Friday, 25 March 2011

Braudel on revolt in the late European middle ages

The following passage is from Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, vol. 2:

Yves-Marie Bercé has found evidence of five hundred revolts among the peasants of Aquitaine alone, between 1590 and 1715. Records relating to a hundred or so German towns from 1301 to 1550 reveal 200 clashes with authority, some accompanied by bloodshed. In Lyons, in the 357 years between 1173 and 1530, 126 were marked by disturbances (rather more than one year in three). We may call these incidents or disturbances – though some of them were so powerful and violent that only the word revolution really does justice to them. On a European scale, during the five centuries covered by this book, there were tens of thousands of incidents – not all of them classified properly and some still lying hidden in the archives. The research so far undertaken does however make it possible to draw some conclusions – some with confidence in the case of peasant revolts, but with much greater risk of error in the case of workers' risings, which were essentially an urban phenomenon.

A great deal of work has been done on peasant revolts in France, following Boris Porchenev's revolutionary book. But it is obvious that France was not alone in this respect, even if the attention it has attracted from historians makes the French case exemplary. From the material so far assembled at any rate, an unmistakeable picture emerges: the peasant community was in perpetual conflict with its oppressors: the state, the landlord, external circumstances, hard times, armed troops, and anything that threatened or even impeded the village community which was the condition of its liberty. And in peasant eyes, all these foes were combined. When in 1530, a local nobleman sent his pigs to root in the common woodland, a little village of the Neapolitan county of Nolise rose up in defence of its grazing rights with the cry 'Viva il popolo et mora il signore' ('Long live the people and death to the master!'). Hence the uninterrupted series of incidents revealing the traditional mentality and special conditions of peasant life, right down to the nineteenth century. If, as Ingmar Bog has remarked, one is looking for an illustration of 'the long term' with its repetitions, its revivals and monotonous patterns, the history of peasants provides any number of perfect examples.

A first reading of this massive literature leaves one with the impression that all this agitation, while never dying down, rarely achieved anything. To rebel was 'to spit in the sky': the jacquerie of 1358 in the Ile-de-France; the English Peasant's revolt of 1381; the Bauernkrieg of 1525; the salt-tax rebellion by the communes of Guyenne in 1584; the violent Bolotnikov rising in Russsia in 1614; the great peasant war that shook Naples in 1647 – all these furious outbursts regularly failed. So too did the minor rebellions which unwaryingly relayed each other. The established order could not tolerate peasant disorder which, in view of the predominance of agriculture, might undermine the very foundations of society and economy. State, nobles, bourgeois property owners, even the Church and certainly the towns were almost constantly in league against the peasant. Flames were nonetheless smouldering under the ashes.

The failures were not [...] as complete as they appeared. The peasant was always rudely brought to heel it is true, but more than once progress was made as a result of rebellion. The 'Jacques' of 1358 did after all secure the liberty of the peasantry in the Paris region. The desertion, then repopulation of this key region cannot entirely explain the process whereby this liberty was won, recaptured and maintained. Was the Bauernkrieg of 1525 a total failure? Not necessarily. The peasant rebels between the Elbe and the Rhine did not, like their brothers beyond the Elbe, become new serfs: they preserved their liberties and ancient rites.(494-6)

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