In 1381 the peasants of England revolted against unjust rule. It ended when they acquiesced to the promises of a 14 year old boy. What does this episode in history tell us of freedom and risk in society.
The Peasants Revolt: Freedom and Risk
“But when no risk is taken there is no freedom. It is thus that, in an industrial society, the plethora of laws made for our personal safety convert the land into a nursery, and policemen hired to protect us become self-serving busybodies.”
The Peasant's Revolt of June 1381 was the most infamous popular uprising of the Middle Ages, and it was caused by a simmering discontent in England that went as far back as the middle of Edward III of England's reign as king (1327-1377) and the arrival of the Black Death plague in 1348. However, Edward's direct successor, Richard II of England, dealt with the chaos when the widespread discontent boiled over into an all-out rebellion.
The principal causes of the Peasants' Revolt were: a new poll tax imposed on all peasants irrespective of wealth (the third such tax since 1377). Additionally, the crown set a limit by law on wages after labor costs had risen dramatically following the Black Death plague. Further, unscrupulous landlords were trying to turn free laborers back into serfs (aka villains) to save money on those wages. This created an overall feeling of exploitation by local authorities during economic decline.
The poll tax of three groats (equivalent to a couple of days labor) was applied to anyone aged over 15 years (only beggars were exempt), and, unlike other taxes, it took no consideration of a person's ability to pay it. This third poll tax was three times higher than the two previous ones to add more woe. The peasantry had been well-used to taxes; Edward III had imposed 27 of them during his reign, mainly to pay for his hugely expensive military campaigns against the French during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453).
And why was Edward waging war on the French? Because of a personal claim to French territories and even the French crown itself. Those who follow the present-day Windsor family, binge-watch Netflix’s The Crown or stay up through the night to watch the latest fairy tale wedding, keep in mind that this was the true nature of monarchy for millennia. The people of a nation are sacrificing for the personal needs of a single or small group of individuals.
Richard II similarly needed cash to carry on the war with France, whose pirate ships were rampant in the English Channel, but now people had finally had enough. There were other problems, too. In our COVID age, our society features a small but highly vocal group who go around terrified of their fellow human beings. And though COVID deaths can be both tragic, and in some cases, preventable with the vaccine regimen, they pale in comparison to the Black Death of 1346-48. Of a nation of 330 million, we are annually averaging 400,000 stated (not all these directly to COVID) deaths. That is less than 1/8 of 1% of our population. In Europe, the bubonic plague in the mid-14th century claimed between 25 – 33% of all soles. Additionally, 74% of COVID deaths occur among those 65 or older. In 1935 the average life span was 67 for males. The black death was not quite so precise. It killed everyone from a 5-year-old child (where COVID is almost negligible) to a hearty 20-year-old to (at that time) elderly 50-year-old.
The Black Death also reoriented European society deleterious to the spendthrift Plantagenets.
The labor cost had risen dramatically following a shortage of it after the Black Death struck in 1348, which meant many serfs could now charge for their labor. Edward III had imposed laws restricting how much a laborer could earn each day, and there were strict punishments for those who did not comply.
Many landlords attempted to get around the problem by making their laborers become serfs again, thus saving their wages. The Black Death had killed between 30 and 50% of the population in areas it had struck, which meant that some peasants had been able to buy their small piece of land to farm as land prices plummeted and there were not enough people to work it. These landed peasants were called yeomen. In addition, the drastic fall in population had hit small businesses and artisans as their customers evaporated. These developments may explain why it was in the better-off areas of the kingdom where the revolt broke out - East Anglia and Kent - and why it was a phenomenon not limited to the countryside.
