Rereading the Revolt

From Public Books:

“Away with the learning of the clerks,” shouted Margery Starre, “away with it.” In May 1381, Starre and rebels like her were burning university documents at Cambridge, then scattering the ashes to the wind. Across England, they were burning other documents, too: landholding records, tax receipts, judicial testimonies, and title deeds.

An English dress rehearsal for the French Revolution, the events of the tumultuous summer of 1381 began in Essex when a group of villagers refused to pay a widely hated poll tax. The movement spread through Kent and ultimately converged on London. There, the rebels burned down the Savoy Palace; beheaded the king’s treasurer and the archbishop of Canterbury; and presented King Richard II with a series of demands, including the abolition of serfdom, fixed rents, and the seizure of church goods. Richard acceded, but once the threat to London was under control, he had the rebel leaders executed and revoked his royal charters granting their requests.

The story of this failed rebellion was told, as histories usually are, by the winners, or rather, by men on their side. Two of the main sources for the Peasants’ Revolt are from the very clerks the rebels hated: these are chronicles written by Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St. Alban’s, and Henry Knighton, an Augustinian canon of the Abbey of Saint Mary de Pratis. The chroniclers were horrified by the violence of the revolt, but they were also outraged at what they perceived as an attack on learned, literate culture—that is, on intellectuals like them.

To the chroniclers, the rebels were ignorant and bestial. But with some important exceptions, this is not how the rebels behaved during the revolt. The group that torched the Savoy was careful not to steal anything from it, even killing one of their own after he tried to take a silver dish. In other attacks on powerful institutions and residences, the rebels acted in a way they felt was both strategic and just.

The vanquished rebels made history, but they did not get to write it. Still, an echo of their voices was preserved in the chronicles: six short letters in English. And it is these letters that are the subject of Steven Justice’s investigation in Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381.

I first read Justice’s Writing and Rebellion shortly after arriving at Yale to do a PhD in English literature. That was some 17 years ago. Back then, I found the book exhilarating: it gave a voice to people outside traditional bastions of power.

These days, I’m more conflicted. I have become like one of the “clerks” the rebels derided. I think more often about how much blood it takes to water a revolution. As frustrated as I am with universities on a regular basis, these institutions brought me in, taught me their languages, showed me how long it takes to build structures that can fall in a day. Maybe what I find so troubling about revisiting Writing and Rebellion is the recognition that the past is a place where academics like myself can effortlessly imagine ourselves speaking for the powerless, without worrying about what those we consider powerless might say back to us.

. . . .

Opening the copy of Writing and Rebellion now shelved in my office, I find personal reflections penciled in the margins among my other notes. As I worked through the book 17 years ago, I wrote down the lyrics of the songs playing in the coffee shop as I read. When Marvin Gaye sang, “Natural fact is / Oh honey that I can’t pay my taxes,” it must have resonated with the rebels’ refusal to continue to be subject to extortionate taxation, because I scribbled it in. The margin of page 56 is full of smudged cursive recording in detail not one, but two disappointments in love of which I had been reminded as I was hunting down the book’s references in Sterling Memorial Library. I wrote, too, how these two pale shadows of heartbreak opened the floodgates to another emotion, the sorrow over my parents’ divorce that I had not allowed myself to feel until that spring.

A two-time immigrant, I wasn’t the first person to feel out of place at a university with a fancy name, nor the last. Certainly, I’d had the advantage of Canada’s public school system and (I would say today) of being white and middle-class. But back then, the polished manners of my fellow graduate students often made me wonder whether I could add anything to the long, grammatically correct sentences winding around the seminar table, other than “Me like poetry, poetry pretty.”

Like the other students, my professors seemed to think naturally in abstract nouns. I, on the other hand, bubbled with unfocused enthusiasm for the literature that told me the story of my life. In one first-year seminar, I ran out of the room holding back tears: during a discussion of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, I recognized my parents’ ruptured marriage in the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, truth that came a little too close to the bone.

I didn’t have the scientific detachment of a good scholar. At first, this gave me a sense of freedom: given how evident it was that I would never land a job in academe, I could enjoy reading books on Yale’s dime. Studying literature was a luxury no one in my family had enjoyed. But as time wore on, the institution began to shape both me and my desires. Without consciously intending to become the kind of person who would fit into the academic world, I began learning the language that would help me to do so. That language was theory.

And so it was in a seminar called Medieval Texts and Modern Theory that I read Writing and Rebellion, which, looking back, was almost poetically fitting. Steven Justice’s 1994 monograph is about people outside of learned institutions, people whose way of expressing themselves is pointed and resonant, even if it does not use elite language.

Link to the rest at Public Books