In the 14th century, France experienced the biggest popular revolt in its history before 1789. Historians have often denounced or derided the rebels, but they mounted a sophisticated, well-organized challenge to noble power that was brutally repressed.
Fifteenth-century illustration of peasant rebels being surprised by aristocratic forces during the Jacquerie in 1358. (Bibliothèque nationale de France via Wikimedia Commons)
In the summer of 1358, thousands of peasants rose up in the largest rebellion France had ever known. The heartlands of the revolt lay outside Paris, but the uprising eventually encompassed almost all northern France.
During the two months that it lasted, rebels destroyed over a hundred noble castles and manors and killed several dozen noblemen. One group may even have spit-roasted a nobleman and force-fed his flesh to his violated widow, or so a noble chronicler claimed.
The revolt soon became known as the Jacquerie, after the nickname “Jacques Bonhomme” that was given to soldiers of nonnoble birth. It was put down by a ferocious noble counterinsurgency.
Rampaging across the countryside, vengeful nobles razed entire villages and knowingly executed the innocent alongside the guilty. One grieving family remembered how a knight came to their village and hanged their relative simply because of a rumor that he had said he wanted to be “lord of the nobles.”
An Enigmatic Uprising
The Jacquerie is only outstripped by the English Rising of 1381 as the most famous outpouring of lower-class anger in the Middle Ages. And yet until my own book on it came out in 2021, the most comprehensive treatment of the Jacquerie was a French PhD dissertation originally published in 1859. Textbooks and trade books alike have usually presented the Jacquerie as being like a bolt from the blue, an irrational explosion of peasant fury that came out of nowhere.
In the summer of 1358, thousands of peasants rose up in the largest rebellion France had ever known.
I spent five years painstakingly reconstructing the Jacquerie from hundreds of unpublished sources in the French archives, following the stories of the men — and a few women — who became involved in the revolt. The picture I pieced together showed how the revolt reflected the deep-seated complexities and contradictions of medieval French society at a specific moment in time, when the kingdom was reeling both from the first wave of the Black Death ten years before and from the first decades of the Hundred Years’ War, which had been disastrous for France.
Far from being a spontaneous emotional outburst, the Jacquerie was carefully planned and executed. Its causes were multiple and evolved as the revolt progressed, but an overriding motivation was the elimination of the social and political privileges that the royal French state bestowed on nobles. But if we can view the Jacquerie grosso modo as a war by nonnobles against nobles, fissures between different sorts of nonnobles were as key to the Jacquerie’s ultimate failure as the differences between nobles and commoners.
From Massacre to Movement
The Jacquerie began on May 28, 1358, with the massacre of nine noblemen in a river village north of Paris, an incident that precipitated the mass mobilization of the countryside over the next few days. That massacre was long thought to have been a random act of peasant hatred, but it turns out on closer inspection to have been aimed at keeping these men from garrisoning a castle that would have threatened Paris.
Far from being a spontaneous emotional outburst, the Jacquerie was carefully planned and executed.
At the time, Paris was in the hands of a revolutionary bourgeois leader named Étienne Marcel, who had staged a coup against the crown and its noble supporters three months earlier. The Jacquerie broke out at the exact moment that royal forces had begun to move against Paris and the towns allied with it.
Most peasants had some idea of what was going on in Paris, and some were in sympathy with what they thought were its antinoble aims. A few weeks before the Jacquerie began, a peasant had told a nobleman to “take himself to Paris, where they kill nobles.”
However, if the Jacquerie began in support of these urban interests, it soon grew beyond it. As the rural revolt coalesced and spread, the Jacques continued to support Parisian military objectives, yet they also directed their violence at France’s nobles more generally. They took aim at the privileged place of the nobility at the center of the military and fiscal regime of the royal French state.
Critique From Within
In the hegemonic ideology of medieval Europe, nobles were society’s fighters (bellatores), while common people, particularly peasants, were its workers (laboratores). Workers were supposed to hand over their surplus in exchange for the protection that noble warriors provided. In France, this logic not only accorded nobles an exalted social position but also partly shielded them from taxation, on the grounds that the taxes mostly paid for warfare.
Whether peasants actually believed that this was a fair deal seems doubtful, but it did give them grounds to argue that nobles who failed to keep up their end of the bargain did not deserve their privileges — a critique of the hegemonic ideology on its own terms. And in the years leading up to the Jacquerie, the French nobility had signally failed in its military role.
In the years leading up to the Jacquerie, the French nobility had signally failed in its military role.
The English army had repeatedly defeated French knights on the field and captured the French king in battle two years earlier. As a catchy song written soon after claimed, the common-born soldiers called “Jacques Bonhommes” surely could have done much better. What’s more, the fiscal privileges of the nobles left commoners disproportionately on the hook for the king’s ransom, while land laws prohibited selling hereditary noble lands to nonnobles.
In postplague France, where land ought to have been much more available relative to the greatly diminished population, tying land tenure to social status artificially protected noble estates at the cost of peasant accumulation and mobility. This remained the case even as the royal state exacted more of its surplus in taxes to pay for noble armies that were repeatedly defeated.
Strikingly, the Jacquerie was an antinoble revolt but not an antiseignorial one. The rebels attacked the hereditary aristocracy as a social class with a special relationship to the state, not as the holders of “private” power in their own lordships. Unlike the rebels of the 1381 English Rising, who burned their lords’ rent rolls and fought for the abolition of serfdom, the Jacques rarely attacked their own lords, burned almost no documents, made no criticisms of serfdom, and left clerical lords (like bishops and monasteries) untouched.
