In the 14th and 15th centuries, the crisis of the late medieval period brought to a halt the general positive situation experienced by the feudal European world since the 11th century. The demographic decline, the sudden changes in prices and salaries and the accentuation of social tensions were the most visible manifestations of the crisis.
The period of change and transformation experienced during the transition from the late Middle Ages to the Modern Age did not take place in a calm and smooth fashion, but rather caused unrest and direct manifestations of the crisis, especially during the 14th century. An example of this was the peasant revolts and social conflict in the main cities that took place throughout Europe.
The Rural World: Peasant Revolts
The peasant revolts were a response to the injustice of feudalism, just as the strikes of contemporary times are a response to capitalism. Before the late medieval period, there is no direct record of revolts, but it can be inferred from their existence because sanctions were provided for in the laws.
From the 14th century onwards, we know of the existence of these revolts, due to the record that has remained of them in the medieval chronicles. Many revolts ended with pacts that remained in writing, made possible by the generalization of paper. In the period of medieval growth, the poor were tried to be appeased with religious justifications (“happy the poor for theirs will be the kingdom of heaven”). Social differences were justified through religion. In a situation of general crisis such as that experienced in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Church’s justifications were not sufficient to calm the population.
As a result of the late medieval crisis, there were a significant number of convulsions that affected the countryside as well as the city during the 14th and 15th centuries. It was one of the most visible phenomena of the Lower Middle Ages. The riots were both the consequence and the response or manifestation of the crisis. It has attracted considerable historiographical attention. Historians have used various terms to designate these movements, depending on where, when and how they had occurred.
Revolts or revolutions?
- Revolution: this concept is used when an organized movement takes place where a programme, doctrine or theory is supposed to be applied, with a project and a strategy. The previous thought gives a specificity to each movement. The revolution does not try to introduce reforms in the system, but to start from scratch, to carry out a structural change. These movements of revolution are not spontaneous, since they are planned.
- Revolt – uprising: is observed when there is a spontaneous reaction from a person, group or collective. It is an outburst in the face of an unsustainable or intolerable situation (injustice, misery, hunger…). A reaction that makes the existing order tremble, but without a foreseeable future. It does not provide an alternative to the established system, it is just a reflection of desperation. They are not small revolutions or failed revolutions. After victory there is nothing left: victor or vanquished, a certain death awaits the uprising and the followers are victims of furious repression.
The concepts of revolts and revolutions are always accompanied by adjectives about the sociology of the movement. Depending on the historical period, they can be popular, workers’ or peasant revolts, or even revolutions. This terminology excludes movements that were led by the aristocracy.
For Marxist historiography, the revolt of the medieval period was of a reactionary nature, insofar as it did not have objectives “for” but “against”. Precisely, they were revolts against the royal tax system, against the abuses of the lords, or against the tax agents and royal representatives.
In the Middle Ages we never had a structured ideology and organizers in the revolt movements. There were only revolting masses. The leaders were more agitators than organizers, who took on board the malaise and despair of the population in the face of a turn in the economic situation that was totally contrary to their interests. Thus, the revolt was a step backwards, an attempt to return to the past, since it was considered to be better. Hence, the fact that the reactionary nature of the revolt is spoken of.
From the perspective of the 14th and 15th centuries, it was not difficult to find discourses and behaviours of a messianic and millenary nature in the revolts. From the perspective of Marxism, the medieval revolts were not a class struggle because there was no theory. An actually simple scheme was put into practice in the uprising: an unexpected, destructive and brief explosion.
The context of the peasant revolts of the 14th and 15th centuries is well known. There was a break in the balance between population and resources, and there were successive subsistence crises from 1315-17.
On the other hand, an assault on communal lands was being carried out by the feudal lords. There was also an imbalance between prices and salaries and misery was becoming widespread. The frontier between the rich and the poor was becoming more and more pronounced. The pressure of the feudal lords also increased due to the reduction in the capture of rents, as they obtained fewer resources. The most affected of all was the low nobility who then opted for militarization, in a time of widespread warfare. The war was a determining factor because of its role as agent and consequence of the crisis.
