After the capture of the French King John II, Froissart's bon roi Jean "John the Good" by the English during the Battle of Poitiers in September 1356, power in France devolved fruitlessly among the States General, Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, and John's son, the Dauphin, later Charles V. However, the Estates General were too divided to provide effective government and the disputes between the two rulers provoked disunity amongst the nobles. Consequently the prestige of the French nobility, which had begun the century at Courtrai, the "Battle of the Golden Spurs" by fleeing the field, leaving their infantry to be hacked to pieces and had given up their king at Poitiers had sunk to a new low. To secure their rights, the French privileged classes, the nobility, the merchant elite, and the clergy, forced the peasantry to pay ever-increasing taxes (for example, the taille) and to repair their war-damaged properties under corve– without compensation. The passage of a law that required the peasants to defend the chteaux that were emblems of their oppression was the immediate cause of the spontaneous uprising; it was particularly onerous as many common people already blamed the nobility's corruption for the defeat at Poitiers. The chronicle of Jean de Venette articulates the perceived problems between the nobility and the peasants, yet some historians, Samuel K. Cohn being one of them, see the Jacquerie revolts as a reaction to a combination of short and long-term effects dating as early as the grain crisis and famine of 1315. In addition, bands of English, Gascon, German and Spanish routiers– unemployed mercenaries and bandits employed by the English during outbreaks of the Hundred Years' War– were left uncontrolled, to loot, rape and plunder the lands of Northern France almost at will, the States General powerless to stop them. Many peasants questioned why they should work for a government that clearly could not protect its citizens.
This combination of problems set the stage for a brief series of bloody rebellions in northern France in 1358. The account of the rising by the contemporary chronicler Jean le Bel includes a description of horrifying violence. According to him, peasants
"killed a knight, put him on a spit, and roasted him with his wife and children looking on. After ten or twelve of them raped the lady, they wished to force feed them the roasted flesh of their father and husband and made them then die by a miserable death."
Examples of violence on this scale by the hands of French peasants are offered throughout all of the medieval sources, including Jean de Venette, in general sympathetic to the peasants' plight, and the particularly unsympathetic aristocrat Jean Froissart. Among the chroniclers, the one sympathetic to the plight of the peasants is the anonymous monk who continued the chronicle of Guillaume de Nangis.
The peasants involved in the rebellion seem to have lacked any real organization, instead rising up locally as an unstructured mass. It is speculated by Jean le Bel that evil governors and tax collectors spread the word of rebellion from village to village to inspire the peasants to rebel against the nobility. When asked as to the cause of their discontent they apparently replied that they were just doing what they had witnessed others doing. Additionally it seems that the rebellion contained some idea that it was possible to rid the world of nobles. Froissart's account portrays the rebels as mindless thugs bent on destruction, which they wreaked on over 150 noble houses and castles, murdering the families in horrendous ways. Outbreaks occurred in Rouen and Rheims, while Senlis and Montdidier were sacked by the peasant army. The bourgeoisie of Beauvais, Senlis, Paris, Amiens and Meaux, sorely pressed by the court party, accepted the Jacquerie, and the urban underclass were sympathetic.
The Jacquerie must be seen in the context of this period of internal instability. At a time of personal government, the absence of a charismatic king was detrimental to the still-feudal state. The Dauphin had to contend with roaming free companies of out-of-work mercenaries, the plotting of Charles the Bad, and the possibility of another English invasion. The Dauphin gained effective control of the realm only after the supposed surrender of the city of Paris under the high bourgeois tienne Marcel, prevt des marchands in July 1358. Marcel had joined Cale's rebellion somewhat inadvisedly, and, when his wealthy supporters deserted his cause it cost him the city and his life, in September. It is notable that churches were not the targets of peasant fury.
The revolt was suppressed by French nobles led by Charles the Bad of Navarre, cousin, brother-in-law and mortal enemy of the Regent, whose throne he was attempting to usurp. His and the peasant army opposed each other near Mello on June 10, 1358 when Guillaume Cale, the leader of the rebellion, was invited to truce talks by Charles. Foolishly, he went to the enemy camp, where he was seized by the French nobles, who considered that as he was of low birth, the customs and standards of chivalry did not apply to him; he was tortured and decapitated. His now leaderless army, which only Froissart's account, heavily influenced by the conventions of Romance, claimed was 20,000 strong, was ridden down by divisions of knights' cavalry in the ensuing Battle of Mello, which was followed by a campaign of terror throughout the Beauvais region, where soldiers roamed door to door in the countryside lynching countless peasants. Maurice Dommaget notes that the few hundred aristocratic victims of the Jacquerie were known to the chroniclers, who detailed the outrages practiced upon them; some 20,000 anonymous peasants were killed in the fury that followed.
The final events transpired at Meaux, where the impregnable citadel was crowded with knights and their ladies. A large armed band of some 800 men-at-arms from Paris, not the 10,000 Jacques of Froissart's account, under the leadership of Etienne Marcel, departed from Paris 9 June; when they appeared before Meaux they were taken in hospitably by the disaffected townspeople and fed. The fortress, somewhat apart from the town, remained unassailable. Two captain adventurers returned from crusade against the pagans of Prussia, were at Chlons, Gaston Phebus, comte de Foix and his noble Gascon cousin the Captal de Buch; the approach of their well-armed lancers encouraged the besieged nobles in the fortress, and a general rout of the Parisian force ensued. The nobles then fired the suburb nearest the fortress, entrapping the burghers in the flames. The mayor of Meaux and other prominent men of the city were hanged. There was a pause, then the nobles plundered the city and churches and set fire to Meaux, which burned for two weeks, overrunning the countryside, burning cottages and barns and slaughtering all the peasants they could find.
The reprisals continued through July and August. There was a massacre at Reims, steadfast in the Royal cause though it had remained. Senlis defended itself. Knights of Hainault Flanders and Brabant joined in the carnage. Following the declaration of amnesty, issued by the Regent, 10 August 1358, such heavy fines were assessed the regions that had supported the Jacquerie that a general flight of peasantry ensued.
The slanted but vivid and quotable account of Froissart can be balanced by the Regent's letters of amnesty, a document that comments more severely on the nobles' reaction than on the peasants' rising and omits the atrocities detailed by Froissant: "it represents the men of the open country assembling spontaneously in various localities, in order to deliberate on the means of resisting the English, and suddenly, as with a mutual agreement, turning fiercely on the nobles".
The Jacquerie traumatized the aristocracy. In 1872 Louis Raymond de Vericour remarked to the Royal Historical Society, "To this very day the word 'Jacquerie' does not generally give rise to any other idea than that of a bloodthirsty, iniquitous, groundless revolt of a mass of savages. Whenever, on the Continent, any agitation takes place, however slight and legitimate it may be, among the humbler classes, innumerable voices, in higher, privileged, wealthy classes, proclaim that society is threatened with a Jacquerie"
The contemporary literary chronicles were influenced by other medieval genres: romance, satire, and complaint. The subject of the Jacquerie engaged the Romantic historical imagination, resulting in numerous nineteenth-century historical novels with somewhat operatic plots set against the backdrop of the Jacquerie–The Jacquerie, or, The Lady and the Page: An Historical Romance by G. P. R James (1842) and the like– and even an opera, by Alberto Donaudy. In more modern literature, the 1961 novel A Walk with Love and Death by Hans Koningsberger takes place in France during the Jacquerie.
|Hundred Years' War|
|Battles – Sieges – Chevauches
French and English kings – Peace treaties – People
Armagnacs and Burgundians – Jacquerie
Breton War of Succession – Castilian Civil War
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