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