The Road to ATOS: Part 1 – The Peasant’s Revolt and the Beginnings of the Poor Laws
The Plague, or Black Death arrived in England in 1348 and led to an almost 50% rise in the death rate in the south of the country. Not surprisingly, agricultural production came to a complete halt in many towns both from lack of labour and lack of demand. In addition there was a similar illness in sheep causing many to die and rot where they fell. The peasants remaining realised that this made their labour more valuable and many threatened to quit unless their rents and wages were reviewed. Soon wages for servants of all kinds rose and the elites had, for a time, to pay up.
However, once worker’s numbers increased, the landowners hit back by setting up a medieval wages policy known as the Statute of Labourers.
This law required workers to accept wages at pre-plague levels or suffer imprisonment. The legislation also restricted peasant’s movements, demanding they remained in their town and insisted they worked for a whole year and could not charge by the day or leave their jobs. By the 1350s over 600 justices had been sworn in to support this law. Landowners, with the assistance of armed thugs, forced their tenants to work for virtually slave wages and regularly used violence to keep their peasants in check.
The higher wages earned by peasants led to an increase in social prestige and security. To combat this, the elites passed other laws that attempted to regulate the dress of the lower orders. They were scared that the workers would dress better and therefore appear similar to their superiors, leading to the blurring of the rigid lines of social demarcation. A statute passed at this time dictated the appropriate clothing for each class of society. Yeomen and craftsmen were not to wear clothes more than a certain value and were forbidden to wear fur or jewels. These laws even regulated the diet of the poor. Servants could not eat meat or fish more than once a day and the rest of their meals were to consist of only milk, cheese, butter and bread.
Subsequent to this, whenever there was a popular rebellion, the poor, in defiance of these laws, stole and ate as much of their masters’ livestock as possible.
As well as regulating dress and diets, the landholding classes attempted to control every aspect of the natural environment. This was the beginning of enclosures which hemmed off common land. Fens were drained which meant that reed beds, which had formerly provided fishing, fuel and building materials for the poor became off bounds. The rich also diverted rivers to create private ponds and lakes which they then stocked with fish. Laws were passed guarding against poaching and the catching of fish, but it was impossible to stop this activity completely. For instance, in 1356 on one night over 100 swans went missing from the ponds at Arundle Castle.
In 1356 further laws laid down punishments for labourers who left the service of their masters to go to another town or county.
So-called ‘masterless men’, workers who roamed the country looking for work, were targeted the next year.
The war with France led to the introduction of three Poll Taxes. The third tax in 1380 led to much popular opposition and many people removed their names from the electoral roll causing the crown to send out commissioners in 1381 to track down the missing taxpayers.
Shortly afterwards the Peasants’ Revolt started in Brentwood, Essex. The uprising began at the time of the major church feast of Whitsun, and quickly spread across many counties of the south and Midlands of England.
Wat Tyler is the most famous leader of this revolt and it is thought he came from Maidstone in Kent. The rebels targeted those who had close connections with the Royal Court and destroyed the houses of the wealthy and the despised tax records wherever they could.
This period also saw the emergence of an English heretical tradition that stressed a return to a simple Christian faith purged of its worldly trappings. The rebels called for the end of priests, attacked the veneration of images and denied the efficacy of pilgrimages to the relics of saints. The religious rebels were known as Lollards.
King Richard and his army met Tyler’s men at Smithfield. The two men spoke and the rebel warned the King Richard II that the lords of the kingdom would regret it if they did not concede to the rebels, and accept the laws were to be based on English common law.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened next, but Tyler was probably killed by the Mayor of London’s squire and eventually beheaded.
The London Gaol was raided and the occupants released. All over the south of England rebels pursued landowners and in many cases killed them.
Eventually armed men subdued the various groups of rebels with the King himself taking a keen personal interest. King Richard oversaw a royal commission in Chelmsford and gave out 31 capital sentences to the men considered the ringleaders.
12 men were also dragged it to the gallows. It is reported that King Richard said, “Rustics you were and rustics you are still; you will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher.”
This established a pattern for the authorities for many rebellions that followed. The uprisings were put down with extreme force with many summary executions. Then the severest penalties of law, hanging, drawing and quartering were given to the ringleaders. Their mutilated bodies were then taken around the kingdom to serve as reminders of the penalties for treason.
In 1388 the Statute of Cambridge was passed which strengthened the existing Statute of Labourers and established most of the foundations for the later Tudor Poor Law. This is the first time the distinction was made between able-bodied beggars, capable of work and impotent beggars, incapacitated by old age or illness.
This crucial distinction has endured to the present day and we see its modern version in the Work Capability Assessment Tests being carried out by French multinational IT company ATOS.
Tomorrow – I show how the state continued its attacks on the poor and working class up to the present day, including the abuse and awful treatment of children.
Main source for historical details – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Radical-History-Britain-Visionaries-Revolutionaries/dp/0349120269
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