chapter  7
13 Pages

Looking forward: peasant revolts in Europe, 600–1200

ByChris Wickham

The standard belief that popular revolts were relatively rare in the early and central Middle Ages, became more common in the thirteenth century, and then increased substantially in number after the Black Death, appears to be true. Sam Cohn in his fundamental book on the subject noted how his less systematic work on the pre-1200 period turned up ‘only a handful of examples’.1 My own work, as systematic as possible for Western and Northern Europe up to c.1000, less so for 1000-1200 in my case too (although I have kept my eye out for popular revolts in later centuries for decades), fits that exactly. The imagery of revolt fits far fewer of the forms of non-elite political action in the medieval world before 1200 than it does later. Nor is this always simply a matter of sources; it is true that the early Middle Ages as a whole is notoriously source-poor, but for some parts of these six centuries (the high Carolingian period in the Frankish heartland; Northern France, England, and parts of Italy and Germany after 1050), narrative source material is relatively dense, without giving us more evidence of revolt to work with. My task is therefore, in a book focused on comparative studies of revolts, to try to analyse why this is so, through a survey of what sort of revolts we do find, and what they seem to have been about. I worked on the history of early medieval popular revolt about a decade ago, and published the results; inevitably, some of that material will have to be reprised here, although in a different form.2 But it has to be stressed at the outset that the historiographical framing for such work has changed in this last decade, in two basic respects. First, as is visible in the other chapters in this volume, as well as many of the other major works of recent years which they cite, there is much more attention now being paid to the discourse of revolt. It is not that we did not know a decade ago that revolts were systematically falsified by the literary tropes of chroniclers, who were simultaneously keen to de-legitimate them rhetorically and unwilling to understand that non-elites could have justifiable grievances at all, let alone what mental frame the latter might actually have – Rolf Köhn and Steven Justice are only two notable examples of people who put this at the centre of their discussions.3 But there is now far more attention being paid to the language of sources, as also, where there is evidence (which is very rare in the period before 1200), to the language of the participants in revolt themselves. Myles Lavan’s contribution to this volume is particularly useful here, for he is dealing with a period, the early Roman empire, which is as source-poor as the early Middle Ages, and he concludes that, given the systematic framing of his sources, ‘The prospect of an adequate social history of revolt, particularly popular revolt, seems to me ever more illusory’ – what he is left with is a ‘discursive history’ which

analyses the way revolts were tamed rhetorically. That is not a small subject, as it turns out; Roman sources – generally even more uninterested in talking about non-elites than medieval ones are – seem to argue, perhaps as a result, that revolts were rarely threatening at all, and therefore could be discussed in terms of what local rulers (supposedly) actually had done wrong.4 That is still a distorting mirror; but it is a different kind of distortion from that which we find in the Middle Ages, even the early Middle Ages. The second change is simply discovery. Sam Cohn’s book showed us, for the first time, not only how common revolt could be in the Middle Ages, but also how ‘normal’, even before the Black Death, never mind afterwards. (I put ‘normal’ in inverted commas because it is in a strict sense inaccurate: revolts, however they are defined, are abnormal almost automatically.) Certainly, this was more the case in towns than in the countryside; the great majority of Cohn’s 1,000+ cases for Flanders, France, and Italy are urban revolts, a preponderance which is also reflected in the chapters in this volume. But even in the countryside, the possibility of contestation of a variety of kinds always existed; and, although it was always condemned by our elite sources, it was also, at least sometimes, discussed without surprise. One key thing follows from this: it is not the case that most such revolts were drowned in blood, as it was still standard to assume a decade ago. The more ‘normal’ revolts are, the more transactional they can become – the more, that is to say, they can be a part of negotiating between elites and non-elites, even if they are at the extreme end of such negotiations, just as killing lies at the extreme end of the negotiations between kin-groups in feuding situations. Recent work by a variety of people, not least those writing in this book, makes this point firmly for the later Middle Ages,5 and it is true for at least some instances in the early period too. This in itself makes revolt less wholly risky, of course, and therefore potentially still less uncommon. All the same, it was never risk-free; peasants, tendentially risk-averse as they are, did not undertake it lightly, even when they were used to other forms of violence, as medieval males tended to be (I will come back to this). In this arena, the balance between transactionality and risk may well have been in people’s minds in a systematic way in every medieval century. But that has to be hypothesis; our sources do not take us there. We can only look at decision-making from the outside; and that is above all the case for the centuries I shall be discussing. For my six centuries, I shall focus on rural, not urban, revolts. It is certainly not that there were no urban revolts in the period, at least in the last two centuries of it: in Italy, Verona and Venice already in the 960s-70s, Pavia in 1024, Cremona in the 1030s and onwards from that, Milan in the 1040s-70s, Arezzo in 1110 and 1129, Rome in 1143-9; in Northern France and England, Le Mans in 1070, Laon in 1112, the Flemish towns in 1127-8, London in 1141 and 1196, a list, already matching in scale that for rural revolts, which is far from exhaustive. In part, I will not deal with these for simple lack of space; but it is also hard in these cases and other, less documented, ones, to be sure if we are dealing with elite or with popular revolts – in Italy, for example, only Milan (at times) and Rome fell into the latter category with certainty.6 For most of Europe, too, towns were as yet too small to have a critical mass of popular protagonists, so a concentration on this category of revolt would unbalance the analysis geographically as well. For the entirety of the Middle Ages, the great majority – in the early Middle Ages, the huge majority – of the inhabitants of Europe were anyway peasants, which is a justification for a rural focus in itself. Two initial points need to be made about the set of peasant revolts we do have. The first is that in the period discussed here revolts were mostly not against taxation or the pressure of the state, simply because before 1200 taxation was still at its beginnings (the mountains above Faenza and then the city itself in 1184, and London in 1196, are the earliest apparently anti-tax revolts I have found),7 and public power was by the standards of earlier or later periods also relatively unintrusive at a local level (there are exceptions here, however, as we shall see). This

