Rereading the Revolt

In May 1381, rebels burned documents at Cambridge, then scattered the ashes to the wind. But why were universities targeted by the rebels?

This piece inaugurates an occasional series of essays about “rereading as.” Literary critics from Matei Calinescu to Anne Fadiman to Wendy Lesser to Patricia Spacks have analyzed the rereading of literature, but scholarly monographs are even likelier than novels or poems to be reread over the course of a lifetime by students turned teachers.1 The series will feature before-and-after stories about rediscovering a scholarly book or article on the other side of a child’s birth, a migration across national borders, a medical diagnosis, a change of discipline or of career—events that change the eyes that scan an unchanged page. Stay tuned for more. —Leah Price

“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.


Longing for the Writer’s Space

By Deborah Lutz

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.

I do not forget how dependent I am on the acceptance of others—or how quickly that acceptance can be taken away.

Justice begins his book with the six short letters the rebels left behind. The letters are allusive, enigmatic, symbolic in their diction. Thomas Walsingham recorded one of them, describing it as a letter found in the clothes of a man who was about to be hanged. Henry Knighton included the other five in his narrative but assumed they were speeches—peasants writing to one another seemed unlikely.

Justice tries to show modern scholars what medieval intellectuals could not see: that although most of the rebels were unlikely to know Latin, they did have the literacy they needed. Some could read English literature; many heard it recited. Peasants understood how documents affected their lives and property, even if they could not always read them. Justice argues that the rebels drew on contemporary poetry and theology to develop a common vocabulary, as well as a coherent set of ideas about the proper relationship of church, king, and commoners.

Justice’s most important claim in Writing and Rebellion, one I found exciting 17 years ago and that still appeals when I read it again now, is this: the chroniclers’ conviction that the rebels were irrational, stupid buffoons meant that they did not think to suppress those details of the rising that suggested the opposite. Their ideology not only prevented the clerks from seeing the revolt of 1381 for what it was: it even kept them from understanding the very events they were in the process of describing. Incapable of imagining the “collective life in the countryside” that gave the rebels’ actions their structure and reason, they did not try to hide it. This makes the chroniclers, according to Justice, surprisingly useful for catching glimpses of the lives and imaginative worlds of people whose attempt to craft a more just society failed.

Justice’s readings of the rebel letters showed me the power of simple language. And yet when I open the Word document that contains my seminar presentation on the book, I can barely understand my own prose. It apparently never occurred to me that I should offer the other students some of the basic information they might need to understand the revolt of 1381 or Justice’s claims about it. Did I assume everyone else had the background that I didn’t? Or was I too afraid of coming across as unsophisticated as I felt?

Instead of laying out the main claims of the book clearly and succinctly, I launched into a series of cagey, sidestepping sentences that must have left my listeners dizzy. For some reason now mysterious to me, I brought up “the ideology of the supplement” and went from there to “the rhetoric of subversion.” At some point I did manage to describe the argument of this book—a book with brilliant close readings and a vivid intellectual energy I admired deeply, and still do. But then I found all sorts of reasons to worry about it, fretting that Justice’s generous thinking about history might be “circumscribed by his own love of literature.” This cheap shot makes little sense to me now except as an attempt to strike the pose I thought was expected of me: critical, cool, negligently polysyllabic.

Writing and Rebellion disturbs me in another way today. This is even harder to put into words or, perhaps, to admit.

Part of what makes Justice’s project so compelling is that it restores dignity to a long-oppressed class of people. Justice does so by arguing that the rebels acted intelligently and with a sense of righteousness even when they seemed, to chroniclers, like a wild mob bent on treason, murder, and large-scale destruction. But it is easy to sympathize with people whose political agenda involves beheading public officials when the events took place more than six centuries ago. One thing becomes painfully clear to me as I reread Writing and Rebellion: as reasonable as the 1381 rebels’ demands seem to me now, and as tolerable as their violence is in hindsight, had I lived in their time I would have been on the other side.

Earlier this year, I sat transfixed at my computer and watched an unruly mob take over a government building and endanger the lives of public officials. They did this in the name of “freedom,” but what I saw were people who seemed hateful, terrifying, often ridiculous. I did not hear reports of anyone shouting, “Away with the learning of the clerks, away with it,” but I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had.

Revisiting Writing and Rebellion forced me to recognize not just how little I understand of the people who invaded the Capitol. It also showed me how uninterested I am in decoding the symbolic performances of people who consider me a menace.

Justice understands this. In his book’s epilogue, he reflects on the work of recovering the voices of the rebels and the rural culture the intellectuals of their time could not comprehend. “Most of us … can allow ourselves to listen to those voices,” he concludes, “only because we are not threatened by them, as Walsingham and Knighton were.”

This closing remark is insightful, but a little too neat. For one thing, the main figures of the revolt—Wat Tyler, John Ball —enjoyed long afterlives as revolutionary heroes and protosocialist icons. For another, the revolt now strikes me as more of an ethical mess.

Although the rebels were disciplined enough to burn down the Savoy without stealing from it, they also beheaded a number of Flemish immigrants who were settled in London. Justice argues that the rebels saw Flemings as a privileged group distinguished by an inaccessible language, much like lawyers and clerks. The attacks, he suggests, might have been tied to hatred of elite language rather than of foreigners. I wrote nothing in the margins when I read this section as a graduate student.

I wonder now: Did I tacitly accept the implication that a xenophobic massacre was an excusable glitch in an otherwise admirable movement for social equality? Or did I just not read very carefully?

Since I left those disturbing passages unmarked, I moved again, to Germany. I did so as a professor, with an elite title and position, but local history reminds me how little protection that kind of prestige offers in the face of bigotry. I do not forget how dependent I am on the acceptance of others—or how quickly that acceptance can be taken away. Seventeen years after reading Writing and Rebellion, that is the warning I hear in the rebels’ voices.


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

  1. Matei Calinescu, Rereading (Yale University Press, 1993); Anne Fadiman, Rereadings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2005); Wendy Lesser, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (Mariner Books, 2003); Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks, On Rereading (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).
Featured image: The Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381. The scene of conflict and the death of Wat Tyler, leader of the peasants by the sword. by Jehan Froissart (c. 1483). British Library / Flickr