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May Day this year I was in Bristol speaking on Magna Carta to the Radical History Society which is underpinned by some of the men and women footballers, netballers, and cricketers called the Easton Cowboys. And I met with friends to exchange views on ‘the commons’ or commoning, treating the idea as a protection or as a response to the cupidity of our privatizing times. But we didn’t get as far as we’d hoped.
And now here it is mid-June: the summer heat’s approaching, gasoline is high, homes are being foreclosed, the prisons are stuffed, and the G8 is up to no good in Tokyo. June ‘teenth in American history was the day when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, June 19th 1865, two and a half years late, and it makes me think about a similar day in English history, June 15th, almost an emancipation.
It is the anniversary of Magna Carta sworn to by King John on June 15, 1215. It is also the anniversary of another charter, this one proposed by Wat Tyler, a leader of the Peasant’s Revolt until he was assassinated on June 15, 1381. The English people expressed a preference that the 15 June be made a national day to remember Magna Carta, though – who knows? – some may have been thinking of Wat Tyler and the great uprising against bondage and the Poll Tax. But isn’t one of these dates enough, and surely Magna Carta is sufficient to the day?
Its habeas corpus, its trial by jury, its prohibition of torture, and its due process of law surely are fine banners and colorful pennons which in the lists of law can carry the day against those escutcheons devised by thin-lipped sycophants to hide the tyrant – “executive privilege,” “inherent power,” “executive agreement,” “extraordinary rendition,” “state secret privilege,” “military commissions,” “total information awareness,” “the presidential prerogative,” “signing statements” – all those weird knobs and bosses to make the Unitary Executive Theory seem an invulnerable, horrid shield against the Congress and Constitution, against Magna Carta or the media. And don’t we now have a brave champion in Barack Obama, a knight in shining armor like the young JFK and Camelot of yore who will topple them all and return us to the “trew commons”?
Chapter 39 of Magna Carta will remain quaintly antiquarian unless we bring with it an understanding, first, of the benefit emergency despotism provides to imperial economics, and second, of the power of direct action by people of our “kynde.” The Peasants’ Revolt helps us to remember the actual commons and its agents, the real commoners, which is why the 15 June may be celebrated for Magna Carta but it should be named for Wat Tyler.
I took the train through the west Midlands to Worcester to visit the sometime Communist, the generous and hospitable Dorothy Thompson, a great scholar of Chartism, and here’s a Chartist song:
For Tyler of old,
A heart-chorus bold,
Let Labour’s children sing
Anyway, the train passed the Malvern Hills in whose shadow I used to live back in 1971 with Dorothy and her husband, Edward. I remember walking up the Malvern Hills on a sunny June day with some friends including an Italian comrade. On attaining the summit we gazed to the west upon “England’s green and pleasant land” (Hereford and Shropshire) and when I asked the revolutionary visitor (a partisan of Lotta Continua, a theorist of Potere Operaia) what it was that he saw in this lovely landscape, he startled me with the simplicity of his answer. “Money.”
It is an answer that a man of the Malverns, William Langland, author of Piers Plowman would have understood for not only did his allegorical satire of the 1370s denounce clerical fraudulence and legal chicanery, but he took particular aim at King Penny as ‘the almighty dollar’ was known. In my day Malvern was some combination of a bedroom community for Birmingham corporate managers, a settlement for retired military and imperial chappies, and a taciturn farming and service personnel.
William Langland was a 14th century man who came to London where he lived in poverty with his wife, Kit. Educated as a cleric he made his living by keeping vigil, reciting orisons, and saying prayers for rich folks; otherwise, by begging, unfit on account of his height (he said), for work bending over in the fields.