contrasts early medieval Europe immediately with the later Roman empire and the early Arab caliphate, which both did tax, more heavily than most late medieval European states, and where tax revolts are indeed documented: the Bagaudae in Northern Gaul and Spain in the fifth century (I accept the view, not held by all, that this was a mostly popular revolt, although its target seems to have been wider than taxation on its own) and Egypt in the 720s-830s are the major examples here.8 Most revolts in medieval Europe before 1200 were, rather, against landlords and the local usurpations of lords in general. Cohn found in his post-1200 dataset that only ten rural revolts, around 15 per cent of the total, were against landlords; that is to say, political and fiscal oppression was much more likely to cause peasants to react violently than were the simple quotidian bad relations between lords and tenants which class struggle mostly involved. Justine Firnhaber-Baker, too, has found that in the Jacquerie, certainly a revolt against (lay) lords, attacks by peasants on their own lords was less common than on the lords of others. It was, indeed, normally easier to negotiate with one’s own lord without the comprehensive eversive violence which we tend to classify as ‘revolt’, as we shall see.9 So it is less surprising that there were fewer revolts in periods when landlords were seen as the main oppressors of peasants; this has always been assumed to be the reason why there were fewer early medieval revolts, and I think this assumption is largely accurate. Setting aside ethnic-based revolts, such as those of the Baltic Slavs against German aggression in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, I have identified 15 rural popular revolts before 1200 – six before 1000, nine after – in Western and Northern Europe. (I have not looked at the evidence for Eastern Europe, or al-Andalus.) The great majority of these were visibly against lords, but the total number is small by comparison with what would come later. The second point, however, partially counters this. Before 1200, as indeed later, most of our evidence for tension between lords and peasants comes from formal pleas to outside bodies, court cases, and, after 1050 or so, collective agreements. The formal pleas, which tend to come from the periods when lords were establishing the private political lordships known as seigneuries banales, regularly cast peasants in the role of victims, simply suffering aristocratic brutality.10 But they were not only the victims. The court cases show that it was possible for peasants to contest lords in public; and, given that some of the dispute documents we have show the lords as plaintiffs, we also have accounts of the ‘violence’ with which peasants pressed their claims. Violentia was a technical term for illegal activity of all sorts in this period, but forceful direct action (occupying fields, burning woodland or even houses) was also a genuine part of constructing a claim, for, if you were not resisted, you had a stronger legal case.11 Sometimes, even early on, it is clear that peasants were engaging in tactical violence against lords in precisely this way, as when in 664-5 the abbot of St-Bénigne in Dijon raised a plea before King Chlotar III against the peasants of the villa of Larrey in Burgundy:

the men living inside those bounds [of Larrey] . . . refused to give the rents of the land to the church, and they devastated the woods in the territory, and invaded the [arable] land and meadows in many places, and planted vines, and cleared wasteland.