On this date in 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt in England began. It was without doubt one of the most profoundly important events in the history of Europe, equal to the French and Russian Revolutions, for example. Yet, probably because it happened so long ago, it is largely forgotten by the average person these days. In a short post like this I cannot do more than outline some of the basic events and then try to give a brief analysis, especially focusing on why it is important to know about it in the present day.
The Peasants’ Revolt has also been called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Great Rising, for various reasons. The most popular term, Peasants’ Revolt, is unsatisfactory because it suggests that the uprising was confined to a particular rural class: it was not. It involved city and country people from a great variety of occupations. It was a general revolution of the underclasses against the tyranny and injustice of a socio-economic system that bled the majority for the benefit of the elite minority. It was a very early and powerful example that was to repeat itself globally wherever feudal systems existed. That is why its study is so important.
The revolt had various causes, but in the end they all boil down to economics. Of major importance was the impact on the country of the ravages of the Black Death of the 1340’s which swept all of Europe. It is estimated that as much as 50% of the population of Europe was wiped out by the plague. In England whole villages were depopulated, and nowhere was left untouched. One “solution” would have been to scale back the economy by one half and the status quo would have been preserved. But the nobility was not about to lose half its income. Instead, the workers were forced to double their labors so that the rich could maintain their wealth. Meanwhile the workers earned no more than they had before. Add to this the fact that England was engaged in an expensive and protracted war with France – The Hundred Years War (yup, it was a long one). At issue was the fact that England held hereditary right to the throne of France, and, quite naturally, the French were more than a little tired of this arrangement. Neither side was willing to give up its position, so they fought it out for 100 years. At issue, as ever, was money. Whoever controlled France controlled its wealth. All landed gentry in England owned vast tracts of land in France, and were not about to lose them.
Wars were funded in those days by taxes raised as needed. A particularly unpopular tax was the poll tax which was levied at this time at four pence per person over the age of 14. When a first poll tax failed to raise sufficient funds a second was announced. Try to imagine this situation where the people are working twice as hard as they used to be, for no more income, and are forced on top of that to fund a war that potentially enriched their overlords with the people funding them at home and abroad deriving no benefit.
A third component is the fact that a large percentage of the population of England at the time were serfs. “Serf” is really just another word for “slave.” Serfs, who were born into the condition, had to work, for the most part, without wages and had no freedom of movement. They had to work for the noble whose estate they lived on. Hence they could not seek better employment elsewhere as one can in an open labor market. Nor could they even travel from the estate. They lived and died within a few acres. You can suppose, therefore, that when you put these three factors together you have a powder keg.
The match that exploded the powder keg was lit on 30 May 1381 when a royal official, John Bampton arrived in Essex to investigate a shortfall in poll taxes. He based himself in the town of Brentwood and summoned representatives from the neighboring villages of Corringham, Fobbing, and Stanford-le-Hope to explain and make good the shortfalls. The villagers appear to have arrived well-organized, and armed with old bows and sticks. Bampton first interrogated the people of Fobbing, whose representative, Thomas Baker, declared that his village had already paid their taxes, and that no more money would be forthcoming. When Bampton and two sergeants attempted to arrest Baker, violence broke out. Bampton escaped and retreated to London, but three of his clerks and several of the Brentwood townspeople who had agreed to act as jurors were killed. Thus began the Peasants’ Revolt.
The revolt rapidly spread across the south-east of the country. A wide spectrum of rural society, including many local artisans and village officials, rose up in protest, burning court records and opening the local jails. The rebels sought a reduction in taxation, an end to serfdom, and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Inspired by the sermons of the radical cleric John Ball, and led by Wat Tyler, a contingent of Kentish rebels advanced on London. They were met at Blackheath by representatives of the royal government, who unsuccessfully attempted to persuade them to return home. King Richard II, then aged only 14, retreated to the safety of the Tower of London, but most of the royal forces were abroad or in northern England. On 13 June, the rebels entered London and, joined by many local townspeople, attacked the jails, destroyed the Savoy Palace and the Temple Inns of Court, set fire to law books and killed anyone associated with the royal government. The following day, Richard met the rebels at Mile End and acceded to most of their demands, including the abolition of serfdom. Meanwhile, rebels entered the Tower of London, killing the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer, whom they found inside.
On 15 June Richard left the city to meet with Tyler and the rebels at Smithfield. Violence broke out, and Richard’s party killed Tyler. Richard defused the tense situation long enough, by making promises he had no intention of keeping, for London’s mayor, William Walworth, to gather a militia from the city and disperse the rebel forces. Richard immediately began to re-establish order in London and rescinded his previous grants to the rebels. The revolt had also spread into East Anglia, where the University of Cambridge was attacked and many royal officials were killed. Unrest continued until the intervention of Henry le Despenser, who defeated a rebel army at the Battle of North Walsham on 25 or 26 June. Troubles extended north to the cities of York, Beverley, and Scarborough, and west as far as Bridgwater in Somerset. Richard mobilized around 4,000 soldiers to help restore order. Most of the rebel leaders were tracked down and executed; by November, at least 1,500 rebels had been killed, and the situation was defused.
It’s a rather curious fact that proper historical analysis of the revolt did not happen until the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a detailed study of court records and local archives was carried out, coupled with a thorough examination of contemporary accounts. In consequence opinion now is rather divided as to the impact of the revolt. Until that time, the Peasants’ Revolt was considered a defining moment in English history, when the people rose up to assert their rights – rights that became embedded in English culture. Some historians still hold that position. Others are more guarded. Serfdom was not abolished, the feudal system remained intact, the taxation system was, in principle, unchanged (though eased), and England continued to have pointless, bloody wars with France.
