Revolutions: Peasant Rebellions

peasant rebellions
Figure 1.--

With the advent of agriculture more centralized government was required to carry out public works necessary to support agricultural production and maintain a productive economy, such as saving surplus production for periods of famine. This led in all instances to rule by a aristocracy and priesthood. The status of peasants varied over time. In many societie the peasantry were little more than slaves. Slavery was not important in many early civilizations in part because the peasantry was only minimally removed from slavery. In other instances the peasants were properous and had real rights. The leading societal groups often appropriated a large share of production in many instances impovershing the peasants which were the sourse of wealth. This led over time to peasant rebellions. Peasant rebellions have occurred throughout history, although most early such rebellions have been lost to history. Fear of the peasantry is one factor that prevented rich agricultural civilizations from sucessfully defending themselves from invasion by smaller often poor nomadic societies. The peasnts utimately throughout history were unable to sucessfully challenge rhe ruling classess who were normally well armed and trained in warfare. Some peasant rebellions, especially the more recent ones are are very well known. One of the earliest known peasant rebellion is the Chen Sheng Wu Guang Uprising (209 BC). One of the best known is the English peasants' revolt which challenged the youthful Richard II (1381). Another important rebellion was the German peasants war (1524-25) at the onset of the Reformation. Finally in the 20th century, peasant rebellions (Mexico, Russia, and China) did play a role in overturning often repressive central governments. The peasantry often did not play a leadership role and in each of these revolutions was unable to shape the nature of post-revolutionary regimes.

Chen Sheng Wu Guang Uprising (209 BC)

The Chen Sheng Wu Guang Uprising (July - December 209 BC) was a challenge to Qin rule after the death of Emperpr Qin Shi Huang. Chen Sheng and Wu Guang were army officers. They recceived orders to march north to help defend Yuyang. Their command was made up mostly of peasants. They were delayed along the march in Anhui province where rain and floods delayed their march. This was no small matter. Qin had inflexible laws. One was that delays wre not tolerated when military officers or government officials were given orders. Both Chen and Wu realized that the delays made it impossible to reach Yuyang. This meant they faced execution. They decided to rebel against the Qin. They soon found themselves the center of a massive revolt. The rebels were primarily composed of dicontented peasants. While their numbers reached around 10,000 men, the proved no match for the disciplined Qin armies. Wu was killed as a result of infighting among the rebel commanders. Chen was betrayed by one of his own guards.

Yellow Turban Rebellion (184 AD)

The Yellow Turban Rebellion was another Chinese peasant uprising. The Han Dynasty was declining and Zhang Jue fomented the idean that the Han had lost the Mandate of Heaven. He developed a following among an increasingly distrssed and heavily taxed peasantry. The Han at great cost fortified the Silk Road and protected China's foreign trade. Taxation reached a level that the peasants were hungary. Zhang Jue styled himself the "The Good Doctor of Great Wisdom". His preaching tapped into popular Taoism as well as peasant dicontent. He even offered a magical healing potion--the "Way of the Highest Peace". Without modern media his message spread. Hundreds of thousands of mostly peasant followers donned yellow turbans as a symbol of the soil wich they worked. Zhang Jue finally launched his rebellion against the Han.(184). Leading his peasant army, he marched on Luoyang. His huge army was massive, but without any real discipline. Looting, pillaging, and death followed in its wake as it made its way thriugh the countryside. Goverment officials were targeted, but entire cities were destroyed. The Han received reports of the advance of Zhang Jue's army and prepared their defenses. The well-armed Imperial Army met the Yellow Turbans. They were not prepared for real military action. Most were not even armed. Zhang Jue was ahilosopher, not a military commnder. The rebels believed in the protection of the gods and the correctness of their cause. Zhang Jue had guaranteed them invincibility as a result of his magic potions. In the ensuing confrintation, they were decimated.

French Jacquerie (1358)

There were several peasant rebellions in Frebch history. The best known was the Jacquerie (1358). It occurred in northern France during the Hundred Years War, a particularly difficult time for the peasantry. The peasabys rose in the Oise valley north of Paris. This term Jacquerie developed from the derisive attitude of the nobility. They referred to the peasants as "Jacque" or "Jaque Bonhomme". This was based on their padded surplice which was called "jacque"--the origin of the modern "jacket". The Jacquerie was led by Guillaume Cale, often called Jacques Bonhomme ("Jim Goodfellow") or Callet. As a result of the dimensions of the rising, the name "Jacquerie" has become used as a generic term for peasant revolts. As in the rest of Europe, the peasants did not have the organization or military skills to succeed against the nobility in armed confrontations.

English Peasants' Revolt (1381)

One of the best known peasant rebellions is the English peasants' revolt which challenged the youthful Richard II (1381). The uprising is notable as the first great popular rebellion since the Boutica Celtic rebellion againct the Romans. The rebellion was sparked by the imposition of the poll tax which was widely resented (1381). Even before this their was rising economic dicontent which had been grosing since mid-century. The rebellion was not just an upsrising as the destitute, but included other sements of the population, including relatively successful artisans and "villeins". Even more important to agricultural workers as well as the urban working class was the Statute of Labourers (1351). This was an attemp by the landed aristocracy to place a limit on wages. The Plague had ravaged England. The huge death toll had crearted a massive labor shortage. The surviving workers with their labor in short supply, were demanding higher wages. Kentish men, under Wat Tyler, marched on London and essentially seized control of the City. The next day, Richard confronted the rebels. It looked like the rebels were going to overturn the establish social system in England. Here Tyler was killed, but Richard won control of the rebels and defused the threat with promiss. The rebellion was over in less than a monthla. It completely failed as a social revolution.

German Peasants War (1524-25)

Another important rebellion was the German peasants war (1524-25) at the onset of the Reformation. A substantial segment of the German peasantry was attracted to Luther's idea, but perhaps more for economic than theological reasons. Sctual revolts occured in 1524. Luther was at first sympathetic urging the aristocratic and clerical landlords to meet the peasant deamnd for emancipation from Feudal services. He soon turned against the peasants because he did want his theological issues mixed in with a radical call for social reform. He wrote a classic pamflet, "Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants". The peasants were suppressed, in part by Imperial forces (1525).


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Created: 7:05 AM 3/12/2009
Last updated: 7:29 AM 5/26/2009