and I dare say it will be one of those key events in history people will see in future as a hook for other memories. It was at the time when – at least in Germany – we were in our second lockdown in the second wave of the SARS Covid 19 pandemic. But I digress. It makes me happy that the rebels of 1381 are discussed again because I happen to like them as much as I despise the hate-filled speeches and sentiments emanating from the pro-Trump crowd.

To start with, it is a common mistake to see the 1381 revolt as an event centred around London. I blame British historians for this entirely as the London-centric view of political, cultural and economic events so common to Britain has often not sufficiently been tempered by the research scope of historians of the fourteenth century. Indeed, one overriding factor which has always fascinated me about the rebellion is just how widespread it was. Unrest was not just occurring near and around London, but in other large sections of England. The whole of East Anglia, for example was in revolt. Here, historians have reconstructed and painstakingly tracked rebel movements across villages and towns, who were often very probably in contact with rebels from further south and west through mounted messengers who carried word and news quickly through the countryside and into towns, promoting and maintaining the revolt as it spread to the centre of England, where unrest was felt in Reading, Worcester and other places and as far to the southwest as Berkshire and Somerset.[1]  Yet in their localised actions they remained autonomous rebel bands of men and women who left us, in the local indictment records, many very precious clues as to their aims and aspirations. Theirs was a communal uprising peaking around Corpus Christi day, when villagers traditionally danced around bonfires and followed processions through the centres of towns and villages with their local priests.[2]

This matters of course. It was a widespread movement of angry people on the move who were tackling their own local sources of government corruption and exploitation, their target was therefore not the seat of Government nationally, but very locally.  Thomas argues that the rebels were not ‘a homogeneous group of ignorant peasants’. True, I completely agree that the rebels were neither a homogeneous group nor ignorant, yet peasants they were for the most part. Peasants could be well off or dirt poor, they could hold a lot of land or little from their local lord, some were free, some were unfree (customary villein peasant tenants) and some were both; that is, they held some land freely and some in serfdom. There was therefore little that can be called homogeneity at home in rural communities. Village officials, reeves, haywards, even in some cases bailiffs also came from peasant families and high-ranking village officials like reeves were usually drawn only from unfree villein families.  These were therefore not people separate from peasant society as Thomas suggests, but rather an integral part of it.

These were not ignorant people, some could even read and write, and they were very well versed in law, common law and local manorial law. They enforced law and order locally and had the duty to speak in the manorial court. Yet they were peasants indeed. That is, they made the majority or all of their living through agriculture. I therefore do not think that calling the Peasants’ Revolt a ‘peasants’ revolt’ is a misnomer. Even when townspeople participated in larger numbers – such as in London – it is worth remembering that towns had higher death than birth rates. This means that the existence of towns was only possible because of immigration, mainly from villages. In other words, most townspeople would still have had very strong rural roots and came from peasant stock.

The men and women of 1381 had many good reasons to be dissatisfied. The Black Death – we are back at the pandemic – had ravaged villages with a terrifying death rate, which reached over 60% to 70% or more in some places, leaving survivors traumatised yet also in a very powerful bargaining position to better their lives. Yet instead of being able to benefit from rising wages and cheaper land they encountered lords who attempted to turn back the clock, put the brakes on economic change and impose a second serfdom. These rebels were not just thinking of themselves. They thought of their children and children’s children, they rebelled for the futures of their offspring. Their violence against property, which Thomas draws attention to, was moreover very deliberately targeted. They burned legal records which contained proof of their serfdom, they pulled down manor houses and requisitioned livestock to sustain their endeavours. They did not do these things because they wanted to steal and loot, rather their message was political. When the rebels sacked the Savoy in London they did not carry off John of Gaunt’s treasure but ceremoniously threw it in the Thames or on a bonfire. They wanted to destroy lordship and the records of their serfdom. They were not against law, they wanted a just law. They did not want to steal but stop exploitation.

