rebelling against king and church -- 9/22/14

Today's selection -- from A Short History of Europe by Gordon Kerr. In the bloody 13th and 14th centuries, French peasants revolted against the king and the church. When that era ended with the Black Death -- a plague that killed as much as 50 percent of Europe's population -- the stage was set for the intellectual apostacy known as the Renaissance:

"[In France in the 13th and 14th centuries], the gap between rich and poor was growing dangerously wide, creating a tension that was ready to erupt at any moment in violent revolt. In northern France it led to the uprising known as the 'Jacquerie', after the habit of nicknaming any French peasant 'Jacques' from the padded surplices known as jacques which they tended to wear. In 1356, the French king, John II the Good, was captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers. In his absence, the government of France was taken over by the States General, King Charles II the Bad of Navarre (ruled 1349-87) and John's son, the Dauphin. They were dangerously divided, however, and disputes led to serious disunity. The nobles, merchants and clergy, fearful for their lands, wealth and rights, began to charge the peasants ever-increasing taxes, creating dissatisfaction and anger, especially since many of the peasants believed that the defeat at Poitiers had been partly due to the corruption of the nobles. The problems were exacerbated by grain shortages and the ever-present threat of a famine such as the Great Famine that had decimated Europe from 1315 to 1317.

Defeat of the Jacquerie

"Rebellion finally erupted in 1358 in a series of horrifically violent and bloody revolts. A contemporary account -- The Chronicles of Jean le Bel -- describes the full horror of the events of that year:

[The peasants] killed a knight, put him on a spit, and roasted him with his wife and children looking on. After ten or twelve of them raped the lady, they wished to force feed them the roasted flesh of their father and husband and made them then die by a miserable death.

"There was little organisation, however, and the revolts were soon brought to an end when the leader, Guillaume Cale (? - 1358), was captured and decapitated.

The king of Navarre (Charles II the Bad) having the leaders of
the Jacquerie executed by beheading.

"In spite of the failure and loss of life in the Jacquerie revolts, similar expressions of public disgust occurred in other places. Rebellious peasants rose up in the cities of Béziers, Rouen and Montpellier and, between 1381 and 1384, the group known as the Tuchins, armed gangs of peasants and craftsmen, revolted against tax levies and the presence of mercenaries who robbed and killed at will without any interference from those in charge. In Florence, workers seized the government of the city; in Flanders there were uprisings; Catalonia experienced a revolt against the nobility; and in England, in 1381, Wat Tyler (1341-81) famously led a march by discontented peasants on London which ended in his death and the deaths of his associates.

"Hundreds of years of misdeeds by the clergy also placed the Church in the firing line during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some people, wishing to return to a purer form of religion, called for church reform, debating the status of the clergy and the right of the people to preach the gospel. The Waldensians were an example of this type of heresy, believing in apostolic poverty as the way to salvation. Pope Lucius III had declared them heretics in 1184 and they were persecuted for several centuries to come.

"Others had begun to develop alternative systems of worship but, in 1199, these heresies had been declared by Pope Innocent III to be treason against God. The principal targets of his anger were the Cathars, or Albigensians, a religious sect in the Languedoc in southwestern France. The Cathars were spiritual descendants of the Gnostic Manichaeans who emerged in Persia in the third century and who believed that good and evil were two divine principles. They practised vegetarianism, believed in the equality of men and women and supported a caste of perfecti -- the spiritual elite and true core of the movement. The murder of a papal legate returning from the Languedoc gave Innocent the excuse for which he had been looking. He called for a Crusade against the Cathars on the same terms as were promised in the Crusades against Islam -- remission of sins and unrestricted looting.

"The bloody Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209 and lasted for 20 years. It seems not to have mattered whether people were Cathars or not. When the Cistercian abbot commander, Arnaud-Amaury, was asked how the troops would be able to tell the difference between Catholic and Cathar, he is said to have replied chillingly, 'Kill them all; the Lord will recognise his own.' When the city of Béziers was attacked in 1209, 20,000 Cathars were massacred. The Church was ruthless in its treatment of these dissidents but they did have the lasting effect of forcing it to adjust to the rapid changes that were taking place in society.

"The Middle Ages drew to a close with the resounding crescendo of the Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemics in history. It killed an estimated 50 million Europeans, between 30 and 50 per cent of the population of the continent. Having arrived in Europe in the 1340s, it returned in 1360, 1369 and 1374. It would not really go away until the 1700s, returning with wearying regularity and with varying degrees of virulence every generation."


Gordon Kerr


A Short History of Europe: From Charlemagne to the Treaty of Lisbon


Oldcastle Books


Copyright Gordon Kerr 2010


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