‘Falseness Reigns in Every Flock’: Literacy and Eschatological Discourse in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381
Tison Pugh (University of Central Florida)
Quidditas: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, Volume 1 (2000)
The literature of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a miscellany of fourteenth-century poetry and prose penned before, during, and after the insurrection, often stresses the importance of literacy to the nonaristocratic population of England. Since literacy was a primary marker of one’s social status in the stratified society of medieval England, the rise of literacy in the lower orders pointed to a dramatic change in the prevailing socioeconomic structure. In the literature of the revolt, eschatological themes highlight the tensions resulting from this tremendous upheaval in the traditional estates. The power of literacy is depicted as adumbrating a new social order free from class division; these themes of revolution are reinforced by eschatological motifs, including the prevalence of falsehood, God’s judgment of his enemies, the beginnings of war, and the appearance of natural disasters such as famine and earthquakes. The eschatological thematics of the Peasants’ Revolt literature reflect the insurrectionists’ conviction that, unless the inequities of England’s economic caste system were ameliorated, God’s judgment was at hand; these eschatological motifs also evince the poets’ concerns with the ideological, political, and social ramifications of literacy. We can see in these writings a twin concern with literacy and eschatology predicated upon the spread of dissident thought and the society’s reaction to these ideas.
LITERACY IN FOURTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND
Before addressing the literature of the rebellion itself, the literacy of medieval English society should be considered. Throughout the medieval period, most of the European population was illiterate; however, defining and quantifying this illiteracy is difficult because of the polyglot nature of European society with Latin and the vernacular tongues. Because Latin was the language of medieval government and administration, the vernacular was becoming increasingly important as a means of expressing dissent with the reigning power structures. Franz Bäuml offers a paradigm of literacy which underscores the complexity of defining literacy in a multilingual society such as fourteenth-century England. In such an environment, the range of a person’s fluency with language would include that of “the fully literate, that of the individual who must rely on the literacy of another for access to written transmission, and that of the illiterate without need or means of such reliance.” Medieval literacy, therefore, in terms of individual and personal comprehension of written documents, is virtually impossible to quantify with any validity because the people of the culture were accustomed to relying upon one another for their needs in this regard.