Wars were an alternative way for obtaining economic resources that the crisis of feudal income had diminished. Warfare became the strategy for pumping out income through the collection of soldiers, participation in the collection of real taxes and the practice of looting. According to the historian Guy Bois, what the small nobility could obtain in a campaign of one or two months was equivalent to an annual lease of between 20 and 30 hectares of farmland. This is why the phenomenon of enlistment became so widespread that it led to the appearance of large armies from the 14th and 15th centuries.
In this context of crisis, the peasantry and the lower classes in the cities were the victims, either directly through violence or through the fiscal pressure exerted on them by the feudal lords. Both factors led to the destruction of the sources of wealth, and irreparable damage to the agricultural landscape, leading to a chronic situation of lack of food resources, debt… So, the peasant had to resort to selling his already eroded heritage, his tools…
The war became endemic. For the local population that was within the war scenario, coexistence with the soldiers was actually difficult. In times of truce, or in the scenario of non-payment of wages to the military companies, the armies plundered the peasants and stole their crops. The climate of insecurity was continuous.
The peasant revolt of the Karls of Flanders (1323-1328)
In Flanders, there was a situation of poor harvests since 1315, possibly as a result of adverse weather conditions. Two further factors must be considered: the Count of Flanders raised taxes to pay fines imposed by the King of France and the increase in the church tithe tax.
The Karls Revolt in Flanders began in small villages and quickly spread to cities such as Bruges and Ypres. The leaders were the wealthy peasants (called “Karls”). In the cities the leaders were the people of the trades.
The wealthy peasants and the big tenants were the most affected by taxes. The targets of the rebels were the lordly agents, the nobility and the clergy. This last aspect, anticlericalism, was a novelty in this type of revolt. One of the leaders of the movement, Jacob Peyt, proposed to do away with the clergy and a large part of the peasantry joined him.
The revolt was quelled by the French cavalry at the battle of Cassel in 1328. The French nobility were responsible for repressing the uprising and this compensated for the losses caused by the revolt.
The Jacquerie in France (May-June 1358)
The name of this French revolt comes from the attribution of the leadership of the same to Jacques Bonhomme (pseudonym of Guillaume Cale). The revolt affected the richest areas around Paris, the Île-de-France. In addition to the rural movement, there was also an urban movement led by Étienne Marcel. Although they occurred at the same time, there was no coordination between the two movements. An interesting fact about this revolt was that the poorer areas of Paris were left out.
There are several structural causes of the revolt. Demands for increased feudal income and the imposition of new taxes by the royal treasury (to finance the ransom of King John the Good) made the demand for taxation too strong for the peasants. On the other hand, the area of the revolt was a grain-growing area. At that time, cereal prices were very low and tax demands were very high. The well-off peasants were the most affected.
The economic causes of the revolt were twofold: the capture of the monarch at the Battle of Poitiers (1356) created a power vacuum with a disgraced aristocracy after his defeat. On the other hand, the English occupied part of the French territory.
The targets of the rebels were the nobility and the royal agents, especially the renters. Anticlericalism was almost non-existent.
The revolt spread from Paris to Normandy, Champagne, Picardy and other French regions. But there was no unity of action. Guillaume Cale sent emissaries to the villages to spread the revolt. The movement was extremely violent, but it was short-lived.
The revolt ended when he was captured and executed. The French army acted under the leadership of King Charles the Bad and annihilated the rebels at Mello. Tough repression was then applied. The town of Meaux served as an example. For example, the town of Meaux was attacked and its population killed (about 3,000 people). The future King Charles V offered letters of remission to end the conflict. However, the seigniorial repression continued on the fringes of the royal authority.
The Peasant’s Revolt in England (May to July 1381)
The English peasant movement is known to us thanks to the Chronicle written by Jean Froissart and another by an unknown author. This revolt, like the French Jacquerie, was a combination of an urban and a peasant revolt, which ended up, as in France, in failure.
