Friday, September 16, 2022

Justine Firnhaber-Baker & Dirk Schoenaers - The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt

The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt is an important tool for everyone interested in "revolt" in the Middle Ages and more generally. I deliberately put revolt in quotes here because what the word means is quite different to how contemporaries might have understood it. Conditioned as we are by modern capitalism we tend to see revolt as being "from below", a challenge to the political status quo, or the state through diverse mechanisms. 

This doesn't quite fit in the Medieval era, as revolt took on different meanings. In her introduction editor Justine Firnhaber-Baker points out that revolts "might not have been construed as such by contemporaries" and taking up a theme that several of the contributions discuss, she points out that "violence is key, for it served not only strategic goals but also as a means of communication in this highly gestural society". In the Medieval era revolts had a number of different aspects that this volume draws out through a study of numerous different periods, events and places. 

Revolts, however they were construed, terrified the Medieval ruling classes. That's one reason why they feature in numerous contemporary accounts - as dire warnings to potential rebellious group and to the lords and kings who might provoke uprisings through misgovernance. But as Firnhaber-Baker explains  studies of revolts only really began systematically with the "Age of Revolution" drawing parallels between historic events and contemporary revolutions. Similarly more recent studies have tended to follow contemporary radical events and she says that more recent "popular movements" from the anti-capitalist movements to the Arab Spring have galvanised renewed interest. As such she argues that the book "embodies a particular historiographical moment" which should provoke interest far beyond the academic authors and audiences of the book.

Consisting as it does of eighteen essays, excluding the opening and closing chapters, it would be difficult to review this book in any detail. Some of the articles cover topics with which I am familiar such as the English Rising of 1381, others cover more general topics such as Samuel Cohn's fascinating study of Women in revolt in medieval and early modern Europe. Still others cover subjects which were entirely new too me such as Hipólito Rafael Oliva Herrer's article on the War of the Communities of Castile. All of them are however readable to the non expert, even if we are likely to miss nuance.

Many of the essays grapple with problems of language, historical distance and how to use sources. Myles Lavan's article on revolt in the early Roman Empire explores how to understand the very meaning of rebellion, as well as its scale, when often all historians have about events are "10 to 20 words in one or two texts". He does so by taking apart the meanings of Latin vocabulary, and how the contemporary texts wrote about revolts. It is fascinating even for those of us who have no Latin at all! He makes a point that those of us studying revolution today will find all to familiar. Writings about rebellions are always shaped by a political framework that wants to demonise events and participants. As Lavan says, "the distortions of elitist discourse on peasant revolt... include not just the obvious rhetoric of barbarism, criminality, and immorality, which deny legitimacy to the rebels, but also more subtle tropes, such as spontaneity or hysteria, which deny them agency and rationality". Reading contemporary accounts of the 2011 London Riots would easily find you similar examples, and at least one nameless recent book on the Russian Revolution I read invariably describes the Bolsheviks as "incendiary", "brutal" or "fanatical".

Several of the articles explore deeper themes about Medieval life and the origins of social revolt. In his  piece on the 1381 English Rising Andrew Prescott makes a point that the rebellion was both broader in geographical scope and much more "multi layered" in content than is often credited. He argues that a focus on London has distorted how people understand 1381. I myself had understood the "rising" as much more widespread than London, but Prescott's article shows that it was even more geographically broad than I appreciated. He describes rebel bands criss-crossing the country, and "a concerted attempt to spread the rebellion as far as possible". All of this points to a much more complex understanding of revolt in 1381 than we might expect, as Prescott says, "Just as the structures of political power were more complex and dispersed in the Middle Ages than in modern societies, so likewise the dynamics of conflict and protest were different... and do not accord with modern assumptions." He chastises those historians who see 1381 too simply in terms of events around the capital, neglecting events in the regions. He argues that only by seeing the complexity and scale of events outside of the capital can we really understand the uprising itself. This is undoubtedly true - if we only focus on the capital, we can miss how literarily thousands of groups of rebels tried to redress injustice, challenge their local rulers and take part in mass politics. But we also have to be wary of throwing away the baby alongside the bathwater. London as the centre of state power and wealth was attractive to the rebels in the south-east because it was there they could win fundamental change. Events in London mattered for how the rebellion would play out, even if a narrow focus on London means we can miss learning much more about how the rebels saw the society they lived in. 

Justine Firnhaber-Baker draws out some further details from the economic base when writing on similar issues in her article on the Jacquerie. She discusses the meaning of the nobility and their position in society:
The reason nobles lived in fortresses was because they could physically coerce the peasants into handing over their surplus.. and the reason they could do that was because they were a warrior aristocracy who lived in fortress. This is an oversimplification of the complex and changing situation of the late medieval French nobility, but this nexus of economic, political and military privilege inherent in noblesse seems nonetheless to have been at the heart of the Jacquerie for its rank and file participants.
It was impossible for both classes to escape the reality of their situation. So when revolt did break out, whether it was the "peasants from below", groups of disaffected nobles and lords, or some combination of the two, there invariably was violence. 

This violence was considered part of the political framework of society and thus more accepted as a tool of rebellion. Several writers explore this. In particular Vincent Challet in his piece on Violence as a Political Language in French and English rebellions. Here we see examples of popular violence on many levels, "legal violence" in court, or mass protest involving "shouting and screaming" against officials. I was particularly taken by an example from Lavaur in 1357, where the populares protested by taking up arms and patrolling the streets at night and then "stood in front of the houses of the wealthiest townsmen shouting: 'Where are those damn traitors and wreckers of this place?'" The threat of violence, in this case, leading to victory for the people. That's not to say that actual violence didn't take place - many essays refer to murders, lynching, and even pitched battle - but Challet makes the point that the boundaries between the two were often blurred. 
Physical violence of the sort that might seem more objectionable to us - like murder, arson or even post-mortem mutilation - was perceived as a regular way of speaking, not only for rebels, but also for the elites and government. This may be because these violent actions were, in fact, imitations of judicial procedures: cutting royal officers' bodies into pieces was nothing more than the execution of 'traitors'... burning castles was not so far from the legal abattis demaison which is attested in the urban statues...
In other words, violent action must be understood in a social context not just in terms of the violence itself.

Before I finish I want to highlight a few other essays in passing. Some of the essays take up subjects often ignored or downplayed in histories of the period. I have already mentioned one essay specifically on the role of women, and several essays touch on this further. It is worth noting a fine essay comparing revolt in late medieval European and Islamic societies. Such societies aren't discussed often enough when we consider the period. A couple of essays bridge the period before and after the Medieval era, Phillip Haberkern looking forward to urban revolt in the Reformation, and several of the essays also discuss the complex question of elite participation in revolts from below. Interestingly, one of the great strengths of this collection is how many of the authors try to break out of the very narrow confines of particular specialities and draw links between regions, places and times.

While the book is not aimed at the casual reader, and some of the academic language is challenging, I do highly recommend it. It will, naturally, appeal first and foremost to students of Medieval revolts themselves. For this it will likely remain a gold standard for many years to come. But there is also much here for those trying to understand the politics of social movements more broadly - how they change over time and how they are shaped by their social and economic context. I might not entirely agree with Andrew Prescott's conclusions from his foray into the Arab Spring while discussing the English Rising, but it is important that some scholars are taking this approach. For all these reasons, and more, I hope that many readers will be able to get a copy of this important book and explore these diverse and fascinating essays.

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