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Apr 18, 2011

The peasants are revolting. No, really, they are!

Peasants tend to be overlooked by writers and fans of medieval history. They're generally fobbed off as dirty, uneducated, miserable victims of the nobility. Yet at times the peasants struck back. Starting in the 14th century there was a wave of peasant rebellions across Europe. Partly this was due to the effects of the Black Death in the middle of the century. This plague killed about a third of the population, leading to a labor shortage that helped the peasants ask for higher wages, fewer duties, and even more freedom. The nobility pushed back, enacting laws that tried to limit the peasants' gains.

While this was the broad background of the struggle, there was always a specific spark that set off a rebellion in a certain place. During the Hundred Years War in France, the peasants were robbed and abused by both sides and were unimpressed when the French knights were defeated at Poitiers. When these same knights commanded the peasants to protect their stately homes, the peasants rose up in revolt in 1358. The revolt was crushed, as you can see in the picture above courtesy of Wikipedia, but more revolts happened in 1382-5 in response to increased taxes to pay for the war effort.

England had one of the most serious revolts in 1381, in which the rebels took the Tower of London and almost the capital itself. This was in response to a new poll tax and a lack of confidence in the regency government for the boy-king Richard II. Germany was especially prone to revolt. At this time it was a patchwork of different states and the lack of a strong central ruler and army may have encouraged the peasants. There were more than 60 rebellions between 1336 and 1526. The biggest was the German Peasants' War of 1524-6, in which an estimated 300,000 peasants took up arms against their rulers.

In general the peasant rebellions were quickly crushed. Peasant armies lacked the weapons, armor, and training to take on trained soldiers and knights. A major exception was the Hussite Wars of 1419-36. When Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus was assassinated at what was supposed to be a peaceful religious debate, his followers rose up against what they saw as a corrupt church and German aristocracy.The Hussites, as they called themselves, actually fought off the local nobles and the Holy Roman Empire by the clever strategy of constructing "war wagons"--armored wagons that functioned as mobile fortresses that could stop a charge of knights.

While these were truly "peasants rebellions", other people joined in too. Impoverished townspeople, merchants, and even a few sympathetic (or opportunistic) aristocrats supported many of the rebellions. These episodes make for fascinating reading and can create an interesting backdrop for wargames, RPGs, or fiction.

So don't abuse that peasant too much, mi'lord, otherwise he might use his sickle as a can opener and see what's inside all that armor!

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