There are fifty-seven surviving manuscript versions of the poem, seventeen of them produced before 1400. The poem was meant to be recited, it was an oral culture, and it preceded the age of print by more than a century. It was talked about enough that the name, “Piers Plowman”, was taken up by the insurgents in the great Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Like the English Bible of John Wyclif which was translated at approximately at the same time, lollards passed manuscripts around, mumbling or muttering the contents, hence their name. Plebeian utterance has always been a problem to ruling class ears, especially then when the former was English and the latter either Latin or Norman-French.
“For human intelligence is like water, air, and fire – it cannot be bought or sold. These four things the Father of Heaven made to be shared on earth in common. They are Truth’s treasures, free for the use of all honest men, and no one can add to them or diminish them without God’s will.” I quote from the Goodridge prose translation of William Langland, Piers the Ploughman (Penguin 1959), lines which Lewis Hyde has helped me gloss. The poem was written in Middle English and I’ve quoted from its Book VII lines 53-56 which reads, “Thise ben Treuthes tresores trewe folke to helpe.”
Midsummer traditionally is the beginning of harvest time, the most labor intensive time of year. The festival of Corpus Christi in the Christian calendar was a new feast, proclaimed by the Pope in 1317, with the Eucharistic host held high. Corpus Christi fraternities formed in 1350s came elaborate processions taking place out doors. “The element of disorder, the excitement of a populous event, percolated and erupted in a variety of ways,” says its historian Rubin, and the peasants said “indeed”.
The central ritual of the Christian is the miracle of the mass or communion celebrating the last supper of Jesus with his disciples. He held up bread saying eat this as a symbol/as remembrance/as my body. The peasantry might easily construe this mystery the other way around, not as a mystery of consumption (transubstantiating bread into body) but as one of production when mowing, ploughing, weeding, harrowing, reaping, harvesting, binding, threshing, carting, milling, kneading, and baking works the body into bread.
Keeping body and soul together was a cooperative labor and visible to all. Strip-farming in open-field agriculture required intensive ad-hoc cooperation, to share the plow, coordinate of grazing, to use of balklands, to distribute wastes, above all, to glean. Bye-laws were “by common consent,” and relied on customs older than feudalism. When the communities, the neighborhood, brought out from the fields by the tocsin marched through the highways and by-ways they elevated the bread high stuck on the trines of a long-handled pitch fork.
The Victorian historian, Stubbs in his Constitutional History of England, wrote that “the rising of the commons is one of the most portentous phenomena to be found in the whole of our history.” Langland helps us understand the social forces producing this most portentous phenomenon. Piers Plowman begins:
And on a May morning, on Malvern Hills,
There befell me as by magic a marvelous thing …
A fair field full of folk I found between them
Of human beings of all sorts, the high and the low,
Working and wandering as the world requires.
The prologue commence with themes of hierarchy and class composition. Those who work and those who wander. We used to begin the work of class composition with the antagonism of town and country: under what circumstances will peasants ally with the workers of the towns? The tension which Langland asks us to examine is between work and wandering. Work consisted of forms of bondage and the workers were named variously thralls, rustics, churls, villeins, vulgar, and serfs. They were forced to work. Rodney Hilton tells us that more than half of the population consisted of small-holders, divided roughly between those who owned plough teams and those who had to hire themselves out to live. The problems of his society concerned the price and terms of labor power. The “worker” like the “good subject” both logically and chronologically antecedent to the invention of the idle vagrant as an ideological deployment. The transition from wage inflation to vagrancy or social mobility was the moral panic of 1360s.
England’s population was reduced by the Bubonic Plague of 1347-1350 (one in three perished), its wealth was depleted by three crippling poll taxes (a tax man molested Wat Tyler’s daughter), the Hundred Years War against France began to bleed the country white, and England was led by the unpopular the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. Those who did not exercise lordship in the countryside or authority in the towns rose against tax collectors and cunning lawyers to defend their commons. The combination of military disasters and war taxation converted anxiety to action. Those refusing to pay were imprisoned. England exploded in 1381.
