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. 

Ancient Book reviews Colonialism environmental history film Medieval Think Piece

Should we “just keep swimming”?

By Contributing Editor Luna Sarti

Several recent publications in the environmental humanities discuss the need for new ways of experiencing and imagining the world around us, with the aim to free ourselves from what Ursula K. Le Guin called the “one-way future consisting only of growth” (A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be). In the hopes of forging a new (possibly less gloomy) future, scholars across disciplines, from art and landscape studies to field biology, call for slower practices of knowledge that can train us “to pay better attention” and to recover “those pasts we need to see the world more clearly” (Arts of living on a damaged planet G1-2). Walking has become an increasingly popular practice for fostering slowness and for attuning individuals to new ways of experiencing the world and to the forgotten histories embedded in our physical landscapes, particularly in socially engaged art. Less common, but equally interesting, is the idea to turn to swimming as a way to explore waterscapes and regain the perception of our environments as terraqueous assemblages. In Waterlog (2000), filmmaker and writer Roger Deakin provides readers with a wonderful example of what it means to re-imagine life from inside waters.
Deakin Waterlog (American cover)
It is an intriguing vision which exhorts us to recognize how learning processes train us to see certain things, while others are assigned to the background and thus remain blurred. Compared to other practices, swimming certainly allows us to unsettle the contemporary land-centered attitudes that tend to dominate institutional education and scholarship. However, one might wonder how to translate the concept of swimming into practice. Contemporary swimming techniques are, in fact, another byproduct of modernity and were developed in order to make the human body move as fast and efficiently as possible when in water.

Swimming seems to be an unusual object of history, but it is indeed a product of history. In its most common understanding, leisure swimming in pools and the sea, using standard techniques such as breaststroke, free style, backstroke, and butterfly is actually the result of specific political and cultural processes. Although humans have a long history with waters and references to swimming appear in different civilizations and throughout various sources, contemporary techniques have only recently been standardized according to criteria that are largely based on modern re-readings of Roman swimming traditions and that foster ideas of speed and efficiency when the human body is placed in water.

Nicholas OrmeA few scholars have engaged in recovering ancient and pre-modern cultures of swimming, most noticeably Ralph Thomas (1905), Nicholas Orme (1983), Richard Mandell (1984) and Jean-Paul Thuillier (2004). Historian Jean-Paul Thuillier discusses how only the Romans, and not the Greeks, practiced swimming, drawing on Grimal’s suggestion that “a transformation in the sporting habits occurred in Rome, with swimming taking over from racing or wrestling”, as the presence of water in training fields seems to indicate (421). According to Orme, there is no doubt that swimming was in use among the Germanic peoples during the years of Caesar and that it was not only practiced but also praised across Roman, Germanic, and Norse civilizations. From the evidence and the analyses presented in the works on the history of swimming, it seems reasonable to state that in most cases swimming was given a higher status when associated with martial practices.

The most extensive references to swimming do, in fact, occur in texts describing military history or training, most noticeably in Plutarch and Suetonius, who both recount episodes in which Caesar’s heroism and strength emerge through his extraordinary swimming skills. Such a connection between swimming and heroism characterizes also Vegetius’ Epitoma Rei Militaris, in which the ability to swim is described as necessary for soldiers, not only to cross rivers in the absence of bridges but also in the case of sudden floods (Book 1, chapter 10).

There certainly is an incredibly high number of references to swimming practices across authors as different as Caesar, Horace, Cato the Elder, and Seneca. In most cases, swimming does imply a specific way to engage with waters which is associated with what we might describe as ‘Promethean undertakings’, either over the physical environment or against less skilled enemies. At times, one can deduce swimming practices of the time, for example in his Astronomica, Manlius seems to describe something similar to butterfly and breaststroke (Vol. 5, p. 422).

Now lifting one arm after the other to make slow sweeps he will catch the eye as he drives a furrow of foam through the sea and will sound afar as he thrashes the waters; now like a hidden two-oared vessel he will draw apart his arms beneath the water; now he will enter the waves upright and swim by walking and, pretending to touch the shallows with his feet, will seem to make a field of the surface of the sea; else, keeping his limbs motionless and lying on his back or side, he will be no burden to the waters but will recline upon them and float, the whole of him forming a sail-boat not needing oarage (Translated by G. P. Goold).

Although no Latin author appears to have written a major work of instruction on the subject, and thus it is hard to assess what the word swimming (natare) meant at the time, the examples above seem to suggest that the concept was often associated with strength, conquest, and human mastery.

