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Introduction: medieval revolt in context

ByJustine Firnhaber- Baker

This anthology is part of an emerging body of historiography devoted to late medieval uprisings and to popular politics more generally that has developed since the turn of the millennium. These topics, hotly contested in the 1970s and 1980s, had fallen out of vogue in the previous decade, as attention shifted from classical social and political history to new kinds of cultural history. The renewed attention to medieval revolts reflects the return of political history to the fore since the new millennium but in a very different way, as our understanding of the state and violence has undergone a thorough revision and as the insights of the cultural turn have transformed how we read the events that made up a rebellion and the sources that report them. Continental scholars, often in the earlier stages of their careers, have been particularly prominent producers of new work on medieval revolt, publishing a series of inter-related essay collections.1 The 2006 publication of Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.’s Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe has also galvanised much scholarship, particularly among Anglophones.2 The fruit of this work, often pursued collaboratively, has rapidly pushed the study of revolt in a number of new directions, which we hope not only to showcase here, but also to drive forward by bringing together work from a dynamic group of historians (plus a classicist and a literary scholar) from continental Europe, North America, and the UK. The aims of our work in this volume are heuristic and exploratory rather than definitive. There is an overall consensus among the authors here that our approach to medieval uprisings must take account of their actors’ agency within their historically specific societies, but also that our access to those actors and societies is mediated – and often obscured – by the texts that report them. From these agreed methodological starting points, our investigations move in a variety of directions and work to raise questions, as well as to answer them. Drawing on instances of revolt from Ireland to Syria and from periods to either side of the later Middle Ages as well as the core centuries from 1250 to 1500, contributors think about how uprisings worked, why they happened, whom they implicated, what they meant to contemporaries, and how we might understand them now. I have divided the volume into three parts, each focused on a particular area of inquiry, though aspects of these themes are common to nearly every essay. The first group of essays is particularly concerned with the conceptualisation of revolt in both modern and medieval thinking.3 Fundamentally, what are we studying and how do we know that the events and actions we group together as a revolt should be categorised as such? This is partly a problem of language

and sources, due to the documents’ semantic variability, the imperfect approximation of modern categories with medieval ones, and the authorial programmes of medieval writers. The problem also stems from how medieval ‘states’ worked differently from our own governments, a difference that drives the book’s Part II, on the relationship between revolt and the institutions, ideas, and practices that structured society. In the modern West, where there is a clear distinction between the apparatus of the state and the society it governs and where the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, revolt can be identified as collective violence by non-state actors making claims that implicates the state, even when they are not directed at it.4 But medieval polities were considerably more fragmented than modern states. ‘Revolt’ in such a context might not have been construed as such by contemporaries. The role of violence is key, for it served not only strategic goals but also as a means of communication in this highly gestural society. Communication, through acts and signs, as well as words, is thus the third theme of the volume. The repertoires, models, and media through which rebels made their aims known and through which they effected their protests give us a window on to the political culture of rebels and the wider society. At the same time, problems of reception, memorialisation (or its opposite), and propagandistic intent return us to the interpretative questions that underlie Part I. These themes reflect areas of inquiry fundamental to current scholarship on medieval revolt, but they also arise out of and benefit from a long historiographical tradition. The new medieval political history of the last decade has made a major impact on the approaches taken here, but many of the fundamental questions and problems that shaped our inquiries have been stable features of the scholarship for a long time, however novel our proposed solutions. The following introduction thus not only draws together the themes of this book, but also shows how recent work, including our own in this and other publications, has extended and developed – as well as revised – the contributions of older approaches. This volume embodies a particular historiographical moment. We hope it will provide a resource for students and a foundation for revolutionary studies in the future.