The Jacques concentrated their violence on the nobles’ houses, which were largely showpieces of negligible military value (even when their owners pretentiously called them “castles”), and on noble possessions, which they mostly destroyed rather than stole. Chroniclers writing for noble audiences made wild accusations of rape and child murder against the Jacques. These charges are unsubstantiated by archival evidence, but they do betray nobles’ anxieties about being targeted as a social group knit together by blood and marriage.
Cracks Within the Coalition
Dozens of royal documents written after the revolt emphasize the Jacquerie’s antinoble animus, characterizing the revolt as “a noisy terror (effroiz) of nonnobles against nobles.” But this noble/nonnoble binary elides significant social variations among the nonnobles themselves. If the state treated nobles as a class and nobles thought of themselves in this way, despite considerable differences between the great lords of sprawling territories and minor gentry of little wealth, nonnoble identities were more heterogenous.
The leaders of the Jacquerie were often literate and relatively wealthy, differing markedly from its poorer and less-educated rank and file. Led by village captains under the overall authority of a “Great Captain” named Guillaume Calle, the Jacques argued about tactics and targets.
The leaders of the Jacquerie were often literate and relatively wealthy, differing markedly from its poorer and less-educated rank and file.
Leaders wanted restraints on violence — or at least later claimed they did — while rank-and-file Jacques often objected to their leaders’ commands. Medieval French villages usually made decisions communally and without formal leadership, so obedience to hierarchy did not come naturally to many Jacques.
Distinctions between urban and rural commoners cut even more deeply than those among the peasants themselves. Townspeople lived behind high city walls that protected their cities, and they saw themselves as wealthier and better cultured than the rural commoners of the “open countryside” beyond those walls.
Townspeople also had a different political status and relationship to the royal state when compared to their counterparts in the countryside. Townsmen constituted the Third Estate — analogous to the clergy of the First Estate and the nobles of the Second Estate — and sent delegates to the assemblies of the Estates General that set taxation and decided much royal policy. Peasants had no representation at these meetings.
At first, Paris and many other provincial cities like Amiens and Beauvais had supported the peasants’ revolt. They had set out tables in the streets to feed Jacquerie companies passing through and even sent their own town militias out to join in the destruction of nearby castles.
But when the counterinsurgency of the nobles began, the fault lines between rural and urban commoners became apparent. The townspeople — literally, the medieval bourgeoisie — abandoned the revolt.
The Revolt Betrayed
The noble counterinsurgency began on June 10 as mounted knights crushed the Jacques on the field at a battle north of Paris at the same moment that a combined force of Jacques and Parisians were routed in an assault on a castle at Meaux. Several more battles ensued — all of them disastrous for the Jacques — as a summer of bloody retribution unfolded.
Where the Jacques had usually engaged in at least a semblance of due process, some nobles summarily executed any peasant they could get their hands on.
The counterinsurgency was even more violent than the Jacquerie itself. It involved much more killing, and where the Jacques had usually engaged in at least a semblance of due process, some nobles summarily executed any peasant they could get their hands on. In one incident, nobles burned six hundred Jacques alive in the church where they had taken refuge. Elsewhere, they raped and pillaged at will.
As the tide turned against the Jacques, the urban/rural coalition fell apart. All but one of the towns closed their gates to Jacques seeking refuge. That betrayal doomed the revolt.
Since they were unable to shelter behind city walls and had destroyed the nobles’ castles rather than occupying them, the Jacques had no defensive refuges of their own. Some fled to forests or caves, but most were caught in the open countryside and slaughtered.
The Jacques fought back for a long time. There were sieges against nobles’ castles and further destruction of noble manors throughout June and July, even north of Paris where the counterinsurgency was strongest. South and west of Paris, there were attempts at opening a new theater of revolt, and to its east, villagers in Champagne assembled to defend themselves. But the rural rebellion could not survive without urban support. By August, it was over.
The Jacquerie’s Legacy
In the immediate aftermath of the Jacquerie, the crown tried to suppress its memory. Although resentments between nobles and peasants festered for decades afterward, it largely succeeded in doing so. The word jacquerie, coined shortly after the revolt, soon faded from use. It only reentered the French lexicon as a general term for a peasant uprising at the time of the French Revolution when medieval revolts suddenly seemed salient once more.
Not long after that, as history became a more professional discipline that was open to the studious as well as the leisured, many new sources for the original Jacquerie were found in the French archives. For the first time since the fourteenth century, it became possible to understand the revolt in sociopolitical terms, in contrast to the chroniclers’ portrait of blind, bloodthirsty fury. In 1859, the first modern historian of the Jacquerie claimed to discern “the seeds of 1789” in the revolts of 1358.
While recent research on medieval revolt rejects such teleological anachronisms, study after study has demonstrated the astute political consciousness of peasants and townspeople alike. No one can now dismiss the Jacques as uneducated louts without the mental capacity for concerted action. Still, the Jacquerie’s political legacy today remains a vexed one.
Today’s hegemony of economic liberalism fails just as badly on its own terms as the justification of noble privilege did seven hundred years ago. But if tax-avoiding billionaires and multinational companies are our nobles, the differences between our urban elites and rural commoners are just as pronounced as they were in the Middle Ages, and intersect with other identities in ways that would have been unimaginable then. The Jacquerie’s most salutary lesson for modern politics may be that socially heterogenous coalitions are fraught and fragile, especially when the going gets tough.Original post