Interestingly enough, in medieval times there seems to emerge a tendency to depreciate the status of swimming for the same reasons that make it valuable in most Latin texts. It has also been observed how the section on swimming in Vegetius’ treatise is sometimes omitted in medieval copies (Chaline 101). Such a tendency is particular evident in both the tradition of biblical commentary and in courtly literature. Authors such as Gregory the Great and Bartholomeus Anglicus stress the dangers of water and minimize the human ability to survive in the element by his own exertions whether one can swim or not. Moreover, while Caesar and the heroes of Northern sagas are described as excelling in this practice which plays a significant role in their heroic achievements, the heroes of the chansons de geste and the romances are rarely or never depicted as swimming. According to Orme, swimming is rarely attributed to the knightly heroes of medieval tradition, and “was indeed seen rather as alien and incompatible with their usual behaviour” (33).

de arte natandi 2
A woodcut from Everard Digby’s De arte natandi.

Historians of swimming agree in identifying a significant change in attitudes towards the practice during the 16th century when swimming is mentioned in educational literature and manuals on the subject start to circulate.  Swimming is variously discussed in treatises such as The governor by Sir Thomas Elyot (1531), Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano (1528), The schoolmaster by Roger Asham (1564) and Richard Mulcaster’s Positions (1581). According to Thomas and Orme, the first work to be entirely devoted to swimming was Wyman’s Colymbetes, sive de arte natandi: dialogus et festivus et iucundus lectu (1538), in which Wyman explains how to swim using the popular form of a dialogue between two characters, Pampirus and Erotes. However, the first illustrated treatise on the practice is considered to be Everard Digby’s De arte natandi, which appeared in England in 1587 and describes both how and where to swim.

Although it has been observed how 16th-century swimming theories targeted literate nobility and gentry, and largely evolved as analytical speculation on the ‘ideal forms of swimming’ which might have had little influence on contemporary swimming practices, it is still significant that such a theoretical interest developed in the first place. European theorists began, in fact, to publish treatises on swimming in a time that is marked by overseas expansion, human mastery, and colonialism.

In an essay entitled Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World, historian Kevin Dawson has recently demonstrated how the interest in swimming that characterizes the 16th century is entangled with overseas expansionism, extraction economy, and violence. Not only did Europeans employ a high number of ‘enslaved divers’ in the Americas to collect pearls and to recover goods from sunken ships, drawing on native populations first and later on Africans, but they also looked at the swimming techniques of these skilled slaves who adopted variants of the freestyle which were unknown to Europeans. Such a connection between colonialism, slavery, and the development of swimming techniques casts another troublesome shade on the process that lead to the formation of standardized swimming styles.

It is perhaps ironic that a practice which is now associated either with leisure or forms of ‘returns to ecological statuses’ seems to have been fostered into higher social status and standardization not only in relation to conceptions of health and physical force, but also in association with practices of conquest and dominance, either over the physical world or other populations. As a swimmer and a strong believer in practices of care (as theorized for engaged environmental humanities), I wonder what implications this history has in the way we approach swimming and if this affects what we see from and inside the water. Perhaps it is an irrelevant question, but – should we be reconsidering the way we swim?


art history French history Medieval Think Piece

Seeing the Gothic through the blaze of Notre Dame

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng

Abbot suger

I first encountered Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures, edited, translated and annotated by Erwin Panofsky (1946, 2nd. revised and expanded edition 1979) when I was working on a paper on the stained glass program at Sainte-Chapelle. Abbot Suger is a remarkable set of texts. In this book, Panofsky gathered three important documents related to the construction of St.-Denis by Suger: De Administratione, De Consecratione, and the Ordinatio, all written between 1140 and 1149, the decade surrounding the cathedral’s construction and consecration, between c. 1140 and  c. 1144.

Two weeks ago, transfixed by the fire at Notre Dame, I went to my shelf and pulled down my copy of Abbot Suger.

abbot suger presenting the tree of jesse window
Abbot Suger, donating the Tree of Jesse window to St.-Denis

In his introduction to Suger’s text, Panofsky noted that, “Suger was acutely conscious of the stylistic difference that existed between his own, ‘modern’ structures (opus novum or even modernum) and the old Carolingian basilica (opus antiquum).” Suger tells us what it was like to experience the lightness and the airy qualities of the Gothic nave for the first time, to stand beneath those stained glass windows with their “wonderful and uninterrupted light.” It is all new, still. The Gothic has not yet become loaded with additional–and sometimes inconvenient, or even unsavory–ideological and emotional resonances.