Statute of Laborers (1351) obliged workers to work at low wages on pain of imprisonment. The rates were as follows: one penny a day for weeding or hay making, reapers two pence a day, mowers five pence a day, tilers threepence a day and their boys a penny halfpenny, same with thatchers, and none with food or drink. Piers Plowman moves from questions of governance to questions of sustenance. A 14th century labor statute mandated that all “artificers and craftsmen as well as servants and apprentices who are not of great account” were to be forced to serve in harvest at cutting, gathering and bringing in the corn.”
The tension between mobility and stability was taut within the crowds of the commons. Piers plowman is the figure for stability; his is the hand on the plow, he keeps his eye on the prize, the straight furrow. He follows daily labor; he rolls with the rhythms of the seasons. By contrast, the figure of mobility is the vagabond, the person who lolls, idles, or loiters, the one who rests at ease. It overlaps with the lollard, the semi-monastic cleric who was derided on the one hand as heretical, on the other hand, who cares for the sick. The “gyrovage” was the wandering monk, strolled from monastery to monastery crashing where he was inclined, who brought the religious into every day life – a hippie. John Ball was such a mendicant, a lay hermit, scorned as a drifter, a layabout, a good-for-nothing. Dobson calls him part of “the ecclesiastical proletariat.” His letters were broadsides, attached to public places. The letters says Walsingham the contemporary chronicler were found “in the garment of a man about to be hanged.”
The What of the Who, Or Identity Politics
Last month in Bristol we were temporarily stymied by the question of “identity politics” (white/black, male/female). Who were we to speak for all? We didn’t have an answer. How were the problems approached in the 14th century? We are at the birth of bourgeois individualism, the modern ego, and the civil name. For baptism, confession, marriage, one name was enough. But for “civil society” – taxation, military service, inheritance of property – another was added.
This is the period of the stabilization of the English surname in its modern form, a heritable paternal addition, by it rights of tenant and free were claimed through time, as the copy holder, and through them access to common rights, or customs of the manor. as surnames were introduced for purposes of taxation and patrilinear inheritance. John Ball, the vagrant priest, and Wat Tyler, a tile-maker, were well-known leaders of the revolt. John Ball was drawn, hanged, and quartered at St. Alban’s on 13 July 1381, his body parts sent for exhibition to four towns of the kingdom. But, outraged by the crimes of the ruling class, I get ahead of myself. John Ball sent a letter to the commons of Essex, followed by a poem. The letter warns the craftsmen to be wary of city tricks, to stand united, to hold faith with the plowman, to rebuke ruling class thieves, and to follow the lead of the true man “and all his fellows”:
“John Schep, sometime Saint Mary’s priest of York, and now of Colchester, greeteth well John Nameless, and John the Miller, and John Carter, and biddeth them that they beware of guile in borough, and stand together in God’s name, and biddeth Piers Plowman go to his work, and chastise well Hob the Robber, and take with you John Trueman, and all his fellows, and no more.”
We come now to the second part of the letter, the poem which begins with a menacing riddle, includes a watchword, continues with a caution, and overall amounts to a combination of performance discourse, a short creed, and revolutionary prayer.
“John the Miller hath ground small, small, small; The King’s sone of heaven shall pay for all. Beware or ye be woe, Know your friend fro your foe, Have enough, and say ho! And do well and better, and flee sin, And seek peace and hold you therein, And pray for John Trueman and all his fellows.”
Shepherd, carter, miller, plowman are preceded by John Nameless. Anonymity is prized. Anonymity was politically essential, as it certainly was to ‘William Langland’ the ‘author’ of the poem whose excoriation of the clergy exposed him to considerable punishment, if they could find him. Anonymity is however incomplete: what is expressed is also a kind of collectivity expressed in opposition to the process of individuation and expropriation.
