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Economic History Medieval

Workers’ Protests in the Wake of Pandemic: A Medievalist’s View

By Jenna Phillips

“Labor organizers at Amazon, its groceries subsidiary Whole Foods, Instacart and Target-owned Shipt have said they plan to walk out on May 1, a holiday commonly celebrated internationally as a day to honor workers. Their demands, while diverse, include an expansion of paid sick leave, access to personal protective equipment, better pay and enforcement of social distancing in the workplace.”CBS News

Pro libertate! 
An end to serfdom. 
A ceiling on rents.
Redistribution of property of the great landholders.

This call for basic human liberties, affordable rent, and the possibility of property ownership for ordinary folk could nearly pass for a list of desiderata on a progressive stimulus measure in the year 2020. In actuality, it comprised the core demands of an insurgent peasantry who–in the year 1381, in the wake of the plague’s course through England–led a rebellion that came to be known as the “Peasants’ Revolt.” 

The plague first spread throughout western Europe in 1347. It returned to the British Isles in a second devastating cycle in 1360. As opposed to our own time of pandemic, when the mortality from SARS-CoV-2 hovers somewhere around 0.5% of those infected (depending greatly on age and gender), the bubonic and septicemic plague would eventually reduce the English population by more than half. Already by 1381, population decline had led to an unequal redistribution of wealth. Some of the lower and middling classes had the means to buy up vacated land, but the very wealthy swept up much, much more.    

Anxiety over wage-hikes, following the pandemic, had helped to enact the unpopular Statute of Laborers of 1351, according to which wages were to be fixed at pre-plague levels. The irony of this income stagnation, despite a depleted workforce, was evident to all. The statute was unevenly adhered to, though violators—workers found to be canvassing for competitive employment offers—could be punished by branding on the cheek, and forced into compulsory service,, as historian Judith Bennett has shown. All the while, taxes were being raised to fund foreign wars and the medieval equivalent of the military industrial complex— in this case, elite cavalry and the Hundred Years’ War with France. Taxes continued to be levied throughout the 1370s, and in 1380, the king’s new chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, assessed a poll tax on every man and woman over the age of fifteen. Only absolute paupers were exempted; everyone else was compelled to pay the same amount of three groats, however well or ill they could afford it. 

From this crucible of social tension and mounting outrage, several eloquent peasant organizers came forth. Eloquent, and literate. (Literacy, today, may seem less remarkable than it once was, while eloquence is an oral-rhetorical skill we longingly remember, dating from the pre-Twitter era). Their communication through letters (recorded by chroniclers of the events) and an acute concern over written documents emerged as one of the most extraordinary elements of the protests. One of the organizers was a defrocked priest (John Ball), others had names belonging to laborers (Jakke Milner, Jak Carter) some with an allegorical ring to them (Jak Trewman). They had wonderful slogans that captured the imaginations of the oppressed, “With right and with might. With skill and with will. Let might help right.” They wanted to chasten the super-wealthy who they felt were robbing the poor, “look that Hob the Robber be well chastised for the losing of your grace.” Even before taxes, the workers were already feeling the pinch of hard times, “the miller hath ground smal, smal, smal, the king’s son of heaven shall pay for all.” They considered that truth was on their side: “stand […] together in truth. and help truth. and truth shall help you.” The copying and circulation of letters among the rebels was itself a declaration that members of the laboring class could participate in the privileged documentary culture that was felt to be the exclusive territory of intellectual elites. An “insurgent literacy,” as Steven Justice, an historian of the revolt, has shown. 

The cost of rebellions, in terms of human life, tends to be high. In England, the first grievances were raised against local officials in Essex and Kent, the counties directly north and south of London. As the movement gained momentum, agents of the crown, their administrative documents, and archives were targeted as the instruments of power. When the rebels arrived in London, the authors of the poll tax, the Chancellor and Treasurer, were beheaded, and Wat Tyler, one leader of the insurgency was also killed. Large-scale violence seemed imminent. The fourteen-year-old king, Richard II, showed himself to be a consummate politician—in order to restore peace and send the rebels home, he agreed to all their demands, bestowing an illusory victory. Once the threat of mayhem in the city of London was over, every single concession was reneged upon, and vicious repression of the rebels followed. Most of the leaders of the protests were eventually executed, some in acts of gruesome exemplary justice, as was that of John Ball “being drawn, hanged, and beheaded before the king at St. Albans; and his body was quartered and sent to four cities of the kingdom.” (Thomas Walsingham, Chronicon Angliae). But the sentiment lingered, and sporadic unrest continued in parts of England in the following years. 

The events of these first decades following the appearance of the plague starkly reveal that profits and losses were borne unevenly across English society.  Taxation, rents, and wage manipulation ignited the peasants’ uprising, but what the rebels wanted was also dignity, freedom. Serfdom did eventually come to an end in England, though not solely due to the events of 1381 (it was not eradicated until the fifteenth century, and economic historians argue over the causes leading to its demise). The symbolic legacy left by the protests has had a long afterlife, and writers in every century since have retold the events in one way or another; in the twentieth century, it became a touchstone for Marxist and socialist movements.

On May 1, 2020 (the traditional festival of Spring, and, since the nineteenth century, a day marked as International Workers’ Day), laborers at some of the world’s most powerful companies walked out, protesting potentially deadly working conditions as the novel coronavirus takes hold in warehouses. “We all have one common goal which is to save the lives of workers and communities […] Amazon is a breeding ground [for this virus] which is spreading right now through multiple facilities,” said one of the organizers, Chris Smalls. A leaked internal memo from Amazon, obtained by Vice News last week, revealed their public relations strategy to label Smalls as “not smart, or articulate.” This was much the same attitude held by fourteenth-century officials toward rustic insurgents, who they wished to label as vulgar and illiterate. While their employers today take in record profits, protesters ask for personal protective gear, health care benefits, paid leave, hazard pay. These requests may seem mild in comparison to the supreme demand of the medieval insurgents—pro libertate, an end to serfdom. One commonality to be seen in these disparate crises is that that humane working conditions, and even human dignities, are easily pushed to the wayside when profits beckon, or as the fourteenth-century insurgents put it, “when covetousness is held wise.” 

Jenna Phillips holds an Andrew Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the Huntington Library, and is at work on her book, Sound, Violence, and the Period Ear in Thirteenth Century France. She completed her PhD in medieval history from Princeton University in 2016.