Module Number Eu06

Date: 7 February 2004

Title: Peasant Revolts and Urban unrest, 1290-1800

Text Box: Introduction:
If someone wrote a history of Europe from the standpoint of peasants and artisans, what story would emerge? The French historian Marc Bloch once observed that rebellions were as integral a part of Europe’s agricultural economy and social system as labor strikes would become after the industrial revolution. One response to the question might be to track to the changing incidence and geographical extent of rebellions in Europe over the entire period between the late Middle Ages and the contemporary age to the 19th Century. 
This history was characterized by a number of important shifts. The late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1450) witnessed a relatively small number of large-scale upheavals. Beginning in 1400 or so, rebellion became endemic in certain regions, especially the Rhineland, and the Alpine borderlands between Austria, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Swiss confederation. A crescendo of revolts in this region culminated in the Peasants’ War of 1525, arguably the largest social upheaval in European history prior to the French Revolution. Then the action shifted to southern and western France, scene of almost continuous rural protest and rebellion until the 1670s. In contrast, the eighteenth century, was a time of relative calm all across Europe ending finally in the convulsions of 1789.
No single factor can explain these shifts and turns. Some historians emphasize the expansion of markets and their disrupting impact on local economies. Others identify a principal cause in the consolidation of state power and its ever-growing hunger for tax revenues. Still others argue that communal assertiveness was the decisive factor. In some regions, ethnic and religious differences played important roles. All would agree that whatever the immediate cause, an important variable was whether peasants and artisans could get all their needs addressed without recourse to violence.
The following series of maps explores each of these themes in turn. The first segment traces the shifting pattern of urban and rural unrest throughout Western Europe between 1300 and 1800. The second segment tests the hypothesis that late medieval rebellions were the expression of communalism in towns and villages; the third examines the relationship between rebellion and taxation. A fourth and final segment looks into the relationship between markets and a specific form of unrest, the food riot.

Section Title: 1290-1424

Introductory Text The first rebellions in Europe that managed to rise above local problems and involve whole regions in social protest occurred from the late thirteenth through the fourteenth centuries. One of the earliest of these produced the Swiss confederation in 1291, thereby laying the foundation of an independent European state. The well-organized Flemish Rising of 1323-1327 united towns and villages in defense of custom and against a new tax and was defeated only with the help of France. The impact of other rebellions was more limited, but many shared the goal of eliminating the restrictions on personal freedom associated with serfdom. The English Peasants’ War of 1381 took steps toward the abolition of serfdom in England. In Catalonia, peasants allied with the king against nobles and towns to end serfdom there.

The most violent but also the shortest revolt was the “Jacquerie” around Paris in 1358. Other movements showed greater staying power, such as the “Tuchinat,” a guerrilla war in the mountains of south-central France. In the middle of this period, the Black Death (1348-1351) carried off one third of Europe’s population. This disruption contributed to urban upheavals right across Europe, from Seville in Spain to Florence in Italy to Lübeck in northern Germany, awkll. in which artisans attempted to gain a seat and voice in civic government.

The period culminated with a religiously inspired uprising, the Hussite revolution in Bohemia (1420-1434), which united town and country behind the reform of religion and social order. As their strength grew, Hussite armies invaded territories to the north and west; eventually a peace settlement ended the fighting. Because it was directed in part against cultural and political domination from outside Bohemia, something wrong here finally, the Hussite revolution also represents an early instance of ethnic or proto-nationalist resistance.

Section Title: 1425-1549

Introductory Text

Beginning around 1400, distinct regional patterns of rebellion developed. A buildup of local revolts in the Alps and the border zone between France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Swiss Confederation, for example, reflected the increasing assertiveness of village communes and their efforts to defend customary rights against encroachments on them by nobles and princes; to lower rents and improve legal rights to land; and to oppose the restrictions of serfdom on the right to marry and take up residence freely. This trend continued right through the fifteenth century.

One prominent manifestation of its was the “Bundschuh” conspiracies, named for the peasant shoe that festooned the rebels’ banners. The movement was organized over a large geographical area and tried to mobilize city folk as well as rural people in far-reaching social and apostolic reforms. The “Poor Conrad” movement in the Duchy Württemberg, by contrast, reacted to new taxes, though it too included people from both sides of the town-country divide. In the East, the Hungarian Crusade (1514) transformed into a peasants’ revolt against the erosion of their property rights.