The geography of the revolt is situated around London, the most populated and the richest area of England as well as the most affected by the crisis of feudal rents. Moreover, a process of re-feudalization was taking place in that area. On the other hand, there were many economic and social differences between the wealthy peasants and those who had been dispossessed by re-feudalization.
The social situation was conducive to the outbreak of a revolt. The trigger for the revolt was related to the Hundred Years’ War. Richard II acceded to the throne at the age of 10, creating a power vacuum. Yet, the final trigger was a special tax to cover the costs of the war, the Poll Tax.
The leader of the revolt was Wat Tyler. The movement began with the assault on Tower Hill in London, owned by the Order of the Knights Hospitaller. The Grand Master of the Order, Robert Hales, was the King’s treasurer and therefore responsible for the royal fiscal policy. He was captured and executed by the rebels on 14 June 1381.
The rebels took control of the City of London, where an urban revolt broke out at the same time. The targets of the uprising were the agents of the Royal Treasury and the high clergy. By 30 May 1381 the rebels had also taken the city of Canterbury, the seat of the Archbishopric of England. They also stormed the Episcopal Palace in London, the Savoyard palace…
In mid-June, the rebels released John Ball from prison. He was a priest who had been imprisoned for his speeches against the privileged. His speeches served as an ideological basis for the movement, as well as giving it a certain messianic and millenarian character.
The young King Richard II, only 14 years old, received the rebels in audience to hear their demands. They achieved the abolition of serfdom. The king decreed a general amnesty and the suppression of church property. However, Walt Tyler was finally captured and executed, and the repression began. John Ball too was executed on 15 July. The royal commitments were revoked.
In the context of this English revolt, there were movements to reform the Church. The one led by John Wycliffe (second half of the 14th century) stands out. He wrote the work “De civili Dominio” (1374), in which he criticized the Church hierarchy, the accumulation of goods… (“all the good that God has done will be put in common”). The leaders of the revolt used these theories as an ideological basis for the revolt.
During the 15th century, revolts followed throughout Europe: in Switzerland, Bohemia, Germany (the land of Nicklhausen), in the Baltic, the Iberian Peninsula (Remences, foreigners, Irishmen…).
The Remences Wars in Catalonia
The name of these wars, refers to the group of farmers affected by a type of feudal servitude known as remences. These farmers had to serve their feudal lords by paying a series of taxes, known as evil customs. Among other things, the farmer could not leave his plot of land without paying compensation to the lord.
When talking about the Remences, the group of well-to-do peasants predominates, who wanted to dissociate themselves from the feudal lords. The War of the Remences must be seen in the context of the conflict of the Catalan Civil War (1462-1472).
However, it had some precedents and some later derivations. The context of the conflict is based on three axes that interact with each other:
- The great divergence between the well-to-do peasantry (a minority) and the landless peasantry (which was the most numerous in Catalonia). The landless peasants joined the revolt, which was led by the well-to-do peasants, and took part in the most radical actions;
- The fall in income led to a hardening of the servile condition;
- At the end of the 14th century, there was a movement of revolt due to the growing unrest in the countryside. Between 1413 and 1415 there were violent actions. All these actions were punctual and spontaneous. Little by little the movement was articulated and demands were made such as the abolition of evil customs.
The conflict in the Catalan region was very different from other European conflicts: at first it was supported by the monarchy. It was a self-serving position, as the monarchy needed these farmers to pay taxes. In return, the feudal lords offered more tributes to the king to count on his support. In both cases, the Crown won.
In 1448, King Alfonso the Magnanimous recognized the Gran Sindicat Remença, a peasants’ guild, which shows the degree of organization of the movement. The king tried to find a solution as to maintain the feudal networks and at the same time solve the problems of the peasants. In 1455, the king issued the “Sentencia Interlocutoria“. He wanted to initiate a process of dialogue between the parties with the aim of abolishing misuse. But when he was in the middle of this process, Alfonso died and was succeeded by his brother John II.
