Years of Protest

The last days of the year are always a time for reflection and assessment, perhaps personally but certainly by the media.  So far, all of the pieces that I have seen on television and in print characterize 2011 as a “year of protest”, following Time magazine’s “Protester” Person of the Year.  Like all historians, I find agitation attractive because it signals a time of (exciting) change rather than (boring) continuity, but I’m not certain that this is the case with 2011 yet.  Everyone seems so distracted by their various electronic devices, and protesting (and change) takes real engagement.  Perhaps this is too American a view, but 2011 doesn’t look quite like 1968, or 1789, or the 177os, or the 1640s, or the 1520s, or the very rebellious period of 1378-1381.

This last (or first) era of rebellion, culminating in the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, did not really result in change but was exiting nonetheless for its novelty:  the 99 percent seldom rebelled against the 1 percent in the Middle Ages.  But the fourteenth century changed everything, bringing forth famine, plague, war and schism in intense degrees and leaving its survivors with nothing left to lose and everything to gain.  Abandoned by their Church and very conscious of their bargaining power in a world that had lost over 30% of its laborers to the Black Death, the peasants of England marched on London to seek an audience with King Richard II after the imposition of what they perceived as unfair taxes and wage restrictions.  With the charismatic Wat Tyler and John Ball leading them onwards, they got their audience with the young King (slaughtering the Archbishop of Canterbury along the way), but were defeated soon afterwards.

The preacher John Ball leading the peasants, the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Richard confronts the peasants, all from the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, British Library MS Royal 18 E I, circa 1483.

In retrospect, the English Peasants Revolt illustrated, rather than caused, change, but its message, articulated best by a speech attributed to Ball in which he speaks of “liberty” and asks the rhetorical question when Adam delved and Eve span who was then the Gentleman survived and was revived in the modern era, when it reflected even more change.

Edward Burne-Jones illustration for William Morris’s Dream of John Ball, 1888.

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