Popular revolt in late medieval Europe

Popular revolts in late medieval Europe were uprisings and rebellions by (typically) peasants in the countryside, or the bourgeois in towns, against nobles, abbots and kings during the upheavals of the 14th through early 16th centuries, part of a larger "Crisis of the Late Middle Ages". Although sometimes known as "Peasant Revolts", the phenomenon of popular uprisings was of broad scope and not just restricted to peasants.


Before the 14th century, popular uprisings were not unknown (e.g., uprisings at a manor house against an unpleasant overlord), but they were local in scope. This changed in the 14th and 15th centuries when new downward pressures on the poor resulted in mass movements of popular uprisings across Europe. To provide an example of how common and widespread these movements became, in Germany between 1336 and 1525 there were no less than sixty phases of militant peasant unrest. [Peter Blickle, "Unruhen in der ständischen Gesellschaft 1300-1800", 1988]

Most of the revolts were an expression of those below who desired to share in the wealth, status, and well being of those more fortunate. In the end they were almost always defeated and the nobles ruled the day. A new attitude emerged in Europe, that "peasant" was a pejorative concept, it was something separate, and seen in a negative light, from those who had wealth and status. This was an entirely new social stratification from earlier times when society had been based on the three orders, those who work, pray and fight, when being a peasant meant being next to God, just as the other orders, now peasants were seen as almost sub-human.


There were five main reasons for these mass uprisings including 1) an increasing gap between the wealthy and poor, 2) declining incomes of the wealthy, 3) rising inflation and taxation, 4) the external crises of famine, plague and war, and 5) religious backlashes.

Rich and poor

The first reason was because the social gap between rich and poor had become more extreme. The origins of this change can be traced to the 12th century and the rise of the concept of "nobility". How one dressed, behaved, manners, courtesy, how one spoke, what one ate, education, all became a part of the noble class making them distinct from others. By the 14th century the nobles had indeed become very different in their behavior, appearance and values from those "beneath".

In urban centers, the early capitalist enterprises connected with long-distance trade and the textile industry had given rise to an urban underclass who were prone to riot in times when the price of bread was high. The perpetual apprentices who could not purchase a mastership in the tightly-controlled guilds were quick to express their resentment, and in university cities, students might be enlisted.


The second reason was a crisis for the nobles with declining income. By 1285 inflation had become rampant (in part due to population pressures) and nobles charged rent based on customary fixed rates, based on the Feudal system, so as the price of goods and services rose (from inflation), the income of nobles remained stagnant (effectively dropping). To make matters worse, the nobles had become accustomed to a more luxurious lifestyle that required more money. To address this nobles illegally raised rents, cheated, stole, and sometimes resorted to outright violence to take what they wanted.


Thirdly, kings needed money to finance wars and resorted to devaluing currency, by cutting silver and gold coins with less precious metal, which resulted in increased inflation and in the end, increased taxations.

External crisis

Fourth, the 14th century crisis of famine, plague and war put additional pressures on those on the bottom. The plague drastically reduced the numbers of people who were workers and producing the wealth.


Finally, layered on top of this was a popular ideological view of the time that property, wealth and inequality was against the teachings of God, as expressed through the teachings of the Franciscans. The sentiment of the time was probably best expressed by preacher John Ball during the English Peasant Revolt when he said "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?". In other words, "gentleman" are nobles, all men are equal before God. It was a cry for a leveling of society where no man is above any other.

Notable rural revolts

*The Peasant revolt in Flanders 1323-1328. Beginning as a series of scattered rural riots in late 1323, peasant insurrection escalated into a full-scale rebellion that dominated public affairs in Flanders for nearly five years.
*The St. George's Night Uprising of 1343-1345 in Estonia.
*The Jacquerie was a peasant revolt that took place in northern France in 1356-1358, during the Hundred Years' War.

*The English peasants' revolt of 1381 or Great Rising of 1381 is a major event in the history of England. It is the best documented and best known of all the revolts of this period.

*The Budai Nagy Antal Revolt broke out in Transylvania in 1437. The military tactics of the rebels were inspired by the Hussites wars (for example, the use of battle wagons).

*The Kent rebellion of 1450 led by Jack Cade.

*The Rebellion of the Remences in Catalonia in 1462 and 1485.

*The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 in Cornwall and London.

*The 1514 peasant's war led by György Dózsa in the Kingdom of Hungary.

*The Slovenian peasant revolt of 1515 was a peasant revolt which engulfed most of what is now Slovenia.

*The Knight's Revolt of 1522-1523 in Germany.

*The Peasants' War of 1524-1526 in the Holy Roman Empire.

*The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 in England.

*The Dacke Feud of 1542 in Sweden.

*The Wyatt's rebellion of 1554 in England.

*The Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 in Cornwall and Devon.

*The Croatian and Slovenian peasant revolt of 1573 was a large peasant revolt in Croatia.

*The Club War uprising 1596 in Finland.

*The peasant wars of Ivan Bolotnikov and Stenka Razin in the 17th-century Russia.

*The Swiss peasant war of 1653.

Notable urban revolts

*The Zealots, Thessalonica, Byzantine Empire, 1342-1350.
*The revolt of Cola di Rienzi in central Italy in 1354.
*The Revolt of the Ciompi in 1378 in Florence.
*The Hammermen's revolt in Rouen and Paris in 1382.
*The Revolt of the Germanies from 1519–1523 in Aragon.
*The Revolt of the Comuneros from 1520–1521 in Castile.


Different historians will use different terms to describe these events.


The word "peasant", since the 14th century (or even before), has a pejorative meaning and is not a neutral term. However, it was not always that way; peasants were once viewed as pious and seen with respect and pride. Life was hard for peasants, but life was hard for everyone. As nobles increasingly lived better quality lives, there arose a new consciousness of those on top and those on bottom, and the sense that being a peasant was not a position of equality. This new consciousness coincided with the popular uprisings of the 14th century.

Recent research by Rodney Hilton in the 1970s showed that the English Peasant Revolt of 1381 [Rodney Hilton, "Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Peasant Rising of 1381"] (or Great Rising) was led not by peasants, but by those who would be the most affected by increased taxation: the merchants who were neither wealthy, but not poor either. Indeed, these revolts were often accompanied by landless knights, excommunicated clerics and other members of society who might find gain or have reason to rebel. Although these were popular revolts, they were often organized and led by people who would not have considered themselves peasants.

Peasants is typically a term used for rural agrarian poor while many uprisings occurred within towns and cities by tradesmen, thus the term is not fully encompassing of events as a whole for the period.

For historical writing purposes, many modern historians will use the word "peasant" with care and respect, choosing other phrases such as "Popular" or "from below" or "grassroots", although in some countries in central and eastern Europe where serfdom continued up to the 19th century in places, the word peasant is still used by some historians as the main description of these events.


Further reading

*Mollat and Wolff, "The Popular Revolutions of the Late Middle Ages", 1973 ISBN 0-04-940041-X
*Fourquin, "The Anatomy of Popular Rebellion", 1978 ISBN 0-444-85006-6
*Samuel K. Cohen, Jr., ed. and trans., "Popular Protest in Late Medieval Europe: Italy, France and Flanders, Selected Sources Translated and Annotated", Manchester University Press, 2004.

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