Under the rule of King John II, there was a rupture between the Crown and the institutions of the aristocratic oligarchy. The Catalan civil war began (1462). Thus, the aristocratic conflict was superimposed on the war of the remences.
The monarchy sought support for its struggle and found it in the Remences. In 1462, there was the First Remensa uprising led by Francesc Verntallat. In 1472, the civil war ended with the Peace of Pedralbes. The Crown won over the aristocracy and a model of authoritarian monarchy was established. The king then repressed his former allies, the Remences.
But the royal victory in the civil war did not mean the end of the Remensa conflict. King Ferdinand II the Catholic inherited the malaise of the Remences. He initiated a “policy of recovery”. The peasantry was still dissatisfied. The king repealed the “Sentencia Interlocutoria” of 1455. In 1485, the Second Remensa took place, led by Pere Joan Sala. This second revolt was crushed.
Finally, on 21 April 1486, King Ferdinand II the Catholic drafted the “Sentencia Arbitral de Guadalupe”, which put an end to the peasant conflict. It consisted of several points:
- Legal agreements: provided for the redemption of misuse and other customary abuses. However, for a peasant to obtain redemption, he had to give compensation to the feudal lords. Remences had to be paid for each redeemed farmhouse and each misuse. In this way, legal servitude was abolished. The emphyteutic contract disappeared. The peasants had five years to recognize the lordly rights (the capbreus);
- Penalties: some 70 agitators were sentenced, although in the end only 12 were executed. The rest of the remences were amnestied. The complaints against the peasants were dismissed, and they had to pay for it. The possessions they had occupied during the revolt were also returned;
- Finally, a non-aggression pact was established for one hundred years.
Ending the War of Remences, the feudal order was not eroded. The actual beneficiaries of the whole process were the wealthy peasants, who secured control of the farmhouses.
Social conflicts in the cities
The urban revolts are very well recorded in the most economically buoyant regions (where productive activities around crafts and trade stand out). In these regions, there were extremely active bourgeois, hierarchical cadres who demanded their participation in the bodies of urban government.
The urban revolts of the late Middle Ages were due to structural and circumstantial causes:
- Violent protests of the “middle” bourgeoisie against the urban patriarchy: they wanted to share the political and economic power in the cities;
- Violent eruption of marginal groups because of an unfavourable situation;
- The middle bourgeoisie took advantage of the war situation to make pacts with radical groups, even with possible adversaries, as to take power in the hands of the local oligarchies;
- Disputes against ethnic minorities, especially the Jews. This was extremely violent after the 1391 pogrom, which began in Seville and quickly spread to other parts of the Iberian Peninsula;
- Fighting between the “parties” of the urban bourgeoisie.
The clearest example of struggles between urban groups was that betwixt Guelphs and Ghibellines which took place in the centre and north of the Italian peninsula during the 12th and 13th centuries.
The name Guelphs comes from the deformation of the surname Welf, the Counts of Bavaria. This family had claims to the imperial throne of the Holy Roman Empire, traditionally occupied by the House of Hohenstaufen. Hence, the Guelphs allied themselves with the Papacy of Rome, the enemy of the Germanic Emperor.
The name Ghibellines comes from the place where the Hohenstaufen originated, Waiblingen Castle.
The Guelphs were the supporters of the Pope and the Ghibellines of the Emperor. During the Lower Middle Ages, however, the confrontation between these two factions was over control of the institutions of urban power, with little regard for the struggle between the Papacy and the Empire, which had once been important.
The differences between the urban and peasant revolts were quite distinct:
- The peasant economy produced a surplus that was used by the feudal lords. Thus, the farmers did not need the feudal lords to carry out their production cycle;
- The commercial profits in the cities, on the other hand, came from the sale of products and the exploitation of day labourers, apprentices and officers. However, this exploitation was not the core of feudal society;
- The urban revolts did not shake the foundations of feudal society. If there was ever a connection between urban and rural groups, it was because the urban people wanted to take advantage of the inertia of the rural movement for their interests.
