Anna Dronzek

title.none: Valente, The Theory and Practice of Revolt in Medieval England (Anna Dronzek )

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.038 04.01.38

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anna Dronzek , University of Minnesota, Morris,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Valente, Claire. The Theory and Practice of Revolt in Medieval England. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. viii, 276. $80.00 0-7546-0901-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.38

Valente, Claire. The Theory and Practice of Revolt in Medieval England. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. viii, 276. $80.00 0-7546-0901-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Anna Dronzek
University of Minnesota, Morris

In The Theory and Practice of Revolt in Medieval England, Claire Valente offers a useful reinterpretation of baronial rebellion in medieval England from 1215-1415, or from the Magna Carta through the reign of Henry IV. Her study brings together discussion of events that are frequently separated by the artificial boundaries of historical scholarship and provides a valuable reassessment of the political significant and impact of familiar events.

In her introduction, Valente clearly outlines what she argues has been the difficulty with previous approaches to examining baronial violence and resistance to the king: they have taken an anachronistic approach to rebellion. They begin with the assumption that violence is an invalid method for bringing about reform, Valente argues, and "that using force against the king was both illegitimate and disruptive" (2). Valente claims that instead historians must understand the goals and actions of baronial rebels according to the latter's own standards, and "treat violence as part of English politics rather than a sign of its breakdown" (4). The simple presence of violence should not automatically lead historians to assume that a movement against the king was not a serious attempt at legitimate political reform.

Valente next examines the accepted role of the barons and king according to political theory, to determine what justifications barons might have had for using violence in a dispute with the king. In other words, what kinds of beliefs about government did medieval rebels possess that would explain or justify their behavior toward the king? She argues that medieval discussions of kingship revolved around two ideas: one portrayed the king as appointed by God and answerable only to God; the other saw the king as the caretaker for the community of the realm, subject to its laws and responsible for the well being of the kingdom as a whole, and accountable for any failure to act appropriately. The latter conception dominated in England and provided an important justification for baronial rebellion, suggesting that the barons might play an important role in keeping him to his account. Valente argues that legal theory and popular literature such as the medieval romances of Fouke le fitz Warin and Havelok the Dane provided barons with a model of limited, strategic violence as a tool for restraining unjust kings. Moreover, she finds evidence to suggest that other segments of society agreed, including the clergy and the ordinary populace.

Following her review of both modern scholarship and medieval political thought, Valente turns to the rebellions themselves and in turn addresses the insurgences directed against John, Henry III, Edward II, and Richard II. In between periods of rebellion-- such as during the reign of Edward I, when there were no instances of serious revolt-- she briefly discusses the factors that minimized the need for reform or likelihood of rebellion. She concludes with an attempt to place these episodes in a broader context and explain how they relate to broader trends in political, economic, social, and religious developments of the period.

Valente's narrative is clearly drawn and describes a significant evolution in the nature of rebellion. She argues convincingly that in the early part of her period, during the reigns of John and Henry III, revolt was a genuine attempt to bring about reform in government, inspired by abuses affecting the entire community of the realm, not just the barons. Although there was certainly a strong element of self-interest in baronial actions, they used violence for the purpose of bringing about universal reform, as evidenced by the creation of written documents (for example, the Provisions of Oxford) and institutions such as permanent councils, intended to enforce hard-won reforms. In this early period, barons were slow to turn to violence, only in response to royal resistance to reform, and even slower to take up arms against the king directly, rather than against his ministers or advisors. In fact, it was not until late in the reign of Edward II that barons took up arms against the king before the king had raised his banner against them.

Valente identifies Simon de Montfort's rebellion against Henry III as the peak of this model of universal reform. The reign of Edward II, however, marked a turning point, in which barons began to move away from issues affecting the community of the realm and to focus more closely on their own interests. The production of written documents and institutional change declined as the barons saw reform in a more negative than positive way-- as more about removing troublesome individuals, such as Piers Gaveston and the Despensers, than about creating solutions such as baronial councils. Perhaps because the stakes grew higher-- kings developed more severe punishments for rebels, as evidenced by the execution of Thomas of Lancaster, and barons took the final step to deposition-- both sides turned much more quickly to violence to achieve their goals. By the end of the reign of Henry IV, revolts were driven almost entirely by personal agendas. The use of incremental force disappeared as barons moved directly to attacks on the king, rather than his councilors or favorites, usually before even raising issues of reform.

