II. - THE MORAL OF THE REVOLT.
The Peasants’ Revolt was a tragedy, not alone because William Grindecobbe, John Ball, and Wat Tyler, with 1500 others (fifteen thousand according to Holinshed), lost their lives for the part they took in it, but because, with no political principle behind the rising, it could not succeed.
The time was not ripe for a successful revolt. Parliamentary Government had not taken its place as the register of the popular will (such as it is) nor as the controller of the national life. The Commons had just (1377) successfully asserted, as against John of Gaunt, the right to hold ministers responsible to Parliament for misgovernment of the country; and the barons had forever lost any little claim they ever possessed to be regarded as the maintainers of liberty. But the power of Parliament was still so limited, was still so much overshadowed by the power of the Crown and Executive, that the revolting peasants could hardly, in the existing low state of enlightenment, be expected to put their trust in political power as a means of achieving their economic ends. Had their leaders been at all familiar with the political life and methods of Greece and Rome, where the Government was not always and necessarily the King’s Government, they might have realised that, with a free Parliament and local self-government, they could shape their own civic destiny. But the art of printing had not yet arrived to make the experience of past ages and other countries a matter of common knowledge, as it is now at last becoming. And so while the priestly inspirers of the revolt were Christian Communists they had no political arangements to suggest whereby their Communism could be secured and administered. Socialism has its political system fairly well elaborated; but Socialism and Communism are not, as is sometimes roughly represented, one and the same system. Communism would mean every man according to his needs - cut and come again without money and without price; Socialism means every man according to his deeds, as measured in the due and proper reward of his labour, whether the reward be represented in minted coins or printed notes.
Demands of the Rebels.
The rebels had, indeed, specific proposals to make. They demanded: (1) the total abolition of serfdom, (2) the reduction of the rent of arable land to fourpence an acre, (3) full freedom to buy and sell like other men in fair or mart, and (4) a general pardon; but they took no constitutional measures to ensure that they should have these things as the permanent legal fruits of successful revolt. The rebels were content to take the word of the king that their claims should be granted, forgetting that, even at that time, the king had not the power to alter the law and dispose of the property of his subjects without the confirmation of Parliament. When, seventy years later (in 145o) John Cade, at the head of the Kentishmen, defeated the royal troops at Sevenoaks and had London at his mercy, he hesitated to accept similiar pledges on the ground that they had not the force of law, he showed political genius; but his associates, who had learned nothing by the bitter experience of their forefathers, rapidly melted away from him, not caring to wait for the necessary confirmation, and his life paid the forfeit of his own courage and the popular ignorance and disloyalty.
From the confessions of some of Tyler’s associates, it appears that he at least had in contemplation a scheme of military administration, by which each county was to have been placed under the governorship of a soldier, resembling in his office the major-generals who ruled the country under Cromwell. This would almost certainly have been a worse arrangement, leading to greater social evils, than those against which the peasants rebelled.
Professor Thorold Rogers, a splendid guide in matters of economic fact over his particular area, finds that all the ends of the revolutionists of 1381 were compassed, ‘and that speedily. The English labourer,’ says he, ‘for a century or more became virtually free and consequently prosperous.’ But freedom and prosperity do not necessarily go together. The birds of the air are proverbially free; but they often starve; and in London every week coroners’ juries have to return verdicts which show that a similar fate may overtake a free human being in the greatest city of the world in the twentieth century.
Years of relatively great prosperity did undoubtedly follow, as they had, in fact, preceded, the revolt of the peasants. The Black Death had so reduced the number of labourers that for two hundred years thereafter they were able to command higher wages, judged by their purchasing power, than they have ever enjoyed since. But this they did by force of social circumstances rather than as a result of their rebellion. The period of prosperity had set in before the revolt - the high price of labour was indeed provocative of the landlordial measures that led to the revolt - and the risings under Tyler and Cade were both so easily suppressed, owing to the ready credence given by their followers to any promise of redress, that the possessing classes had no reason to stand in serious dread of popular discontent. One result of a popular revolt, even when unbacked by fruitful ideas, is that the memory of it stands as a deterrent to the worst extremes of oppression. Yet how little this may count for in practical life is shown by the undoubted fact that the first half of the nineteenth century represents the most miserable phase through which labour has passed in the history of Britain.
A Communistic Rising.
The point is that the active spirits in the Peasants’ revolt had communistic ends in view. Those who look behind the superficial and supercilious narratives of such chroniclers as Froissart will find that the rising was primarily due to the preaching of the ‘poor priests’ sent out by Wycliffe. The favourite motto of the insurgents was:
When Adam dalve and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
And as to Wycliffe, the inspirer of the revolt, there can be no manner of doubt as to the communistic character of his views. Professor Poole, discussing Wycliffe’s treatise On Civil Lordship, says:
Wycliffe’s doctrine of community is one of the most express points in his system. . . . Civil society, he maintained, originated in sin, in the lust of acquisition; and civil lordship is only so far good as it is correlated with natural lordship; in other words, with the lordship based on the law of the Gospel. Civil rulers are only justified in so far as they recognise the duty of ‘service’ - that is, of their corresponding obligations towards their subjects. Still, the ideal remains, that no man should hold separate property, and that all things should be had in common. .
The Church, Wycliffe urged, with Ockham, should hold no Property; endowments were a hindrance to its proper work. It should be limited to its strictly spiritual province.
