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When Peasants Are Hungry and Taxed

Throughout history, peasants have consistently demonstrated one thing, regardless of when and where they were: when they get hungry and when they believe they are being overtaxed, there are going to be problems.

Nowhere was this more true than in Europe during the Middle Ages. Peasants, the poor who lived and worked in the countryside, always numbered more than any other demographic group during the Middle Ages. However, under feudalism, the greatest financial burden fell on the peasants. Peasants knew this, but they were trapped. The one thing that kept them hanging on was the promise that the afterlife would be better than the earthly life. As a result, the European peasants behaved themselves most of the time.

When food supplies ran low, though, peasants tended to get cranky. When they felt overtaxed, in addition to being hungry, peasants often created problems for governments. Fortunately for those governments, peasant revolts rarely threatened national stability. Peasants had no way of organizing on a large scale, nor of acquiring weapons and supplies.

The Jacquerie

In 1358, France was embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War and peasants were forced to deal with food shortages and farmland ravaged by war. To make matters worse, mercenaries constantly pillaged the already-plundered land.

According to the unwritten rules of the feudal system, peasants paid rents and taxes to their lords in exchange not only for use of the land but also for protection. In France, the lords still demanded the rents and taxes, but they offered little or no protection. The peasants finally grew tired of the food shortages, the attacks, and the continued heavy taxation and did what most peasants do when they get hungry and mad: they revolted.

Define Your Terms

The name of the revolt, Jacquerie, probably comes from the French term for a peasant, Jacques Bonhomme.

The revolt broke out north of Paris and spread quickly. Peasants destroyed property and committed acts of violence until their leader was finally beheaded. Nobles and government officials took the opportunity to react violently toward the unruly peasants and squelch the rebellion. The revolt never threatened the national government or national security, but it was a headache.

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381

As in France, English peasants felt the strain of the Hundred Years’ War and had little patience for anyone intent on taking advantage of them.

In Essex, a group of peasants, out of frustration, reacted violently to a tax collector who attempted to enforce a poll tax; the poll tax was intended to finance England’s military campaigns abroad. The defiant attitude spread from village to village as other peasants joined in the reaction against taxes and tax collectors. Soon the defiance turned to violence and spread across southeast England. While peasants continued to destroy property in the countryside, some took their grievances to London. Some even managed to get an audience with King Richard II.

Would You Believe?

Though known as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, many of those who revolted were townspeople and not rural residents.

The peasants demanded changes in the feudal system and even abolition of feudal obligations in some cases. The leader of the uprisings in London eventually died as a result of being stabbed while in Richard’s presence. When the peasants saw their leader dead in a field, they calmed down. Elsewhere, the revolts were crushed by nobles who had no mercy on the peasants. To the peasants’ credit, however, no medieval English government attempted a poll tax again.

The Least You Need to Know

In the mid-fourteenth century, traders from abroad landed in Italy infected with the bubonic plague. Over the course of just a few years, the Black Death would claim one of every three people in Europe.

Called the last great medieval war, the Hundred Years’ War pitted England against France over land and a dispute over the French throne in a series of raids and battles that lasted 116 years. France finally ran English forces out of France after Joan of Arc helped turn the tide for the French.

The Church faced crisis after crisis during the High Middle Ages, including failed crusading attempts, a period with two popes, and failure to stop the death and destruction of medieval wars and disease.

While peasants never toppled any medieval governments, they did rebel against those in power when they ran low on food and when they believed they were being taxed unfairly.

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