The German Peasants’ War of 1525 overshadows all other rebellions, urban or rural, of the sixteenth century. Indeed, no other rebellion came close to it in terms of sheer geographical extent and the numbers of people involved—perhaps as many as 100,000 rebels in April and May. Beginning in the heartland of late medieval communal rebellions, the Peasants’ War quickly spread across southern and central Germany. By April and May, the rebellion had spread into Switzerland in the south, to Alsace in the west, Thuringia, and Saxony in the north, and to the Tirolean Alps in the east. It also endured longest and took on its most radical forms in these mountainous regions. Nor was participation in the rebellion confined to rural people: urban uprisings also occurred in several major cities, including Frankfurt

Section Title: 1550-1699

Introductory Text

The period between 1550 and 1699 was so turbulent that many historians often speak of a “General Crisis” in European society and politics. From the standpoint of peasants and artisans, it was the great age of the tax revolt. War was the primary reason for heavier taxation, though not the only one. Nor did conflicts over taxes play out the same way in every region. In central and eastern Europe, the Turkish Empire’s expansion fueled increases in taxation and military recruitment. The many revolts of this period in the Austrian lands, as well as the Croatian revolt of 1572-1573, were of this type. In France, the centralization of royal power, the burdens of war, and the erosion of local autonomy lay behind most revolts. These particularly frequent in the south and southwest, where communes still were relatively strong and the king’s power still relatively still remote. A series of tax revolts by so-called “Croquants” shook the region until 1707. Anti-tax revolts occurred in other peripheral regions as well, such as Normandy (1649) and Brittany (1675).

This was also a period of uprisings against foreign rule, many of which carried strong social and religious overtones. The most prominent of these was the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. Resentment against taxation erupted in Naples in 1647, a revolution that nearly toppled Spanish rule in southern Italy. Ireland rose twice against English rule, in 1641 and 1689.

Not every region fit these patterns, however. Events in Britain were dominated by civil war and the temporary overthrow of monarchy (1640-1660), but these were not driven primarily by the demands of rural people or artisans. Unique to Britain were revolts against enclosure, when lords seized common lands or converted farmland to pasture. In the Empire, urban and rural conflicts were less frequent and more local. In part, this reflected an official reaction to the great upheaval of 1525: by giving peasants better access to courts of law, social conflicts were more often waged through litigation than with violence.

Section FOUR Title: 1700-1800

Introductory Text

In comparison with the explosive seventeenth century, the early eighteenth was one of relative quiet in Western Europe. This is attributable to several factors. One is simply that the machinery of state power was more efficient and the collection of taxes better regulated. Another factor was the waning of religious hostilities, although as the “Camisard” revolt (1703-1705) showed, these could still inspire extremes of violence. Finally, urban and rural social protest movements were more and more involved with international and dynastic politics: Rákóczi’s Revolt of 1703-1709, for example, was led by Hungarian nobles but owed much of its strength to peasant grievances against serfdom. Similarly in 1705, normally peaceful Bavarian peasants rebelled against foreign occupation and the unaccustomed burdens it entailed.

This began to change in the mid-eighteenth century. Beginning in the 1770s, many governments in central and westernWestern Europe attempted to abolish labor services and restrictions on the ability of peasants to marry and take up residence freely. Pressure from below played an important role. Ongoing resistance to labor services in Bohemia, for example, further discredited the institution of serfdom. Then in 1775, another rebellion prompted the formal abolition of labor services there. But dissolving the economic power of lords over peasants proved to be far more difficult. Estate-management had become both more efficient and more resented. But top-down reforms also disrupted local customs, which inspired resistance to the centralization of state power.

These tensions erupted in the late 1780s. In 1789, Flemish “patriots” rebelled against a reforming but heavy-handed Austrian regime. That same year in France, a wave of rural unrest provoked the National Assembly to abolish noble privileges and accelerated the revolution of state and society there. News of the Revolution also inspired peasants elsewhere to rebel against noble privilege, as they did in Saxony (1790). In its turn, however, revolutionary France proved even more hostile to local customs than its predecessor. As its power expanded through Western Europe, the Revolution met with determined resistance in defense of tradition and, outside France, against foreign rule.