In Suger’s moment, the Gothic does not have a history yet. It does not even have a name. We do not look back at St.-Denis, or Sainte-Chapelle, or Notre Dame through a haze of romanticism (as Viollet-le-Duc did), nor do we see, as Louis XIV, a tired relic of the past (Louis XIV modernized Notre Dame’s interior to suit his own Classical tastes). The association with the Gothic with the ancien régime has not yet happened, and we do not see it, as French revolutionaries did in the eighteenth century, and again in the nineteenth, as part of the order that must be destroyed. (Sainte-Chapelle’s glorious glass windows survive only because they were removed and packed away before revolutionaries could smash them.) No, to see St.-Denis through Suger’s eyes is to see both a new world rising, and the difficulty of making something so new that it was untested–and if it were to endure, it would do so only by the grace of God.

A donor portrait of Abbot Suger, “The Annunciation,” from the axial chapel of the Virgin at St.-Denis

Writing on the survival of St.-Denis’s “arches” (the arches that formed part of the cathedral’s vaulting) through a heavy storm that hurled “a force of contrary gales” against them, so that “they threatened baleful ruin at any moment, miserably trembling, and as it were, swaying hither and thither,” Suger said: “Thus [the tempest], while it brought calamitous ruin in many places to buildings thought to be firm, was unable to damage these isolated and newly made arches, tottering in mid-air, because it was repulsed by the power of God.” (109) Suger’s text is full of such instances, at once marveling at the cathedral structure as a feat of construction and engineering, and giving thanks to God that we, mere mortals, could complete such feats in our temporal world. The miracle of St.-Denis, in many ways, is that it happened at all, that resources were found and hands and bodies were set to the task. When we say that these cathedrals were “well built,” we are commenting, in part, on this remarkable conjunction of human and natural resources.

Choir, with vaulting and stained glass, Abbey of St.-Denis

Suger describes what went into the construction process–endless hours of physical labor, but also the less tangible work of funding it all. He tells us remarkable stories of men, “nobles and common folk alike,” harnessing themselves like “draft animals” to draw massive stone columns out of the quarries of Pontoise. He also tells us about combing through the abbey’s accounts, searching for ways to fund “an annual revenue for completing this work,” and finding it by cobbling together income from various offerings, income “from the possession called Villaine in the district of Beauce, previously uncultivated but with the help of God and by our labors brought under cultivation and developed to an annual revenue of eighty or a hundred pounds,” and then providing contingencies in case revenue from Villaine “should fall short of its full contribution.” This small aside on Villaine also tells us something about how the landscape around St.-Denis was changing, as more and more land was improved and brought under cultivation. Revenue from the Fair, too, would play a part in funding the construction. With a light touch, the world of eleventh-century France comes to life. It is not hard to imagine similar considerations in the construction of Notre Dame, though work there was drawn out over a much longer period of time — Stokstad writes that “Pope Alexander, exiled in France, is traditionally believed to have laid the first stone of the choir in 1163,” and yet the facade would not be completed until well into the thirteenth century.


Of course, by now, we all know that the Notre Dame fire began in “la forêt,”  the forest of ancient timbers that carried the cathedral’s roof. Suger’s text reminds us that such massive roofs were, if not outright miracles, incredible feats of planning and ingenuity, down to the problem of procurement. As he recounts in De Consecratione, the process of finding timber beams for St.-Denis was fraught: “When we inquired of our own carpenters and those of Paris where we might find beams we were told, as was in their opinion true, that such could in no wise be found in these regions owing to the lack of woods; they would inevitably have to be brought hither from the district of Auxerre.” Not easily discouraged, Suger “began to think in bed that I myself should go through all the forests of these parts, look around everywhere.” The next morning, “we hastened with our carpenters, and with the measurements of the beams, to the forest called Iveline. When we traversed our possession in the Valley of Chevreuse we summoned through our servants the keepers of our own forests as well as men who knew about other woods, and questioned them under oath whether we could find there, no matter with how much trouble, any timbers of that measure. At this they smiled, or rather would have laughed at us if they had dared.” And here Suger gives a wonderful aside on the recent history of France, noting that his queries were met with smiles because the men “wondered whether we were quite ignorant of the fact that nothing of the kind could be found in the entire region, especially since Milon, the Castellan of Chevreuse (our vassal, who holds of us one half of the forest in addition to another fief) had left nothing unimpaired or untouched that could be used for building palisades and bulwarks while he was long subjected to wars both by our Lord the King and Amaury de Montfort.”

But such are the rewards of faith–or stubbornness. Suger plunges into the forest himself, “and toward the first hour we found one timber adequate to the measure.” At the end of the day, they had found twelve timbers, the exact number required for their task. Suger sums up the episode: “Thus in this matter Divine generosity, which has chosen to limit and to grant all things according to weight and measure, manifested itself as neither excessive nor defective; for not one more [timber] than was needed could be found.”


Charles Nègre, The Vampire (Le Stryge), 1853. Salt print on paper.