It is true that some Flemings are reported to have been killed, in London as well as in King’s Lynn in Norfolk. There is much uncertainly around why these people were targeted and I have never found any evidence which helps to explain the actions of the rebels who killed them. Without such evidence we might make educated guesses or speculate, but as a historian this seems dissatisfying, as without a single solid piece of evidence, reasons might range as widely as personal vendetta or feud to, indeed, a hatred of foreigners. Yet even here we must tread with caution. Any historian of English villagers will have come across many villagers who are noted in the local manorial records as ‘the foreigner’, or ‘the Frenchman’ or, especially in the Midlands of England which regularly saw an influx of Welsh migrants during harvest seasons, ‘The Welshman’. They might be people who were identified as originating outside the village through such explanatory suffixes, but I have never in such cases seen any tangible evidence indicating that these people, if they decided to settle, were not accepted once they took on local land. In the village it was land that accorded status, not where one originated from.

Anti-Semitism is another problematic area. Accusations of Jews poisoning wells were far from uncommon in continental Europe but not in England, very probably because Jewish communities had been expelled previously. Yet to assume that that had Jewish people lived in London the rebels of 1381 would have killed them is an ahistorical as well as an illogical reading of the Revolt, which had nothing at all to do with fear of the Black Death, as had the persecution of Jews in Europe. We have furthermore no evidence at all of what the rebels of 1381 thought about Jews.

Instead, we know that they hated inequality: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentylman?’, John Ball is famed for proclaiming in 1381: a radical brand of Christianity which calls for equality and even suggests that no man is lord over his wife, something which would sit very uneasily indeed with most Trump supporters on Capitol Hill. Neither could I imagine any of Ball’s other proclamations attributed to him by contemporary and hostile commentators to fit into the pro-Trump Proud Boys camp: ‘How can they claim or prove that they are lords more than us, except by making us produce and grow the wealth which they spend?’[3]

Instead of fear and anger, as Thomas suggests, I see in 1381 an immense expression of hope for a better future. It was a forward-looking movement built on the hard work of ordinary people who attempted to build a better life after the ruins left by the first arrival of the plague, Yersinia pestis, in 1348-9. From what we can piece together, the rebels of 1381 were hoping for some form of representative government with the king at its head. They wanted to get rid of lords as the enforcers of inequality and serfdom, whom they saw as corrupt and ‘traitors’ as they stood against what the rebels saw was the true commons, the loyal and trustworthy subjects of the king - themselves. They wanted freedom from the shackles of servitude for their offspring and to enjoy the fruits of the land which they felt should be held in common. They were, by definition, not in favour of the destruction of democratic principles. This might be a more positive message to take from 1381, and one which is thereby wholly and totally at odds with the scene at Capitol Hill, and yet still very relevant for our current time dominated by pandemic fears. 1381 for me is above all about survival and hope for a better future of greater equality and better standards of living for ordinary people.

Miriam Müller, Solingen, Germany

Relevant publications:

Miriam Müller, Childhood, Orphans and Underage Heirs in Medieval Rural England; Growing up in the Village (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

Miriam Müller, ‘Conflict and Revolt: The bishop of Ely and his peasants at the manor of Brandon in Suffolk ca. 1300-1381’, in Rural History, 23, 1 (2012), pp. 1-19.

Miriam Müller, 'Arson, Communities and Social Conflict in Later Medieval England', in Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 43, 2 (2012) pp. 193-208.  

Miriam Müller, ‘The Aims and Organisation of a Peasant Revolt in Early Fourteenth-Century Wiltshire’, in Rural History, 14, 1 (2003), pp. 1-20.

[1] Herbert Eiden: „In der Knechtschaft werdet ihr verharren …“ Ursachen und Verlauf des englischen Bauernaufstandes von 1381. (THF, Trier 1995); C. Dyer, ‘The Rising of 1381 in Suffolk: Its Origins and Participants’, in C. Dyer, Everyday Life in Medieval England (Hambledon and London, 2000) pp. 221-239. Miriam Müller, ‘Conflict and Revolt: The bishop of Ely and his peasants at the manor of Brandon in Suffolk ca. 1300-1381’, in: Rural History, volume 23, issue 01, (April 2012), pp. 1-19; Miriam Müller, 'Arson, Communities and Social Conflict in Later Medieval England', in:Viator Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 43, no.2 (2012) pp. 193-208.

[2] M. Aston, ‘Corpus Christi and Corpus Regni: Heresy and the Peasants' Revolt’, in Past and Present (1994), pp. 3-47.

[3] J. Froissart, Chronicles, ed. by G. Brereton (Penguin Classics 1978), p. 212.