There were two Popes at the time; the Church all over was even more grossly corrupt and materialistic than usual; and Wycliffe, at war with the Papacy, boldly applies his principles. The Holy See, he argues (De Civili Domini -. ‘Of Civil Lordship’ - i. 17), should revert to its primitive position of an exclusively spiritual power;
for to rule temporal possassions after a civil manner, to conquer kingdoms and exact tributes, appertain to earthly lordship, not to the Pope; so that if he pass by and set aside the office of spiritual rule, and entangle himself in those other concerns, his work is not only superfluous, but also contrary to Holy Scripture.
It was to expound and apply such general principles as these that Wycliffe sent out his ‘poor priests’ (otherwise russet priests, from the hue of their frocks of undyed black wool).
Influence of the Bible.
In respect of his Communism, then, John Ball was not singular in his time or among his fellow-preachers. These men had just made the acquaintance of Holy Writ in Wycliffe’s Bible. They were at once impressed with the communistic doctrines and practice of the early Christians. They read with approval, as Thorold Rogers says, of
the brave times when there was no king in Israel, when every man did that which was right in his own eyes, and sat under his own vine and his own fig-tree, none daring to make him afraid. They read how God, through his prophet, had warned Israel of the evils which would come to them when a king should rule over them, and how speedily this was verified in the conduct of the young Rehoboam, with his depraved and foolish counsellors, of how woe had been predicted to the people over whom a child should rule. The God of Israel had bade His people be husbandmen, and not mounted knights and men-at-arms. But most of all, the preacher would dwell on his own prototype, on the man of God, the wise prophet who denounced kings and princes and high priests, and, by God’s commission, made them like a potter’s vessel in the day of His wrath, or on those bold judges who were zealous even to slaying. For with this book, so old, yet so new, the peasant preacher - we are told that many learnt to read when they were old that they might tell the Bible story - could stir up the souls of these clowns with the true narrative of another people, and would be sure that his way to their hearts and their confidence would be, as it always has been with the leaders of a religious revival, by entirely sympathising with their wrongs, their sufferings, and their hopes. And when they told him that the lords had determined to drag them back to their old serfdom, the preacher could discourse to them of the natural equality of man, of the fact that all - kings, lords, and priests - live by the fruits of the earth and the labour of the husbandman, and that it would be better for them to die with arms in their hands than to be thrust back, without an effort on their part, into the shameful slavery from which they had been delivered. And as their eyes kindled, and they grasped their staves, he could tell them to keep their ears open for the news of their deliverance; that, on the password being given, they were at once to be to the appointed place, where a great work could be done for God’s people by his appointed servant.
Example and Warning.
Far be it from us to say that these fourteenth-century Englishmen fought and died in vain. If they erred in their political unwisdom, at least it was right to protest and rebel against injustice gross and palpable. They could not know that they must needs fail. The possibilities of error have, apparently, to be exhausted. Humanity does not progress by rule and right reason, but as the outcome of many compromises with the tyranny of existing circumstances - vested interests, deficient knowledge, hoary use-and-wont, and mere prejudice and smoke of opinion. Rational public spirit, the capacity to give and to do in the interests of the common weal, is built up and sustained by all tradition of heroism and self-sacrifice that has come down to us. The Tree of Liberty and Right is not kept in growth without nurture from the blood of martyrs. Our blood runs cooler in our veins to-day than it did in those of the tiler of Dartford and the noble miller of St. Albans, and to withstand even the petty tyrannies and abuses of our time, and hand over an enhanced heritage of public benefit to those who are to come after us, we need to recall the example of those who fought the good fight in circumstances of greater danger and less encouragement than we do. Every age has its own public problems to solve, its own civic rights to maintain, its own common privileges to gain. Looking around us to-day, we can apply to ourselves the words put into the mouth of John Ball by a great artist who lived in the fourteenth almost as much as he lived in the nineteenth century:-
Yea, forsooth, once again I saw as of old the great treading down the little, and the strong bearing down the weak, and cruel men fearing not, and kind men daring not, and wise men caring not; and the saints in heaven forbearing and yet bidding me not to forbear; forsooth, I knew once more that he who doeth well in fellowship, and because of fellowship, shall not fail though he seem to fail to-day, but in days hereafter shall he and his work yet be alive, and men be holpen by them to strive again and yet again.
The ‘Commons’ To-day.
The ‘commons’ have now the power to redress their own disabilities. That power has been won not without suffering on the part of those who in diverse ways withstood tyranny in days gone by. That it has been lightly come by, so far as the present generations are concerned, may explain why it is so lightly valued by them - so lightly valued that one half of them do not record their votes in elections, while those who do vote use their suffrages to return to power the classes with whom their ancestors contended in deadly strife. If the men of 1381 did not demand representative rights they at least showed ‘in one wild hour how much the wretched dare,’ and helped to make it possible for us of a later generation to secure our privileges without resort to the last extreme. It may be that the ‘true commons,’ having now the power of governance, will at length learn how to use it in the best interests, not only of the greatest number, but in the ultimate highest interests of all.
The deaths of Tyler and Ball killed the fourteenth-century revolt. Democracy to-day has ideas, definite purposes, the overwhelming preponderance of political power; and, while leadership matters, and matters greatly, leaders may come and go, but the cause of the people will go marching on.
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