It is impossible to know Notre Dame without mediation–of representations, of texts, of the intervening centuries themselves. Michael Camille wrote, in the introduction to his strange and wonderful book The Gargoyles of Notre Dame (2007): “What these insistent monsters have taught me is the impossibility of viewing the art of the Middle Ages without looking past and through the nineteenth century, without appreciating our own and the cathedral’s substantial Modernity.” In the case of Notre Dame, it was literally impossible to see the cathedral without the mediation of the nineteenth century, for the fabric of the cathedral was substantially altered under the direction of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus. The spire that fell and burned before our eyes was a Viollet-le-Duc intervention. So are the beloved gargoyles. Viollet-le-Duc’s hand can be felt both inside and out. And the cathedral has been changed since the nineteenth century. In the 1960s, new glass was installed in the nave in an effort to brighten and lighten the dark interior.

Robert Doisneau, Gargoyle, Notre Dame, 1949.

Camille has something to say about this, too: “In writing the first-ever art-historical study of this group of well-known Parisian sculptures, my point is not that they are modern and therefore less important than the superb twelfth- and thirteenth-century sculptures still in situ on the west facade. Rather than view them as “not medieval” I hope to show their instrumentality in having helped construct the very idea of the medieval. Our most cherished cultural monuments are not the neatly packaged products of a distant and therefore irresponsible historical past. Cathedrals are above all spectacular sites in the here and now, sites that are continually being reinterpreted, reconstructed, and interrupted by new monsters of our own making.”

This, I think, is something that Suger could understand, at least in part, though he probably would not articulate it in quite the same way. The “new” St.-Denis was constructed using the stones of the “old” St.-Denis. As gorgeous as the new cathedral might have been when it was freshly constructed, it only came into the fullness of its beauty when animated by the life of the Church. The final passages of Suger’s De Consecratione are dedicated to the translation of the relics–to the joy and passion of the processions and rituals that brought life into the cathedral, life that could be wondrous and joyful but also edged with terror. The cathedral exists for the moment, for the here and now. But Suger doesn’t share Camille’s world-weary disenchantment. Setting aside whether this disenchantment is a function of personality or of modernity–it suffices to say that Camille’s sense of the “here and now” is quite different from that of Suger, as is his sense of how the present moment interacts with the cathedral site.

Here, I think, we have to be careful about drawing binaries between belief and unbelief, the secular and the sacred. When Notre Dame was on fire, men and women fell to their knees in prayer. Things that we believed to have been swept away by the tides of time may in fact endure in surprising ways. The past glows for us only because we have not experienced it ourselves. Suger told of the remarkable work that went into the construction of St.-Denis. He did not tell us of other important things–of the politics, of the force and violence, of what it might mean to do all of this under the sign of feudalism. As for what all of this means, now, in the here-and-now of 2019, for the rebuilding of Notre Dame–perhaps we can only fumble for words when we are mired in the thick of it.

Camille passed away before Notre Dame burned. For him, back in the first years of this century, the question was not “Will Notre Dame burn to the ground?” but rather “Can we delicately repair the damage of time? Is it acceptable to insert signs of our own time into the fabric of the cathedral? Should we make new gargoyles to replace the old, crumbling nineteenth-century ones that are maybe a little bit Disney and a little bit steampunk, that is, of ‘our moment’?” The terms of the equation have shifted a bit. What is our moment? Who are we? When donations poured in for the rebuilding of Notre Dame–after decades of difficulty raising adequate funds for preservation and maintenance–the size of individual donations pledged by ultra-wealthy donors such as François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault served, for some, as painful instantiations of the gross economic inequality that characterizes the twenty-first century.

The best that I can do, for now, is leave you with this quote from T.J. Clark’s Heaven on Earth (2017):

There are aspects of the human imagination — the attempts that individuals and societies go on making to give overall shape to earthly existence, and have time take on a trajectory and destination; the effort to have pain and powerlessness be bearable, and to answer the question of whether the coherence and fullness of a life in common ought to be seen as an entirely human possibility or as the foreshadowing (the gift, the vision) of a world to come–whose main established metaphors look to be indelible, however often they are subjected to the fires of disbelief. […] The idea of heaven on earth, in particular — of a future close to us in which ‘former things are passed away’– will persist as long as the hellishness of the present demands it.

Perhaps it is all just magical thinking. I know in the thick of it all, when the fire could have gone one way or another, I promised to myself that if Notre Dame were to stand, if “la forêt” should be all that was sacrificed, I would return to the site myself. To see it with my own eyes. Call it what you will — faith, magical thinking, a misguided attempt to project my own desires onto the external world. In the moment it was the only thing I had.