January 10, 2021

Thomas: Politics in a Time of Pandemic

Politics in a Time of Pandemic: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Storming of the Capitol by Trump Supporters in Historical Perspective


Alfred Thomas, University of Illinois at Chicago


An angry crowd of rebels, fiercely loyal to the head of state but determined to punish his subordinates as traitors, listens to his speech and, enflamed by his words, rushes to the most prominent landmark in the city where the politicians are hiding in fear. The whole thing is, to say the least, a massive security failure: the mob manages to break into the building and proceeds to ransack its interior, including government documents. In the ensuing conflict several people are killed.


This is a highly abbreviated account of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when thousands of disaffected subjects of King Richard II, angry at the imposition of a punitive poll tax that discriminated against them and favored the rich, invaded London and demanded the abolition of feudal serfdom. The rebels, led by Wat Tyler, gathered in Mile End in the east of London where the king and his retinue came to meet and parley with them (figure 1). Encouraged by the king’s concessions, the mob returned to London and stormed the Tower of London where several of the royal ministers had taken refuge. A few of these beleaguered individuals, including Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, who had just resigned as Lord Chancellor of England, were dragged out of the Tower and beheaded. Sudbury’s head was paraded through the streets of London with his miter nailed into his brains. In the end, the youthful king reneged on his promises, probably under pressure from his council; and many of the rebels were arrested, tried, and executed. But if the revolt had succeeded and the rebels had gained their demands, it would have transformed English society and would have anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.  

                                                            Figure 1


                                                          Figure 2


The casual reader of my synoptic account of the storming of the Tower of London in 1381 may be forgiven for mistaking it for a thumb-nail sketch of the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. And indeed, as I shall propose, the similarity between the two shocking events is not as facile as it may seem.  But how-- the reader might indignantly ask-- can one compare the plight of England’s oppressed and overtaxed peasantry with the ire of bigots intent on overturning the results of a democratic election? To examine this question more closely, we need to demystify some of our basic assumptions about the Peasants’ Revolt and perhaps even reassess what happened in Washington D.C.


First of all, the term “Peasants’ Revolt” is a misnomer. The English rebels were not a homogenous group of ignorant peasants but a diverse assortment of village serfs, bailiffs, constables, stewards and even members of the local gentry, all of whom were adversely affected by the punitive poll tax. Secondly, these rebels were far from the innocent victims of popular belief. Enflamed by the violent beheading of Sudbury, they proceeded to roam through the streets of London hunting down and murdering foreign workers whose economic rivalry they feared and resented: thirty-five Flemings who had taken refuge in St Martin Vintry were dragged outside and beheaded in the street; seventeen others claiming sanctuary in another parish church allegedly suffered a similar fate. 


While it is possible to excuse the murder of Sudbury, who, as Lord Chancellor of England, had presided over the enforcement of the punitive poll tax, it seems more difficult to justify the indiscriminate murder of foreigner workers who were simply the innocent scapegoats of a war waged against the governing classes of medieval England. As historian Juliet Barker reminds us, “Xenophobia had always been a very English vice and murdering Flemings was a medieval past time.”[1] In addition to hating foreigners, the medieval English were also virulent anti-Semites; it was, after all, a twelfth-century English monk from Norwich Cathedral named Thomas of Monmouth, who had written the first “blood libel” narrative in which he accused the Jews of murdering a local Christian child in a reenactment of the Passion of Jesus Christ.[2] Even though the Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, hatred of the “spectral Jew” lived on in texts such as Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament. It is true that the English rebels of 1381 did not actually kill any Jews during their murderous rampage, but that was simply because there were no Jews left to kill. In Prague a few years later, the picture was very different: in Holy Week, 1389, around 500 Jews were slaughtered and burned on the flimsy accusation that some Jewish boys had thrown a stone at the Host as it was being carried through the Jewish Quarter. I think we can safely assume that had there been any Jews living in Ricardian London, they would have suffered the same fate—and perhaps in far greater numbers—than that of the London-based Flemings in 1381 and the Jews of Prague in 1389.


