contributor.author: Joëlle Rollo-Koster

title.none: Cohn, Lust for Liberty (Joëlle Rollo-Koster)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.014 07.01.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joëlle Rollo-Koster, University of Rhode Island, joelle@uri.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Cohn, Jr., Samuel K. Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425: Italy, France and Flanders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 376. $49.95 0-674-02162-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.14

Cohn, Jr., Samuel K. Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425: Italy, France and Flanders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 376. $49.95 0-674-02162-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Joëlle Rollo-Koster
University of Rhode Island
joelle@uri.edu

Samuel Cohn's Lust for Liberty is the analytical complement of a previous volume of sources in translation, Popular Protest in Late Medieval Europe: Italy, France, and Flanders, published in 2004 under the aegis of the Manchester Medieval Sources Series, and previously reviewed for the TMR by Andrew G. Miller (TMR ID: 06.08.09). Both volumes should be considered in tandem.

In this latest book Cohn returns to the topic of popular rebellions through the prism of his chief interest, the Black Death, opting to measure the impact the first epidemic had on the level and frequency of revolts in the Middle Ages. He canvasses unrest before and after the epidemic but is most focused on the generation that followed it and the "cluster" of rebellions that marked the years 1378-1382.

As his most recent publications concerned with the Black Death show, Cohn wants to imprint the historiography with his seal, and revise it. After examining scores of rebellions geographically and chronologically he concludes the present volume with the assessment that the fight against the Black Death inspired a hunger for political freedom. In bold strokes, Cohn argues that the divisions that had separated the various types of revolts between northern and southern patterns before the Black Death were eventually leveled after its onslaught. The generations that survived the Black Death moved uniformly with a new confidence, a new self-assurance gained in their successful fight against the disease, and cried and fought for liberation from the shackles of feudal society. In short Cohn argues that as people realized that they could cure themselves from the plague, they decided to rid themselves from their traditional political oppressors and gain "liberty." You can be sure that such statements will give rise to discussion.

I am assuming that the author considered that he answered the first part of his hypothesis (that people gained confidence in defeating the plague) in an earlier book, The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe (London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 2002), and he dedicates this most recent work to the "liberating" phase. Still, it remains puzzling that Cohn argues in the Black Death Transformed that the Black Death was not the plague but here he uses the terms "Black Death" and "plague" interchangeably. Moving away from his previous revision of the disease he now builds an argument based on the idea that the post-plague revolts were mainly concerned with liberty, with gaining political rights. In doing so, he has to correct the course of a historiography that has traditionally passed over politics to emphasize the social, economic or religious motivations of pre-modern popular rebellions.

Cohn engages a somewhat dated historiography without offering a much needed synthetic review. Authors like George Rudé and Charles Tilly do suggest--close to Cohn's own rationale--that a population revolts when social classes argue diverging political and ideological discourses, and/or when social classes are in direct conflicts over productive rights.[1] Rioting can be viewed as an irrational or intentional practice. In the former case, the study of rioting follows the path of a riot's limited existence; in the latter, the analysis of the membership of specific crowds leads to comprehending the motives behind the violence. Cohn does refresh the discussion by entering a new factor into the analysis of civil violence: disease. In general, as he duly notes, the historiography of collective violence has shunned the Middle Ages to focus on the early modern, modern, or contemporary periods. The only exception is the great English peasant rebellion of 1381, which has benefited from several studies,[2] and to a lesser extent the Flemish peasant uprising of 1323-1328, the Jacquerie of 1358, and the Ciompi revolution in 1378 Florence, covered largely by Cohn and others.

Cohn's predilection for sweeping statements set him up for what I would label "standardized criticism." His work often sets aside counter evidence, and the author seems to be unwilling to make the case by assuming that his readers will take him at face value. He leans heavily on general trend and macro-history suggesting that the sheer numbers of occurrences make the case, dismissing qualitative analyses for quantitative. The success behind this book resides in the description of countless medieval revolts, showing that medieval people did revolt! Instructors will finally be able to shut down those students that sneer at medieval "submissiveness."