To trace this evolution, Valente relies heavily on contemporary accounts of the rebellions, but she also turns to what is probably the most significant contribution of her study, statistical analyses of participation in each revolt. She argues that the broader the participation in a particular revolt, the more broadly the political ideals behind that revolt reached. If people who were not from territories controlled by a rebel leader, and who had no ties of service or tenure to a rebel leader, nonetheless participated in the rebellion, they doubtless agreed with the goals of the rebellion. And the more people across the country agreed with the goals of the rebellion, the more likely it was that the rebellion truly represented the interests of a wide range of people. Valente's statistics demonstrate that more people who had no ties to rebel lords participated in revolts in the period before Edward II's reign than in the period following. After the reign of Edward II, participants quickly became limited largely to those who lived in lands under a rebel lord's control or who had ties of service or tenure to a rebel lord. For instance, during Simon de Montfort's revolt against Henry III, the highest percentage of rebels coming from one county was 30%; in Henry IV's reign, as Valente points out, "every revolt drew over 60 per cent of its supporters from only one county" (226). Moreover, Valente's analyses of social status demonstrate that people from more walks of life participated in earlier rebellions than in later. Thus, she concludes that by the end of her period rebellion had ceased to be appealing to a wide range of people, and instead was merely an expression of baronial self-interest.

These statistical analyses provide the most original use of evidence to support Valente's argument. They suffer from the weakness of most statistical analyses of the medieval period: it is extremely difficult to gather enough hard numbers to draw reliable conclusions. To compile her statistics, Valente relies largely on legal records generated by the aftermath of revolt, usually prosecutions of failed rebels. The degree to which these survive (or existed in the first place) varies from revolt to revolt. Perhaps the most problematic are the records of participation in the Appellants' revolt against Richard II of 1387-8, which date from ten years after the original events. As Valente points out herself, events of the ten intervening years may have encouraged people who were not involved in the original rebellion to take out requests for pardons anyway, simply to be on the safe side. Accounts from other revolts probably underrepresent participation, as not all who participated may have felt the need to sue for an official pardon. One criticism that Valente offers of previous analyses of participation is that they did not consider what proportion of the country's population was represented-- in other words, if Kent contributed 20% of rebels in a given rebellion, was this a significant percentage, or was it proportional to Kent's share of the population? Valente herself seeks to correct this error, which is undoubtedly a strength of her analysis, but the only consistent numbers available for determining the proportion of the population are Josiah Cox Russell's estimates from 1948. While Russell's estimates remain the most complete, they are also controversial. Valente scrupulously points out all difficulties with the numbers, and in the end it is probably better to have some statistics, however tentative, than to refuse to consider the question at all.

Valente's book provides an interesting and important reexamination of revolt. She provides a valuable service by addressing all these examples of rebellion together, allowing for their comparison and contrast over time, in contrast to many political histories which divide the past up by reigns, and thus obscure the continuities and changes in activities that occurred under a number of regimes. Some elements of the book are stronger than others. The discussions of the revolt against John leading to the Magna Carta and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 read like a relatively quick syntheses; these episodes would be hard to ignore in a book on rebellion, but have received so much attention that they are hard to address in a brief chapter. Valente is correct to characterize the Peasants' Revolt as significantly different from the other episodes she examines, and therefore outside the scope of detailed comparison, but her approach to 1381 highlights the fact that this book is really about baronial reform. Although Valente examines social status from the top to the bottom of the scale in her statistical analyses, and although she postulates that significant peasant involvement must mean that the peasants agreed with the baronial platform, the barons remain at the center of her analysis. There is nothing wrong with Valente's approach; it simply means that if someone is interested in the popular roots or elements to rebellion, this book will not serve their interests.

Valente makes excellent use of the legal sources surviving from this period, especially for her statistical analyses, and is certainly conversant with a wealth of chronicle sources. Incorporating more analysis of the nature of the chronicle sources themselves might have added an interesting dimension to her work. Valente skillfully reads the alliances of the different authors, and incorporates them into her argument; for instance, she argues that chronicle authors' declining sympathies with rebels in the fourteenth century suggests the rebels' increasing inability (or unwillingness) to formulate a platform of interest outside of baronial circles. Nonetheless, she tends to take chroniclers' descriptions of events at face value, and some consideration of the chronicle as a literary form might have complicated some of the conclusions she draws. Overall, however, the strengths of this book far outweigh the weaknesses. The Theory and Practice of Revolt in Medieval England shows a mastery of archival sources from the period and presents a convincing and thought-provoking narrative of the evolution of revolt.