People are named for types or occupations. But what of the new identity that emerges in the struggle for justice? The victory of the commons must bring with it new kinds of human beings. What kind? The middle English word, “kynde,” perhaps is a clue because it denotes both benevolence, the nature of something, and law. To be unkind is to be unnatural, cruel, and lonely or devoid of the company of others of your class. This concerns class composition, and meaning of kynde, as in human kind, or mankind. It also means benevolence, or solidarity. Philosophically, we might conclude that the notion of commoning is one that neither rests on natural law as we associate with (let us say) the Enlightenment nor with agrarian customs made evident by social history but with a third ground, namely, the law of “kynde.”
Persons of indeterminate status between fictive and actual, whose power lay partly in being unnamed, or unnameable. Anne Middleton calls them confected names and improvised identities and we see what she means. The miller and the carter were essential to an agrarian civilization. These are appeals not to the margin of society but to the center of the social division of labor. They link the settled and the mobile, the worker and the wanderer, the “good subject” and the “vagabond.”
In the past there have been many such figures in English social history, John Trueman, Piers Plowman, John Carter, and Wat Tyler, a tile-maker, are such insurgents from the 14th century. In the 16th century, Lord Pity, Lord Poverty, or Captain Charity. Lady Skimmington in the 17th century. In the 19th century Captain Ludd, Ned Ludd, the brave hero of the handicraftsmen doomed by the steam engines of the industrial revolution. And hovering over the arch of the centuries like a green arbor is the person of Robin Hood, elusive, ecological, avenging, beautiful, and just.
The miller operated the most advanced machine of the day, the water-mill, in rarer cases, wind-mills. More to the point, the peasantry or the commoners, had to take their grain to him and he abused his position. In this case, a time of scarcity, the miller makes the grain go further by grinding small but it is not just the grain ground small – it is you! The King’s son of heaven, Jesus, pays for all by his sacrifice: His mercy is so embracing that in the harrowing of hell he will grant life even to the condemned.
Revolutionary strategy is found in the gnomic letters sent by the priest John Ball. Jack the Miller said, “Look thy mill go aright, with the four sails, and the post stand in steadfastness. With right and with might, with skill and with will, let might keep right, and skill go before will and right before might, then goeth our mill aright. And if might go before right, and will before skill, then is our mill mis-adight.” The machine is taken as the force of the collective.
The Opening of the Prisons, Or “Habeas Corpus” in Action
Country people marched on London, one force from Essex and another from Kent. The gates of the city were opened, the bridge across the river Thames was cleared. If not perfidious aldermen, various of the city workers, called the commons by the chroniclers, enabled the country people to enter the city. Certainly there was sympathy between the lower classes of London and the incoming insurgents who after several days sleeping in the open, hungry and thirsty, were ready of hospitality. Among their first deeds was the opening of the prisons. This was habeas corpus in action comparable to the liberation of defendants in the Fugitive Slave cases. The commoners wanted to get rid of the lawyers, and often in connection with the excarceration of the prisons the crowds searched out legal documentation of their oppressions and destroyed them in the bonfires of the rising. Some of the rebels believed “that the land could not be fully free until the lawyers had been killed.”
I quote from three different chroniclers.
“On this same Wednesday and before the hour of Vespers, the commons of Kent, to the number of sixty thousand, arrived in Southwark where the Marshalsea [prison] was. They broke up and cast to the ground all the houses of the Marshalsea and removed all the prisoners imprisoned there for debt and felony.
“In Fleet Street, the said commons of Kent broke open the Fleet prison, removed all the prisoners and let them go where they would.”
This was on Thursday, Corpus Christi.
“They broke open Westminster prison, and let out all the prisoners condemned by the law. Afterwards they returned to London by way of Holborn, and in front of St Sepulchre’s church … and they broke open Newgate prison, and released all the prisoners, regardless of the reason from which they had been imprisoned.”
They beheaded the Archbishop and Treasurer and paraded the heads around town at the ends of pikes.