14th century urban riots in three areas of Europe
Flanders was experiencing an intermittent conflict situation. Since the end of the 13th century, a struggle had been going on between the urban patricians and the craftsmen for control of the cities, particularly in Bruges. The military response of the King of France was met with a riot led by the weaver Pieter de Coninck, and the patricians were expelled from the organs of urban government. The example of Bruges was imitated by other cities. After the Battle of Cassel (1328), oligarchic government was re-established in the main cities of Flanders.
The English decision to impose economic sanctions on Flanders during the Hundred Years’ War (arresting merchants and suspending wool exports) led to a halt in craft activity that eventually led to a new revolt, now in the city of Ghent, led by Jacob van Artevelde (1338-1340), who was killed in a mutiny in 1345.
In 1379, another riot broke out in Ghent as a result of the construction of a canal between Bruges and the River Lys, which compromised the city’s trade. In 1380 and 1382, there were further general revolts by the weavers against the Count of Flanders. But the movement, led by Philippe van Artevelde (son of Jacob), had been weakened by the division between the weavers and other artisan sectors. The attempt to internationalize the conflict by making a pact with the English failed and the revolt was crushed by the French nobility in Roosebeke.
From 1385, Philip II of Burgundy became Count of Flanders and curtailed Flemish freedoms. From then on, the revolt movements were disrupted.
There was a serious problem resulting from deep economic disparities, as well as the poor employment and social situation of unskilled workers. In addition, there was a factional political situation in most cities, disguised as the old division between Guelphs and Ghibellines.
The most important revolt in Italy in the 14th century was the Florence revolt. At the end of the 13th century, the “Popolo Grasso” faction controlled the urban government. It was the richest group in the city, made up of the major merchants, financiers and other wealthy groups. Although it was of the Guelph tendency, the group was split into two factions that fought constantly. But also during the first half of the 14th century the duchy of Tuscany was affected by a series of calamities (epidemics, famines, floods, battles in the Papacy-Empire struggle, ruin of several business companies…).
The city of Florence, ruined by the economic crisis that began in 1342, named the Frenchman Gualterio di Brienne as “lord in life” of the city. Gualtierio’s government was soon marked by despotism, ignoring and opposing the interests of the rich merchant class that had allowed him to take power, finding support in the forces of the old feudal families in exile from the struggles of fifty years earlier.
He imposed drastic economic corrective measures, aimed at solving the heavy public debt, by instituting the “forced loans” which the richest people had to lend to the government under extremely adverse conditions.
Only ten months after his appointment, they conspired to get rid of him. Threatened with physical elimination, he relinquished his power and fled the city on July the 26th, 1343.
However, to this adverse economic context, we must add the basic problem: the poor situation of the “ciompi”, the non-specialist textile workers, who were not represented in the institutions and were subjected to very precarious working and wage conditions, as well as being excluded from negotiations with the unions.
The situation in 1376 laid the foundations for the revolt which took place in 1378: the government of Florence was at odd with the Papacy (War of the Eight Saints). The enormous economic costs of sustaining the war had created a great discredit for the Guelph oligarchy. To this, we must add the large-scale unemployment which resulted from the entry into the international market of the nascent English cloth production, with cheaper textile articles.
On June 24, 1378, an attempt at moderate reform consisting of integrating the minute population into the institutions was rejected by the oligarchy. The Ciompi Revolt, led by Michele di Lando, began. The main palaces of the urban institutions were occupied. The riots, however, never had a homogeneous front: the moderates were content with equal civil rights, but the radicals, led by Antonio di Ronco, adopted an egalitarian millenary character (“Popolo di Dio”). The movement was crushed and the repression was bloody: more than 60 death sentences and hundreds of exiles. Finally, the patricians recovered the power of the city.
Another prominent revolt in Italy took place in Rome. From the beginning of the 14th century, the city was in a “strange” situation: the Papacy had moved to Avignon, and faction fights had intensified. In 1347, Cola di Rienzo proposed to put an end to the injustice that, according to him, was being exercised by the urban government. Di Rienzo had assumed various roles in the municipal administration, and knew it well.
