My article “Gower and the Peasants’ Revolt” has been published in the journal Representations, summer 2015 issue. Here is the abstract and article opening.
abstract The Rising of 1381, or Peasants’ Revolt, was the largest popular insurrection in premodern England. Soon afterwards, the London poet John Gower commemorated these events in a Latin poem, in which the rebellion is neutralized by an act of penitential prayer. This article examines the moral and political claims implied in that denouement, situating it within three contrastive fields: the poet’s moral project, his Virgilian intertext, and the practices of moral community employed by the rebels of 1381.
In June of 1381 the English government briefly lost control of significant portions of the realm. Sometimes called the Peasants’ Revolt, this concatenation of local insurrections was the largest rebellion of disenfranchised people in medieval England. It began as a tax rebellion: the first violent incident was against a royal commission investigating tax evasion in Essex and seeking to raise missing sums. In the following days, coalitions of peasants, laborers and artisans in towns and villages across southeastern England organized themselves into a new authority directly opposed to the authority of the landlords and royal government. Properties belonging to the king’s hated councilors were destroyed; legal documents were seized from landlords and county officers, carried to town squares, and publicly burned; prisons were broken open and prisoners released. Many of the insurgents’ victims were directly involved in tax collection; others were well known as prominent officials of the county government. As news of the insurrection spread to neighboring counties, so too did insurrection itself. Meanwhile, detachments from Kent and Essex converged on London, where they hoped to present their grievances to the young king. When Richard retreated into the Tower and declined to hear the accusations against his councilors, the rebels struck out on their own. On June 14, at Tower Hill, the king’s chancellor and his treasurer were summarily executed as traitors to the realm. The murder of these two men belonged to the same series as the first events of the rising: the chancellor had presented the government’s enormous subsidy request at the Northampton Parliament the previous November; the treasurer had presided over collection of the tax. However, motives and grievances had now generalized well beyond matters of taxation. The demands which the rebels made to the bunkered king in London included regularization of terms of land tenure throughout the realm, removal of protective restrictions on the sale of agricultural produce, removal of the statutory prohibitions against free negotiation of wages, and abolition of serfdom.
The insurrection was broken almost as quickly as it arose, though with greater loss of life. Soon afterwards, the London poet John Gower wrote a new poem. […]