Emancipation: Mile End
Tyler united the heterogeneous collection of rebel bands, and marched with them from Blackheath to Southwark across the river to the Tower and by Friday to Mile End. They met just outside the City walls on the road to Essex at a place of play, a ludic location, between city and country where sports and games were held. As The Mile End charter, “Richard, by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all his bailiffs and faithful men to whom these present letters come, greetings. Know that by our special grace we have manumitted all our liegemen, subjects, and others of the country of Hertford; and we have freed and quitted each of them from bondage by the present letters.” Clerks busy that day writing up similar promises parchments in Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Herfordshire. King ordered thirty clerks to start writing sealing the letters for delivery to the commons. On Thursday they called for “a charter to free them from all manner of serfdom.” The King put his signet seal to such a document. On Friday at Mile End they proclaimed “that henceforward no man should be a serf nor make homage or any type of service to any lord, but should give four pence for an acre of land. They asked also that no one should served any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant.”
Henry Knighton, an early chronicler, wrote of the Mile End meeting on Friday. “The king, for the sake of peace and because of the circumstances at the time, granted the commons, at their petititon, a charter under his great seal – declaring that all men in the realm of England should be free and of free condition; they and their heirs should be forever released from the yoke of servitude and villeinage. Here seemed change you could believe in.
So, we arrive at Saturday, June 15, 1381. Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball “had assembled their company to common together in a place called Smithfield.” The chronicler, Thomas Walsingham of St. Albans, says that charters written the day before were unacceptable to Tyler, though they had been written three times. Thus the Smithfield meeting. Walsingham also alleges that Tyler aimed to kill the King.
Wat Tyler did not take precautions against the duplicity of an ambitious municipal politician capable of assassination in the presence of the King, despite the fact that John Ball clearly warned against the “guile in the borough.” Wat Tyler’s mistake was to appeal, mano e mano, to King Richard, only fourteen years old on that tragic 15 June, outside Lud’s gate in Smithfield where only the day before a huge cattle market was held. Now two-footed creatures crowded the scene and one (Tyler) separated himself from his “kynde” and approached the King.
• Wat Tyler at Smithfield “half bent his knee and took the king by the hand, shaking his arm forcefully and roughly, saying to him ‘Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, forty thousand more commons than you have at present, and we shall be good companions.’
• And the king said to Walter, ‘Why will you not go back to your own country?’ But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would leave until they had got their charter as they wished to have it with the inclusion of certain points which they wished to demand. Tyler threatened that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled at the commons’ will.
• Then the king asked him what were the points which he wished to have considered, and he should have them freely and without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Wat rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law except for the law of Winchester [substituted mutilation for hanging as punishment for serious felonies, or claim of same rights as sokemen of the ancient royal demesne] and that henceforward there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship in future, but it should be divided among all men, except for the king’s own lordship.
• He also asked that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance and the rest of their goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements of the possessioners should be taken from them and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance.
• And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom nor villeinage but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the king gave an easy answer, and said that Wat should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. …
• Presently Wat Tyler in the presence of the king sent for a jug of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he felt; and as soon as the water was brought he rinsed out his mouth in a very rude and villainous manner before the king. And then he made them bring him a jug of ale, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the king, climbed on his horse again.”
Lordship depended on extraction of surplus from the peasantry. The serf was obliged to give boons, or corvées, or days of labor to the lord. The abolition of lordship was an abolition of surplus-labor, and thus the basis of surplus-value. Not only would feudalism fall but capitalism would have no basis. That is the significance of the charter proposed by Wat Tyler.
“The rebels petitioned the king that all preserves of water, parks, and woods should be made common to all: so that throughout the kingdom the poor as well as the rich should be free to take game in water, fish ponds, woods and forests as well as to hunt hares in the fields – and to do these and many other things without impediment. Says that as the King paused to consider, Tyler seized the bridle of his horse, and Walworth fearing danger knocked him in the gutter with his baselard. He perished “while his hands and feet quivered for some time. Then an enormous wailing broke out….” Wat Tyler was assassinated by William Walworth, Lord Mayor, whose riches derived from the “stews,” or the young Flemish sex workers in Southwark. Tom Paine called him “a cowardly assassin.”