However, the revolt heavily influenced the course of the Hundred Years War, by deterring later Parliaments from raising additional taxes to pay for military campaigns in France. The war continued but had to be funded by different means. The nobility in general was put on notice that if they wanted to wage war they were going to have to do it with their own blood AND their own money, not just for the present, but for all time. The revolt has also resonated down through the centuries in literature, history, and popular culture as an example of the power of oppressed people when they are pushed too far.
I don’t think it appropriate to give you a 14th century recipe from the tables of the nobility, although I am smart enough that I am sure I could find a way to pass it off as symbolic of what the peasantry were revolting against. On the other hand, finding a recipe for what the peasantry actually ate is an impossibility. Nobody who could write at the time cared. I suspect it was an awful lot of porridge flavored with what you could find, as well as natural things that you could gather that were not the explicit property of the lord of the manor. Our main source of 14th century recipes is Forme of Cury (Forms of Cooking), an extensive recipe collection whose authors are given as “the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.” The original roll was written in late Middle English (circa 1390) on vellum and gives 205 recipes. So it fits right in our time period.
Not all the recipes are grand, though, and with the proper extraction of fancy ingredients you can have a fairly ordinary dish a peasant might eat, such as:
CABOCHES IN POTAGE.
Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns y mynced and the whyte of Lekes y slyt and corue smale and do þer to safroun an salt and force it with powdour douce.
Which can be rendered:
Take cabbages and quarter them and boil them in a rich broth with minced onions and the white parts of leeks slit in half and cut small. Add saffron and salt, and enliven it with sweet powder.
The two troublesome ingredients for the peasant are saffron and sweet powder (a mix of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and sugar). Those would have cost a fortune. But switch them for some wild herbs and you have what the poor folk of the 14th century might eat. However, I thought I might be a little more adventurous than that. So, I dug further into Forme of Cury and found noumbles.
There’s a lot to know about noumbles. They are the innards of a deer, to begin with. Nothing in the Medieval household went to waste, so they would be cooked and eaten. One way was to make them into a noumble pie. Now watch this:
a noumble pie (the original)
an oumble pie (caused by mishearing the original by someone unfamiliar with noumbles)
an humble pie (mistaken attribution of “oumble” because it was no longer in usage)
Voilá, you have “humble pie” which you eat to taste remorse and humility. Ain’t language grand? Noumble pie was baked so that the noumbles did not go to waste, but it would not be served to the noble hunters who were gorging on venison. Noumble pie would be given to the servants. They ate humble pie.
The recipe for noumbles in Forme of Cury is not a pie but a rich stew. Seems like a good recipe to celebrate the Peasants’ Revolt nonetheless.
Here’s the original:
Take noumbles of Deer oþer of oþer beest parboile hem kerf hem to dyce. take the self broth or better. take brede and grynde with the broth. and temper it up with a gode quantite of vyneger and wyne. take the oynouns and parboyle hem. and mynce hem smale and do þer to. colour it with blode and do þer to powdour fort and salt and boyle it wele and serue it fort.
Here’s my free rendering:
Take the innards of a deer or other animal and parboil them, then dice them. Take some of the the parboiling water or a better broth, add bread to the broth and mash it to a paste. Then mix this all together with a lot of vinegar and wine. Parboil some onions, chop them fine, and add them to the broth. Use deer’s blood to color the liquid and then add strong powder and salt. Boil it all well and serve it up.
Strong powder is a spice mix rather similar to sweet powder and it’s probably the case that chef’s had their own variants of both. Nonetheless, it’s likely that the base of strong powder was a blend of pepper and ginger which is a very common mix in Medieval cookery.
I don’t usually have deer guts and blood on hand, although when I did fieldwork in the swamps of North Carolina I certainly could have had all I wanted in hunting season. To make up, I made a couple of substitutions. No surprises to my regular readers that I used tripe as my version of innards. I think that’s fair given that stomachs are noumbles too. Blood is not actually impossible to find – certainly not in Latin America. But I was not about to go hunting all day around Buenos Aires for it. I used blood sausage instead – suitably pulverized in water. After all, blood adds taste as well as color. If you are not a tripe aficionado you can use any offal: liver, kidneys, heart, etc. I used breadcrumbs rather than going to the hassle of mashing up bread. It’s a thickening agent so it does not really matter. Here’s the results.
1lb raw tripe (or other offal)
1 pint beef stock
1 onion, chopped
½ cup breadcrumbs
2 tsps black pepper
2 tsps ginger
¼ cup red wine
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 blood sausage
Parboil the tripe. This should take about 20 minutes. Remove it from the boiling water and chop it into small dice.
Place the stock in a saucepan, add the breadcrumbs and stir well to make sure they are all evenly distributed.
Skin the blood sausage and remove the inner part in small lumps. Place them into a bottle or lidded container and add about ¼ cup of warm water. Cap the bottle and shake like mad for a minute or two. You will end up with a dark liquid with a small amount of solid residue that will settle quickly. Add the liquid only to the pot.
Add the onions (I saw no need to parboil them), ginger, pepper, red wine, and vinegar, and add back the tripe. Bring to a slow simmer stirring continuously. You do not want the breadcrumbs to clump. When the sauce has blended and thickened, turn the heat to low and let the pot gently simmer covered for about 30 minutes, or until the tripe is fully cooked. Serve in wide bowls with crusty bread.