‘The Eponymous Jacquerie’

It seems appropriate that my first real post here should be a summary of a paper that I just gave in Oxford because it came out of the wider perspective on revolts that this project has given me. The paper, which I called ‘The Eponymous Jacquerie’, essentially asks what kind of ‘thing’ the Jacquerie was. This may seem like a stupid question because everyone knows what the Jacquerie was, right? It was a jacquerie, a viciously bloody attack on the nobility by shapeless mobs of enraged peasants. But along with many other historians of late medieval revolt, I’ve become convinced that non-critical categorization of popular uprisings seriously obscures their meaning. We have to actively investigate their purpose and relationship to contemporary political and social structures, not just assume that we already know. Furthermore – and this is really the main point – the meaning of any large-scale collective action that takes place over any duration is never single nor fixed. Different participants will interpret the meaning of the event differently, and those meanings will change over time.

In order to unpack that for the Jacquerie, I looked at how its significance was constructed and construed from three perspectives:

  • First, the language of the sources. We have 5 main chronicle accounts and about 200 letters of remission (or royal pardons) for the Jacques. The language they use is very emotional, and the Jacquerie is largely presented as a Terror (effroi in Middle French) unleashed by leaderless countrydwellers against the nobility. But if we look at how the sources developed over time, there are fissures in this narrative façade, for the earliest remissions and the earliest chronicle (that of Jean le Bel) suggest that the revolt was equally directed against the crown. Narrative conventions changed, but there was a period when even for elite observers the Jacquerie might not have been a jacquerie.
  • Second, the revolt’s organization and political context. There’s a long-standing debate about whether and how the Jacquerie was connected to the urban revolt that had taken place in Paris under the merchant Étienne Marcel. There is actually A LOT of evidence for collaboration and coordination (some of which I sketched in the paper, though a fuller discussion will be found in the book). It is clear that the Jacques were hierarchical and military in their organization, and I am certain that reason that the Jacquerie broke out when and where it did was because the Dauphin had cut off Paris’s supply lines and was recruiting an army from the regional nobility to take back the capital by force. In these circumstances, the Jacques’ attack on les nobles can be understood not as a statement about social relations, but rather as a strategic, military move in support of the Parisians against the Dauphin’s allies.
  • Finally, the violence itself. If the leaders of the Jacquerie understood what they were doing in this way, though, it’s not necessarily the case that all the Jacques shared their interpretation. I’ve looked at one way we can get at their understanding here, but another way is to look at what they actually did. Despite Froissart’s blood-curdling stories about rape and murder, the Jacques were mostly focused on destroying fortresses. Obviously, this dovetails with the Parisians’ military needs, but fortresses were social statements as well as military ones, and those aspects were inextricably linked: The reason nobles lived in these places was because they could physically coerce commoners into handing over their surplus, and the reason they could do that was because they were a warrior aristocracy who lived in fortresses. By attacking the infrastructure of lordly domination, the Jacques were committing an inherently socially revolutionary act, whether they initially intended to do so or not. It is possible that the social aspect of the uprising may have been as much a product of the uprising as a cause of it.

I wouldn’t argue that any of these perspectives tell us the ‘truth’ about the Jacquerie. Rather, I think they show that the revolt may have had multiple meanings and that those meanings could change during and after the revolt. What the Jacquerie meant in May 1358, when it began, was not what it meant in August, with the Dauphin reinstalled in Paris. As I write about the Jacquerie now (in a book I am trying to finish this year), what I am trying to do is not just to make sense of the uprising, but to maintain a sense of the interpretative possibilities that were available then and now.