The Who of the What; Or, the “Trew Commons”
While the class consciousness is direct and blunt, these common peasants seek a justice that is accomplished with moderation, peace, and fleeing from sin. Central to the author’s outlook is the affinity between divinity and necessity. To Langland the theory of the commons derives from that relationship.
Communism may be theoretical (ideal) or practical (customary). It is the ideal of “having all things in common.” Aye, the phrase appears first in John Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible, and it is not far off, five hundred years later, from the wording of Karl Marx either. It is theoretical and we contrast it with the actual. When the actual is threatened or destroyed, as in the 1380s, again in the 1540s, the 1640s and 1790s, or in our era, then people are reminded of the other, the one that consists of dreams, theories, ideals, hopes, fantasies, theologies, and we can imagine realistically, as Massimo De Angelis has put it, the beginning of history.
At the beginning of Piers Plowman a fair lady wakes the sleeping author that the Tower on the hill represents Truth who “commanded the earth to provide wool and linen and food, enough for everyone to live in comfort and moderation. And of his goodness he ordained three things in common, which are all that your body requires: clothing to protect you from cold, food to keep you from want, and drink when you are thirsty.”
The manuscript versions thus appeared during the first great peasants revolt in defense of their commons. The printed version of the poem appeared two centuries later in 1550 at the time of the huge revolts of the commons against enclosures, known as Kett’s Rebellion in the east and the Prayer Book Rebellion in the west. It was published by Robert Crowley, the commonwealth man, whose diatribes against greed, enclosure, and egotism are sadly out-of-print.
“Need, who knows no law and is indebted to no one. For to keep alive, there are three things which Need takes without asking. The first is food; for if men refuse to give him any, and he has no money, nothing to pawn, and no one to guarantee him, then he seizes it for himself. And there he commits no sin, even if he uses deceit to get it. He can take clothing in the same way, provided he has no better payment to offer; Need is always ready to bail a man out of prison for that. And thirdly, if his tongue is parched, the law of his nature [“the lawe of kynde”] compels him to drink at every ditch rather than die of thirst. So in great necessity, Need may help himself, without consulting Conscience or the Cardinal Virtues – provided he keep the Spirit of Moderation.” Crowley occasionally inserts printed comments in the margin. He does so for instance in the last book, lines 10-22.
What liberti need giveth
Need resembles divinity in humility, and he quotes Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have their holes, the birds their roosts; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The same chapter warns against treating this theology of hunger, cold, and thirst with the pagan doctrine of communism spouted by Envy and propounded by Seneca “that all things on this earth should be held in common.” William Langland was not a doctrinaire communist because as doctrine the notion of commons violates the requirements of fortitude, justice, and prudence and arises from either immoderate envy or academic pride.
Yet ever since you find such ideal commoning or leveling every century or two. A play about the revolt, Jack Straw, was performed in 1593.
… all mankind are equal, is most true;
Ye came as helpless infants to the world:
Ye feel alike the infirmities of nature;
And at last moulder into common clay.
Why then these vain distinctions! – bears not the earth
Food in abundance? – must your granaries
O’erflow with plenty, while the poor man starves?
Sir Judge, why sit you there clad in your furs?
Why are your cellars stor’d with choicest wines?
Your larders hung with dainties, while your vassal,
As virtuous, and as able too by nature,
Tho’ by your selfish tyranny depriv’d
Of mind’s improvement, shivers in his rags,
And starves amid the plenty he creates.
I have said this is wrong, and I repeat it –
And there will be a time when this great truth
Shall be confess’d – be felt by all mankind.
Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem written in three days in the summer of 1794.
Neighbors, neighbors, the weakest now a dayes goes to the wall,
But marke my words, and follow the counsel of John Ball.
