James B. Given

title.none: Justice, Writing and Rebellion

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.012 95.05.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James B. Given, University of California (Irvine)

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Series: The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, 27. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 289 (hb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.12

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Series: The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics, 27. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 289 (hb).

Reviewed by:

James B. Given
University of California (Irvine)

In this work Steven Justice has set himself what might at first seem a fairly limited task, the explication of six rather obscure vernacular English letters produced among the ranks of the rebels during the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and preserved in the chronicles of Henry Knighton and Thomas Walsingham. The author's purpose, however, is rather grander than it initially appears. Through the study of these letters, he hopes to be able to understand the thought of a medieval rural revolt and the communities that produced it. To an impressive degree, he has succeeded in this endeavor. In doing so, the author has written a book that that will interest not only people like himself, scholars of late medieval English literature, but also historians of rural social organization and of popular protest.

Of the five chapters in the book, the first two may be of the broadest import, since they speak not merely to literary scholars, but to historians of late medieval England. In the first, Justice claims that the letters he has set out to analyze constituted "acts of assertive literacy" (p. 24). Integral to the ideology of the rulers of medieval England, so Justice argues, was the belief that the peasant masses were illiterate, and that this illiteracy both confirmed the peasants' state of subjection and justified it. The author, however, argues that literacy was relatively widespread among at least certain strata of the peasantry. The letters the rebels produced were designed to demonstrate that literacy and what Justice calls "documentary competence" (p. 36) were not limited to a narrow clerical elite, but were also the possession of the peasants. In turn, the possession of this "documentary competence" helped legitimate the claim of the rebels to a right to participate in reflection on the cultural and political issues that confronted the community as a whole. rustics, but as men well informed about the intricacies of the institutions, among them serfdom, the legal profession, the jury system, and the manorial court, that sought to canalize and control their lives. The widespread destruction of documents by the rebels was thus "not the revenge of a residually oral cultural against the appurtenances of a literacy that was threatening because alien and mysterious" (p. 41). Instead, the rebels sought not to destroy literacy, but to assert command over it, and hence to claim, in a society where writing had become thoroughly bound up with government at all levels of the kingdom, the right to govern themselves.

In his second chapter Justice addresses the old question of the role of Wyclif and his teachings in the rebellion. Unlike many other scholars, Justice thinks that Wyclif's vernacular writings of the 1370s did have an impact on at least some of the rebels. As is well known, Wyclif called for the expropriation of church property, justifying himself by appealing to the well-worn theme of the poverty of Christ and by arguing, following the canon law maxim, "Bona ecclesiae sunt bona pauperum," that the church had misappropriated property that was intended for the relief of the poor. Moreover, the church's wealth forced the state to tax the commons, putting the burden of public finance on those least well equipped to bear it. Although Wyclif's call for the disendowment of the church was directed at the secular rulers of England, the fact that it was made in the name of the poor made it possible for the commons to "overhear" his message, and rework it to suit their own ends. Wyclif's message, so Justice argues, was interpreted by the rebels as locating authority in poverty and positing an identification of royal power with the poor. In the rebellion the rebels thus set out to exercise royal power and reform the realm in the interests of the poor.

The third chapter deals with the role of Langland's "Piers Plowman" in the rebellion. The author maintains that John Ball, the priest who was one of the leaders of the rebellion and possibly one of the authors of the letters that are the subject of Justice's inquiry, was aware of some of the contents of Langland's poems and made use of them in his letters and sermons. If it is true that part, at least, of this poem's contents was known to some of the rebels, this is yet one more piece of evidence that undermines the contemporary chroniclers' ideological assumptions about the illiteracy and lack of intelligence of the rebels. More importantly, so Justice contends, Ball reworked the poem to give it a concrete political meaning that the original did not have. He transformed what had been the contemplative writing of Langland, designed to discover truth, into a concrete injunction designed to prompt action, i.e., the rooting out of the kingdom of all those who did harm to the commons. And, at the deepest level, Justice argues that what Langland's vernacular poem offered the rebels "was the example of a conceptual language that could be formed ad hoc out of the common tongue to serve particular interests and to be mobilized against others. This model meant something to the rebels that it could not have meant even to Langland: that when a particular oppression was shared by a class, the oppressed could protest it as a class, and, once resistance began, could use these generalizing vocabularies to organize action and their critique" (pp. 137-38).

The fourth chapter of the book, in which Justice tries to uncover the ideology of the rebels, is at once fascinating and frustrating. In a discussion that ranges widely, and impressively, over such matters as the church's ritual calendar, manorial court actions involving the insulting of one neighbor by another, the institution of pledging, and the dynamics of neighborly cooperation and solidarity in the economic productive processes of the village, Justice tries to come up with what he presents as the rebels' picture of the ideal member of the rural community, the "trewman."

The final chapter deals with the memory of the revolt, or, as Justice aptly puts it, with the forgetting of the rebellion, with the way in which "agencies of power and record moved to transform the rising, to absorb it and use it for their purposes" (p.193). According to Justice, the rebellion brought home to poets like Gower and Chaucer that there were previously unimagined audiences for their work, that lay beyond their control and which might find in their work meanings they had not intended. Gower indeed seems to have been led to rework his "Vox clamantis" in light of the rebellion. And Langland, whose "Piers Plowman" was invoked during the rebellion and whose message had a strong Wycliffite tone, recast those lines of his poem that Justice contends John Ball had appropriated and reinterpreted. And the chronicler Walsingham shaped the rhetoric of his account in such a way as to present the rebels as ignorant and violent rustics, rather than as men who understood the clerical bureaucracy that governed them well enough to imitate it, and whose own forms of local self-government made much of that bureaucracy superfluous.

This is one of the most interesting works on the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 that I have read in recent years. As a social historian, and not a literary scholar, I feel some reluctance to criticize it. Certainly, from the perspective of an historian, the author has done his homework very well. He is familiar with the relevant secondary works, and he has carefully examined the published sources. There are times, however, when he seems to over-interpret his sources, as in the passage in which he claims that Ball in the sermon he preached at Blackheath borrowed heavily from Langland's "Piers Plowman". Not only is the sermon preached at Blackheath known only indirectly through Walsingham's account, but the imagery of a good farmer rooting weeds out of his fields, which Justice claims derives from Langland, seems to have been a common-place of inflammatory sermons. It can be found, for example, almost eighty years earlier in fiery sermons preached in the city of Carcassonne by the Franciscan friar, Bernard Delicieux. Indeed, at times this reviewer felt that Justice's argument consisted more of the seductive flow of supple prose and vivid imagery than it did of logic and evidence. But these are the cavils of a middle-aged social historian, formed in the days when quantitative methods were all the rage. Justice has written an interesting and important book, and anyone who reads it will find his or her image of the rebellion of 1381 profoundly altered.