Then, the uprising began in May-June 1381 in England's southeast, where royal tax inspectors were investigating why tax returns had been surprisingly low. These inspectors suddenly met with opposition to their demands for payment of the poll tax, which Parliament had passed in November 1380. Officials and sheriffs were kidnapped and murdered. Bands of rebels toured the countryside on horseback, torching manors and destroying their records - a clear indicator of the peasants' desire to overturn manorialism. The public records at Maid stone, Rochester, and Canterbury all went up in flames. The ringleaders seemed to be better-off small farmers and included parish priests and village constables in their number. This was not a revolt of the absolute poor but those commoners who had something to lose. The crown sent men-at-arms to deal with the problem areas, but these were too few in number, and many were killed.
Two leaders, in particular, came to the fore. Wat Tyler of Maid stone, perhaps a former soldier, but any specific details are lacking, and the demagogue priest John Ball, who radically sought more equality in society. Ball had already seen the inside of a prison a few times for his extreme preaching. The medieval chronicler Jean Froissart (c. 1337 – c. 1405) records that Ball noted with frustration that:
“[The lords] are clad in velvet and camlet lined with squirrel and ermine, while we go dressed in coarse cloth. They have the wines, the spices, and the good bread: we have the rye, the husks, and the straw, and we drink water. They have shelter and ease in their fine manors, and we have hardship and toil, the wind and the rain in the fields. And from us must come, from our labor, the things which keep them in luxury.”
Although only 14, King Richard emerged from the safety of the Tower of London and bravely promised to meet the protest leaders at Mile End, a field on the outskirts of London. There Richard listened to their demands and blithely pledged to meet all of them, issue charters accordingly, and even permitted Tyler to extract justice on any person he thought deserved punishment. Tyler then promptly ordered the storming of the Tower of London and had the hated Chancellor, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, decapitated on Tower Hill. Another day of looting, murder, and mayhem followed in the capital. Meanwhile, news reached the king that rioting had spread as far north as York, and there was, or would be, trouble in the counties of Cambridgeshire, Herefordshire, Suffolk, and Norfolk.
Richard then employed the much-used tactic of making a load of extravagant promises he had no intention of keeping, such as giving everyone involved royal pardons. These promises were enough to stave off more rioting, and the mob disbanded, escorted out of London by the city's militia. Utterly ruthless, Richard next had his men capture and hang 150, so many that new gibbets had to be built for the purpose. Among the dead was Wat Tyler, whose head was displayed on London Bridge.
Why did the Peasants, downtrodden enough to revolt, knowing the consequences (in some way they were lucky because the king’s main army was in Scotland at the time), then submit to the king? Freedom is hard. The fun of a Republic, and the individual liberty inherent in ours, is getting to make your own decisions or, after some time (2, 4, and 6 years in most of our cases), removing a feckless individual. New Yorkers are not stuck with Bill DeBlasio though I ponder why he was elected in the first place. But decisions also come with risks and responsibilities that people sometimes shirk.
For the peasants of Richard II’s day, the idea that one was not necessarily born into a life of servitude to another was difficult to quash. However, people were well aware that the royals, large landowners, lawyers, and officials were conspiring in a system that kept the poor in their place while they benefitted.
There was another anecdote from Boris Yeltsin’s Russia some 25 years ago. A university professor was visiting a city about 60 miles east of Moscow. Some of the people this president was meeting were decrying the high cost of beef at that local butcher shop. At one point, this shop was the state-owned distributor of meat in the Soviet Union. Though that blighted experiment in maximum redistributive government was gone, its legacy in the butcher shop persisted.
The university president suggested that some entrepreneurial-minded Russians set up their shops, and sell their meats for less money, thus driving competition into the market and creating a world of faire priced meats. The town members to whom it was addressed blinked back at him. In their mind, whether state-owned or not, that was the butcher shop. They were not ready to suggest that someone take on the risk of starting a shop brand new.
For reasons too many to count, but include the conversion of the state to tyranny, I am opposed to Marxism. But I see the appeal when fanatically minded people extoll theirs follow downtrodden with Marxist words such as “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!” My problem is not that some chains need to be broken but rather that in every instance of where Marxism or Communism has been implemented, from Russia to China to Vietnam, to Cuba to Angola to Cambodia, the chains imposed by the new regimes are heavier and more confining than whatever came before. That is for those who lived through the times. Tens of millions did not.