England is growne to such a passe of late,
That rich men triumph to see the poore beg at their gate.
But I am able by good scripture before you to prove,
That God doth not this dealing allow nor love,
But when Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then a Gentleman.
Brethren, brethren, it were better to have this communitie,
Than to have this difference in degrees:
The landlord his rent, the lawyer his fees.
So quickly the poore mans substance is spent,
But merrily with the world it went,
When men eat berries of the hawthorne tree,
And thou helpe me, I’ll helpe thee,
There was no place for surgerie,
And old men knew not usurie:
Now tis come to a wofull pass,
The Widow that hath but a pan of brasse,
And scarce a house to hide her head,
Sometimes no penny to buy her bread,
Must pay her Landlord many a groat,
Or twil be puld out of her throat:
Brethren thine so might I thrive,
As I wish not to be alive,
To see such dealings with extremitie,
The Rich have all, the poore live in miserie:
But follow the counsel of John Ball,
I promise you I love yee all:
And make division equally,
Of each mans goods indifferently,
And rightly may you follow Armes,
To rid you from these civill harmes.
Or you find it in William Morris, The Dream of John Ball (1886) or Steve Gooch, Will Wat? If Not, What Will? (1973).
Conclusion: The Blue Plaque
Tom Paine concluded his concise account of the rising, “If the Barons merited a monument to be erected in Runnymede, Tyler merits one in Smithfield.” In London today there is no blue plaque attached at Smithfield, or at Mile End, or Southwark to remember this medieval worker who called the King “brother” and called for emancipation from serfdom. However, in the coat-of-arms of the City of London there is the image of the dark dagger of assassination. When the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, answered his executioners, he asked that his epitaph not be written until his country was free. Memorializations can be a second death.
Although the rebels conceived of themselves as a mysterious Magna Societas no evidence has yet come to light expressing consciousness that they linked themselves to the Magna Carta. Magna Carta succeeded because the ascendant classes after civil war formed a historical bloc of forces which provided a basis of intra-ruling-class resolution. They killed the poll tax, not even Margaret Thatcher could bring it back. From our perspective Magna Carta can hardly be called a success, and the Peasant’s Revolt appears to have been, if not the “historically unnecessary catastrophe” which Dobson avers, then it was the portent which Stubbs named, a portent whose promise is unfulfilled.
What about all that scribbling at Mile End and Smithfield, all those charters, all that emancipation?
The king’s fingers were crossed, and later he made known his “signing statement”. “Miserable and detested men, who have sought to be your lord’s equals, you are not worthy to live. You were and are serfs, and you will remain in bondage not as before, but incomparably viler. For as long as we live, we shall do our utmost with all faculties at our disposal to suppress you, so that the rigor of your servitude will serve as an example to posterity. Both now and in the future people like yourselves will always have your misery before your eyes like a mirror, so that you will be cursed by them and they will fear to do as you have done.” It expresses the policy of state-sponsored terrorism and human devaluation. Guantánamo. Abu Ghraib. Katrina….
(In gathering these remembrances I thank the high-spirited attention of Lou, Jason, Christina, Cody, Brandee, Dex, Damon, Steve, Neale, Kelsey, and Mackenzie, students, athletes, and veterans at the University of Toledo.)
PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of The London Hanged, The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and The Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Anon., The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1593) reprinted by Tudor Facsimile Texts, edited by John S. Farmer (London, 1911)
Warren O. Ault, “By-Laws by Common Consent,” Speculum, vol. 29, no. 2 (April 1954)
Massimo De Angelis, The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital (Pluto: London, 2007)
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Steve Gooch, Will Wat? If Not What Will? (Pluto Press: London, 1973)
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Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791 and 1792)
William Morris, The Dream of John Ball (1886-1887)
Charles Oman, Great Revolt of 1381 (Oxford, 1906)
Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy (Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2008)