Seen in this sobering historical light, the English rebels start to look a little less like the innocent victims of tyranny and more like the Trump supporters who invaded the Capitol, some of whom we now know—were wearing hateful tee-shirts emblazoned with the words “Camp Auschwitz”. And like the English "peasants," these rioters were not just uneducated rednecks but a diverse crowd including IT experts and even CEOs. What the English rebels and Trump’s supporters have in common was the urge to scapegoat others for their perceived grievances. Both groups were acting in a climate of hysteria compounded—if not created—by a biomedical catastrophe: six hundred years before the outbreak of Covid-19, the Black Death (more accurately known as the bubonic plague) killed about half the population of England (and Europe) in an eighteen-month period between 1348 and 1351. The pandemic returned intermittently for the next three hundred years, creating an atmosphere of terror and fear that inevitably resulted in the need to blame “outsiders.” Typically, Christians accused the Jews of poisoning the wells and deliberately spreading the plague; in fact in some ways, the Jews were seen as the evil embodiment of the plague, detritus to be flushed from the pure corpus mysticum of Christian society. The result was the mass murder of European Jews by hanging and burning. Certain groups, such as the friars and the flagellants, played on these fears of the “Other” just as President Trump and his followers have repeatedly referred to the Coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” with deleterious consequences for this ethnic minority within the United States. The medieval canard that Jews poisoned the wells was still circulating in Nazi Germany and eastern Europe in the twentieth century. The SS commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, informed his subordinates that the Jews had sabotaged the war effort by blowing up bridges and by poisoning the wells. The SS commandant of the Chelmno death camp in Poland, stated in no uncertain terms that “in this camp the plague boils of humanity, the Jews, are exterminated.” “Kill all Jews” has become an all-too-commonly heard refrain on the streets of Vienna, Paris and Los Angeles during the pandemic year of 2020. Hatred of Jews was something that many of the English rebels and at least some of Trump’s supporters have in common, and in both cases the pandemic enflamed their bigotry.


Both groups were also reacting to the dire economic effects of pandemic. It is true that the situation in medieval England was somewhat different in so far as the Black Death caused a labor shortage that actually favored the peasantry and allowed them to demand higher wages, whereas in the United States the Covid-induced lockdown has resulted in massive levels of unemployment and financial insecurity. But both factors influenced the events we are describing: the English rebels were doubtless emboldened by the plague conditions to demand the abolition of serfdom while the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol were not only reacting to the President’s baseless claims of voter fraud but were clearly angry at Congress for dragging its feet over the massive relief bill-- a delay compounded, ironically by Trump’s stalling tactics in refusing to sign the bill until the last moment.


The conjoined effects of epidemiological and economic catastrophe cannot excuse the violent behavior (and extreme beliefs) of Trump’s supporters any more than it can justify the murderous acts of the English rebels in 1381. What historical contextualization can allow us to do is to comprehend why such groups act in the way that they do. A major impediment to understanding extreme behavior in such times as ours is the tendency now and in the fourteenth century to demonize protesters with labels like “traitors” and “domestic terrorists.” During the protests of 2020 Fox News routinely castigated Black Lives Matter demonstrators in such terms; and CNN has used exactly the same words to describe Trump’s supporters in the wake of January 6.  In fact, such terms are curiously reminiscent of the shocked reaction to the Peasants’ Uprising by chroniclers like Walsingham and the Ricardian writer John Gower who condemned the rebels as lowborn serfs and traitors to the Crown. Conversely, in the minds of the rebels at least, these chroniclers represented the oppressive political elites, which is one reason why they were so determined to burn the monastic documents they discovered during their rampage both in London and in the provinces. Doubtless, Trump’s supporters—rightly or wrongly—perceive today’s mainstream news in the same way as the representatives of the ruling elite who misrepresent them as traitors rather than patriots.


We can conclude by arguing that the political and economic crisis created by Covid-19 is both epidemiological and epistemological: truth is hard to find in a world where news reporting has descended into a partisan slanging match between ideological opponents, when the distinction between reporting and editorial has become hopelessly blurred. If we are to get beyond this vicious circle of blame and recrimination and the hysterical atmosphere of fear and anger in which we are currently living, we need to step back in a dispassionate fashion and examine the complex interplay of politics and pandemic in the creation of the current crisis. Revisiting the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt of the fourteenth century might allow us to think through the similarities as well as the dissimilarities between the medieval past and the present.


Alfred Thomas is Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author most recently of The Court of Richard II and Bohemian Culture: Literature and Art in the Age of Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet (Boydell and Brewer, 2020). His current book project is titled Writing Plague: The Politics of Pandemic from Chaucer to Camus.

[1] Juliet Barker, 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 265.

[2] Thomas of Monmouth. The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, translated and edited by Miri Rubin (London: Penguin Classics, 2014).