Thursday, March 24, 2011

It Was 630 Years Ago Today...

Maybe the trouble with the ongoing clashes between unions and union-busters is that the busters feel they have nothing to lose. What can the protesters possibly do to them? The same sentiment existed at the start of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 – and the unyielding government got a surprise.

Society-changing events are usually precipitated by a disaster, and disasters don't come much bigger than the Black Death, which swept through England in 1348 and decimated roughly a third of the population. The surviving peasants saw that the crisis had created an opportunity. There was now a labor shortage, which gave them unheard-of leverage. If a peasant's own lord wouldn't pay a fair wage, he could accept a neighboring lord's better offer. Although the feudal system forbade such peasant-poaching, the peasants now held the cards.

Big business and government were displeased, and enacted first the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351 to maintain the status quo. The laws stated that peasants were not allowed to move around in search of a better wage, bargain collectively, or refuse to work. Additionally, wages had to be fixed at 1346 levels.

The demand for labor put peasants and landowners in the unique position of working together to work around the two statutes. As long as the laws remained on the books, however, the feudal system stood firm. The peasants, having seen tantalizing possibilities, were bitter.

Grumbles turned into rumbles with impositions of poll taxes. The government, being engaged in the costly Hundred Years War with France, needed cash. War was traditionally funded by landowners, but the lords wanted to save money. John of Gaunt, de facto ruler during Richard II's minority, came up with the bright idea of making the peasants share the burden, charging a tax per head in 1377. It worked a treat and was repeated several times. This wasn't a bother for the lords, but brutalizing on the peasantry. The odd exemptions were little help. An unmarried woman could claim an exemption if she was a virgin, but had to undergo an inspection by the tax collectors for it to be allowed.

The 1381 poll tax levied a flat rate that was more than twice the amount of the previous duty. The peasants were enraged. A protest that swelled to 60,000 strong marched on London, following their leaders Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, and the radical priest John Ball. The latter had become famous for composing this ditty: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" He earned even fewer friends in the upper classes when he said: "How can [the landowners] claim to prove that they be lords more than us, save by making us produce and grow the wealth that they do spend?"

Today's Republicans should count themselves lucky – the 14th century protesters burned down John of Gaunt's palace, along with several other important homes.

At this point, the king agreed to negotiate. The rebels, first pledging their allegiance to the king, asked for labor contracts, the right to rent land at a reasonable cost, and an end to feudalism. The king conceded. Unfortunately, the peasants then overplayed their hand by tracking down the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury and cutting off their heads. At a meeting the next day, the king's men expressed their dissatisfaction with this turn by killing Wat Tyler.

This breakdown in labor relations had the effect of dispersing the peasants and eventually killing the protest leaders. Despite several other uprisings around the country – horse-borne social media being surprisingly effective – the government soon regained control. The king then announced that all his promises were revoked because he had made them under pressure.

King & Co. proclaimed a triumph for the rights of landowners, but he was only half-right. The poll tax was never raised again, and feudalism's end was accelerated. Furthermore, it was recognized that the peasants had rebelled less because they wanted a more equitable slice of pie than because they wanted equity, full stop. The days of accepting one's lot as a vassal were over.

Today's protesters will probably eschew burnings and beheadings. But the union-busters preparing to welcome the 19th century might take a minute before donning their bowler hats. Right now, people are mad. Sooner or later, they're going to get even.

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