The book's introduction credits the historiography of the 1960s (Moore, Hobsbawm, Rudé, Thompson) for its interest in pre-modern and modern revolutionary movements, and its total ignorance of the Middle Ages. Frustrated medievalists will applaud the stand. Consequently, since the field has been more or less ignored Cohn is left with the issue of definition: What made popular revolts? And how do historians recognize them in their sources? He tackles the lack of precision in definition, this time of the few medieval scholars who have addressed popular rebellions in the Middle Ages (Mollat, Wolff, Fourquin, Hilton) and characterizes popular protest as a violent or pacific collective action against ones' social superiors--this definition automatically implies that revolts have social and not automatically political imbalance causation. He discards revolts that pitted the elite/aristocracy against itself (still choosing to discuss some factional struggles, see for example, page 154 and after). Next he discusses his methodology: he selected 1112 separate incidents of rebellions between 1200 and 1425 from an astounding number of published chronicles, some letters of remissions, and a (very) few archival registers. Cohn debates the validity of his methodology and heavy reliance on chroniclers, and decides to agree with himself.

His chapter on peasants' revolts questions the traditional "passive resistance" views. He finds few rebellions with purely economic purposes, and he revisits the important Jacqueries of Flanders and France, highlighting their political motivations. He then moves to Italy and its important cluster of rebellions in the post-plague years. He concludes that in most cases insurgents were not destitute (but offers no systematic quantitative analysis of composition of the rebelling crowds), but a middling crowd, often allied with feudal lords, that showed its discontent with the tax policies of their urban oligarchic superiors. Hence he proposes that most peasant revolts were tax revolts against urban patriciates, city-state governments or monarchies. It should be noted that the argumentation of this chapter is weakened by the lack of solid archival references. When Cohn tests his narrative sources against archival material (as on page 50 for example), where he discusses the richness of the tax registers of the Florentine archives, he offers no specific archival data, solely his assertion that he compared chroniclers and archives and they corroborate each other.[3]

Cohn deals next with economic revolts, testing the pattern he highlighted for peasants' movements: here he asks whether economic and urban revolts were also motivated by politics. Pre-Plague France, Flanders, and Italy show little evidence of wage or labor discontents, and the numbers decline even more so after the Plague. Using the revolt of the Ciompi as an example, he suggests that workers formed political rather than economic bodies to claim political privilege and inclusion. Canvassing other European evidence he extends his conclusions to the rest of post-Plague Europe. Revolts that allegedly aimed at redressing economic issues were aimed principally at altering the political milieu. He then faces the most often discussed pre-modern grain riots and asserts that they were atypical. Again the assertion has to be taken at face value, since no specific sources are provided-the author cites a generic "archival records surveyed." (70).

Chapter Four moves toward a necessary typology of the various medieval revolts, organized around crowd composition, actions, motivation, objectives and targets. Cohn does not consider the "traditional" classification proposed by Rudé (attacks against goods and property or attacks against persons), ritualized violence, [4] or to a more mundane level, the familiar "drunkenness" factor found in so many revolts! He discusses several cases: groups looking for political gains; groups criticizing kings, emperor, pope or territorial dominance; attacks on colonial dominance, and class revolts, arguing for an overlap of all forms. Cohn then debunks an old "pet" of the historiography, women's participation in (usually) food riots/revolts, choosing rather to emphasize with many examples the rebellious activities of children and youth groups. Once he reviews who attacked whom he concludes that political motivations moved all rebellions. For example, tax revolts were political because they objected to the governments that imposed them. The chapter ends with a survey of religious revolts, xenophobic, peaceful and nonviolent movements, and protests within specialized communities. Again Cohn classifies them all as somewhat political since in the end, they attacked social hierarchy and authority.

The next chapter focuses on leadership and search for the social origins of the revolts' organizers. Since Cohn argues that revolts often crossed the lines of social boundaries and status he draws the same argument for the leaders themselves, offering the image of utopian social harmony in rebellion. Leaders were chosen for their qualities amongst various social coalitions. Wage laborers and aristocrats were united for the sake of a revolt and showed each other mutual respect (I love the idea but can only remain dubious of its reality). It is regrettable that yet another work on rebellions has passed over the role of butchers!