Thanks to his worthiness as an orator, he proclaimed himself the “Tribune of the Roman people”. A popular government under his leadership took power, and many men had to flee. However, once the surprise was overcome, the oligarchy prepared an army that besieged the city.
Deprived of the most basic needs, the city revolted and Cola di Rienzo was forced to flee. He managed to repeat his experience of government in 1354. However, he imposed conditions of great harshness that displeased even the popular sectors. A riot against him put an end to his life. In Italy, there were other important revolts in cities such as Venice, Siena, Genoa and Pavia.
The defeat of the French monarchy at the Battle of Poitiers (1356), the capture of the king and the request for a high ransom, led to a situation of bankruptcy of the Treasury and a power vacuum in France. The Paris bourgeoisie, led by Étienne Marcel, seized power in the city, with the support of Charles of Navarre and the Bishop of Laon, Robert Lecoq.
The revolted government in Paris approved initiatives in line with the approaches of the urban sectors in Paris, and the revolt spread to other cities (Amiens, Rouen…). However, the attempt to negotiate with the English monarchy and the radical nature of the movement where the connection with the rural Jacquerie frightened the more moderate reformist sectors. On 31 July, Marcel was murdered and the revolt crushed by the oligarchy and the nobility.
Other minor riots
During the 14th century, other uprisings took place in areas all over Europe, motivated by situations very similar to the previous ones. In Barcelona, one of the most pioneering, the rebellion of Berenguer Oller, a representative of the petty people, led to a revolt against the oligarchy (1235).
The Kingdom of Castile was characterized by extremely violent anti-Semitism, most notably the pogrom of 1391 which began in Seville.
In Portugal, the bourgeoisie imposed its candidate for the throne, against the wishes of the King of Castile, who had the support of the high nobility.
In Central Europe, the rivalry between the representatives of the trades and the patriarchy sparked revolts in Strasbourg (1330-50), Zurich (1336), Nuremberg (1347-49), etc.
15th century urban riots in two cities
The 15th century uprisings were different from the 14th century in several respects:
- Those of the 15th century did not have popular support. They were not a mass movement. They were struggles by the wealthy sectors to gain a share of power in urban government;
- There was no connection with the rural revolts.
In Paris things got extremely complicated. The city had experienced tremendous growth due to the exodus provoked by the military raids of the Hundred Years’ War. In addition, some elements were causing a situation of instability: the gangs of soldiers, the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War, the protests of the university students… But the demands of the butchers’ guild were especially noteworthy, as it had achieved great prestige and wealth but had no presence in the institutions.
In 1413, a spectacular and violent riot took place in Paris led by the butcher Simon Caboche, with the connivance of the Burgundians (Cabochien Revolt). He introduced the so-called Cabochienne Charter, which was more moderate than Étienne Marcel’s in the previous century. The Armagnac-Realist triumph meant that the oligarchy regained power in the city, and the Charter was repealed.
A context of profound crisis existed throughout the Principality of Catalonia. To this, we must add the erratic politics of the Trastámaras, the various wars, and the conflict of the Remences, which deeply divided the institutions.
The city of Barcelona was a centre deeply divided into two factions:
- La Busca, which represented the small craft industry, aspired to political reform and the reorganization of the municipal finances, as well as to a greater presence in the institutions;
- La Biga, which represented the oligarchy of the great merchants and bankers, monopolized the urban government.
La Busca sought to impose a protectionist policy against the free trade of La Biga (which did business with imports). It also favoured a devaluation of the currency to facilitate transactions. The Biga was opposed and wanted to maintain the currency, otherwise its loans would lose value. The Busca also wanted reforms in the system of election of the positions of the institutions.
In 1453, a coup d’état placed the Busca in urban government, with the indirect support of the king and the Remences, however the oligarchy controlled the Generalitat (the Catalan government). The Biga finally crushed the movement, cancelled the reforms and regained control of the city’s institutions.