In my previous podcast, Four Revolutions, I noted the difference between the American Revolution to so many others. One of the critical ingredients is individual liberty. But think what this entails. Historically, the only food to eat was available from the fields under one’s eye; marriages could be arranged, jobs were preset by what the parents did, healthcare was non-existent. Today the average American faces a hundred choices every day, from the mundane (what to have for breakfast or which show to stream on which platform) to the life-altering, whom to marry, which job to take, whom to vote for, which healthcare plan to enroll. There is a certain appeal to have Obamacare or some new version of government healthcare make this decision for them. George Will adds, “The temptress of socialism is constantly luring us with the offer: “give up a little of your freedom, and I will give you a little more security.” As the experience of this century has demonstrated, the bargain is tempting but never pays off. We end up losing both our freedom and our security. Before one believes this is a left only issue, consider the Patriot Act.
Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." That quote often comes up in the context of new technology and concerns about government surveillance. In a rush for a more “nationalist” brand of conservatism, there is a movement of the right to advocate policies that skirt close to the less liberty, more safety argument.
Yet, though this is a tendency on the right, especially in various forms of Trumpism, it is still the purview of the left. Pro-government beliefs, by their nature, drive more significant control over the sacrifice of freedoms. Every terminology of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare is a social safety net. Yet when a social security tax is automatically deducted from payroll, that is money that the individual cannot command. Perhaps the taxpayer will waste the money on some bitcoin scheme. But the risk is inherent in their choice. The risk of social security going insolvent, which the progressive Biden administration has suggested within the next ten years, is no risk because there is no choice. And they may not see all of it again. When a patient enrolls in Medicare, the choices for care are no longer there, but what the Center of Medicare and Medicaid decides. When Elizabeth Warren famously presented her innumerable plans in the presidential election of 2020, there was little concept of choice. The choice was hers. It was up to Americans to decide whether her choices were better for their lives than hers. It often gives me faith in the American people that a Democratic Party electorate soundly rejected her and her plans.
In Free to Choose, a book written some 40 years ago, Milton and Rose Friedman explain how our freedom has been eroded and our affluence undermined through the explosion of law, regulations, agencies, and spending in Washington. Before George W. Bush’s Drug benefit of 2004, Obamacare in 2010, higher tariffs imposed by Donald Trump, and the recently passed infrastructure bill. “A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality. Though a by-product of freedom, greater equality is not an accident. A free society releases the energies and abilities of people to pursue their objectives. It prevents some people from arbitrarily suppressing others. It does not prevent some people from achieving positions of privilege, but so long as freedom is maintained, it prevents those positions of privilege from becoming institutionalized; they are subject to continued attack by other able, ambitious people. Freedom means diversity but also mobility. It preserves the opportunity for today's disadvantaged to become tomorrow's privileged and, in the process, enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a fuller and richer life.”
The yearnings of the peasantry of England for greater freedom over their lives and for greater justice from their government were understandable. Liberty and freedom are not cultural and societal, but as John Locke noted, natural inclinations. What released these aspirations was the opportunity wrought by the Black Death.
In terms of supply and demand, the plague horrifically created an imbalance of a small collection of labor against the increasing demand by a voracious and often tyrannical regime. Yet, as the peasants placed their trust in a 14-year-old who happened to have power due to an accident of birth, they also showed a human trait: running to safety and avoiding risk. A prudent person seeks substantial shelter and safety, without question when a storm breaks. The risk of not doing so is death. An imprudent person seeks safety, without question, from governmental officials.
I am not suggesting that those who resist governmental overreach will share the same fate as Wat Tyler. But when Richard exacted his vengeance against the temerity of his peasantry, did, in his heart, he think he was doing what was best for his realm? Because we know he was really doing what was best for him.