The Mind’s Eye: Reconstructing the Historian’s Semantic Matrix Through Henry Knighton’s Account of the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381
Sarah Marilyn Steeves Keeshan
Master of Arts, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia December (2011)
The medieval historian engaged with the systems of power and authority that surrounded him. In his account of the Peasants’ Revolt in late medieval England, the ecclesiastical historian Henry Knighton (d. 1396) both reinforced and challenged the traditional order. This thesis explores the ways in which his ideological perspectives shaped his understanding of the events of June 1381 and how this understanding was articulated through the structure, language, and cultural meaning of the historical text. The reconstruction of authorial intention and reclamation of both Knighton and the medieval reader as active participants in the creation of history challenge a historiography that has long disregarded Knighton as an unremarkable historical recorder. Instead, they reveal a scholar whose often extraordinary approach to the rebels and traditional authorities expresses a great deal about the theory, practice, and construction of power and authority in late medieval England.
The summer of 1381 saw the occurrence of a singular and unprecedented event in English history, commonly referred to as the Peasants’ Revolt. In June, an amalgam of peasants, merchants, and artisans rose up, beginning in Essex and Kent and tearing a path across the south of England. Under the leadership of Wat Tyler, they stormed prisons and monasteries, tore up charters, and attacked figures of authority, all the while demanding equality, freedom, and the restoration of their “ancient rights.” Most generally, the causes of the Revolt included the tumult of the aftermath of the Black Death, and the Hundred Years War. The immediate cause, however, was a series of poll taxed imposed by the fourteen-year-old boy-king, Richard II. Following months of agitating, the rebels gathered together and marched on Canterbury on 10 June 1381. They assembled together at Blackheath on 12 June. Just two days later, the main force of the rebels had reached and gained access to London, stormed the Tower and executed several high-ranking officials there including the archbishop of Canterbury and the royal treasurer.