Chapter Six tackles the historiography head-on by responding to questions posed by early modern and modern historians who really did not know medieval sources all that well: Were women active in medieval revolts? Were medieval revolts reactionary? And were they crushed brutally? Knowing that the historiography traditionally associated women with food riots and knowing that Cohn finds food riots sporadic in the Middle Ages answers the first question. Women appeared rarely in medieval sources except for the few active in heretical movements. Cohn then demystifies a medieval reactionary longing for a former Golden Age by suggesting that medieval rebels sneered at their kings and popes, considering them with little respect. What drove late medieval rebels was a lust for liberty, regardless of class-consciousness. Socially broad coalitions were formed for the sake of a similar goal: liberty. Medieval repression is also discarded. Even an important revolt like the Ciompi was not crushed ruthlessly. Punishments were usually meted out to the main leaders and repression rarely reached the levels of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Governments chose rather to negotiate with rebels or opted for the effectiveness of public rituals of magnanimity.

Chapters Seven and Eight may form the most interesting corpus of information in the book. Cohn deals first with geographical variations between northern and southern Europe, correlating the type of political regimes to occurrences. He concludes that political regimes did not determine the specifics of revolts. He notes that a despotic regime like Milan's could see few revolts while monarchies and oligarchic city-states saw the most. The most striking correlation resides in their modes of communication. Revolts were contagious in the European north where rebels internationalized their movements while southern Europeans remained localized and limited in scopes. In similar fashion rebels in the north often compounded urban and rural concerns, with both areas supportive of each other, while in the south the suspicion of the "others" outweighed the advantages of unity. The specific character of Italian city-states' relations with their contado led to separation rather than unity. In the succeeding engaging chapter Cohn briefly studies representation and symbolism by looking at the Italians' obsession with flags, standards and banners. More than symbols these were instruments of power, no simple representation. At this stage of research he refuses to propose a rationale for the differences that separated the Italians from their northern neighbors who opted for their hoods and words as forms of representation. The two concluding chapters define the idea that I presented initially in this review.

Historians will argue with Cohn's conclusions on the basis of their own specialty. There is no microanalysis in this book and its synthetic scope may be its most blatant weakness: the identity of each rebellion melts away. But, in the end history may be the answer to Cohn's assumption. If in fact it took one generation of Europeans to redefine Libertas and start fighting for it, why did it take them close to 400 years to win their fight? And is it won? NOTES

[1] One can only note that the scope of his inquiry is not framed within the most recent historiography. The field is large, and it has produced many interdisciplinary studies intertwining history and sociology. To date, James B. Rule, Theories of Civil Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), has produced one of the best syntheses of the discussion. Cohn notes the two authors that stand out the most, George Rudé and Charles Tilly, but it is specifically regrettable that he does not address Charles Tilly's most recent book, The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), in which he updates and revises his previous assessment of civil violence. Some important works are also lacking in his bibliography: Peter Burke, The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Richard D.E. Burton, Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris, 1789-1945 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); David Underdown, Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); Paul A. Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834(Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987), and Rioting in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics before the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); Jaap van Ginneken, Crowds, Psychology and Politics, 1871-1899 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).[2] One can note Cohn's omission of Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (New York: Haskell, 1906, reprint 1968; and Francis X. Newman, ed. Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1986).[3] The tendency toward unsubstantiated assertions continues on page 57 where no specific sources are offered for his discussion of the "rich" collections of town's statutes, deliberations etc, and on page 72 where no footnote refers to the Florentine judicial records of 1368. In addition certain quoted passages like those on page 98 are not footnoted.[4] See for example, Sergio Bertelli, The King's Body: Sacred Rituals of Power in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Trans. R. Burr Litchfield (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, 2001); and Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). The omission of these books is even more surprising since Cohn cites other works by the same authors.