Throughout the long domination of the feudal system in France local spasmodic revolts by the serfs and villeins against the nobles who oppressed them were frequent. But these upheavals were rarely successful, even for a very short time; and accurate records of what occurred are not obtainable. Only when the insurgents received organised help “from without” or aided invaders in their raids, were they able to enjoy the temporary luxury of revenge upon the lords and ecclesiastics who held them in thraldom. There is nothing in the known out-Taurst [?] of the “Jacques” – so called from the nickname of Jacques Bonhomme – in different parts of France which can compare for a moment, for vigour, duration and success, with the great risings of the chattel slaves in Italy and Sicily under the Roman Republic, or even with the revolt of the Bagaudae [?] in Gaul in the reign of Diocletian. At no time was there, so far as history can tell us, any serious danger of a general overthrow; and such small victories as the Jacques achieved during their chief rising, which occurred within circuit of a hundred miles of Paris, were gained only when, as at Senlis, the townsfolk, being attacked by the nobles, took part with the Jacques, or when they received valuable support from the commune and citizens of Paris.
The upheaval known by the name of the Jacquerie took place in 1358. It was due, not to the usual misrule or tyranny of the feudal nobility and chivalry, but to causes which could scarcely fail to bring about more than ordinary domestic trouble, if the agricultural population had any fight left in them at all. After the disastrous defeat of the French king, John, and his army by conglomerate English forces under the command of the Black Prince at Poitiers a cessation of hostilities was arranged, and the French forces were disbanded. During the battle the French nobles and knights had shown arrant cowardice and deserved the contempt with which they were regarded by the whole French nation. But the pusillanimity they displayed in the field was followed by the most horrible brigandage, carried on at the expense of the peasantry of the villages and small towns. Pillage, rape, torture, massacre went on daily. Such districts as could pay heavy ransom were spared for the time being, but in the long run whole districts were systematically robbed and devastated by these free companies of rapine. At last the serfs and villeins turned upon their ravagers and began a war of reprisals, in the course of which many castles and chateaux were burnt to the ground by the infuriated “Jacques,” who wreaked a terrible vengeance upon the men, women and children of their enemies who fell into their hands. Yet they certainly carried out nothing worse, upon their much smaller scale, than the brigands and their allies, the feudal chiefs and the king himself habitually did before and after the upheaval.
The turning-point of the brief struggle was at the town and fortress of Meaux. Here a number of the nobility had taken refuge with their wives to escape destruction by the maddened peasants. So numerous and determined were the attacking serfs that it seemed as if nothing could save the women of the aristocracy, including the Duchess of Normandy and others of high rank, from the fate which had so often befallen the peasant women. Suddenly, by the purest accident, two great French knights, Gaston de Foix and the Captal de Buch, with some twenty-five other knights and their attendants, appeared on the scene, and forced their way through the besiegers into the armed camp where the women were collected. Immediately thereafter they put their small force in order, and charging at their head in full armour, against which the miserable weapons of the serfs could inflict no wound, they routed the three thousand assailants and, according to the narrative of the time, butchered no fewer than two thousand of them on the spot and in the chase that followed. Here the highest minds in the dominant class were as furiously vindictive and ruthless as the greatest personages of the Roman Republic dealing with revolting slaves. The Captal de Buch and the Comte Gaston de Foix, like Edward the Black Prince, du Guesclin, Bayard and others, were brave, generous and merciful when fighting men of their own rank. But when it came to meeting the serfs and villeins of France they were capable of any infamy. These unfortunate peasants were to them of no account whatever, save to till the soil and submit to all sorts of personal and pecuniary exactions; for the peasant (like the chattel slaves before the Emperors introduced some laws to his advantage) was barely treated as a man. Thus, in the day of victory over the insurgents no mercy was shown. The knights and nobles forgot, in their hatred and the memory of their previous terror, that it was to the economic interest of their class at least to keep the toilers alive, and to save the small towns and villages from fire and flames. But so great had been the panic that no such considerations weighed with them for a moment. Revenge, destruction and slaughter were allowed free play. In one district alone as many as twenty thousand unarmed peasants were butchered. After the disaster to the nobles at Senlis – where the army of the feudal lords, imagining that a mere parade march lay before them, entered the town in full confidence and were cut off by the peasantry – the fury of the rest of the nobility knew no bounds. Devastation and horror reigned supreme.
Treachery was brought in as usual, when, the peasants being the stronger party, that form of upper-class diplomacy seemed more advisable than mere brute force. Thus the King, Charles the Bad, when he found himself opposed to some three thousand peasants under the leadership of Guillaume le Cale, who showed generalship in arraying his half-armed followers for battle, invited le Cale to a peaceful conference in order to come to terms. No sooner had the peasant commander accepted this invitation, in good faith but with exceeding foolishness, than the King, of course, put him at once in irons, attacked and defeated the army deprived of its leader, whom immediately thereafter he brutally executed. Before this encounter there were not a few who imagined that the King himself was disposed to take the side of the peasants, and thus strengthen the power of the throne. But this was as complete an hallucination as the notion to which Guillaume le Cale and others fell victims: that a governing class ever keeps faith when its rights of property and social predominance seem in jeopardy. The King saw quite clearly that, however much he might desire to curb the arrogance and reduce the influence of the great feudal lords in the interest of the Crown and State, his vital interests, against the serfs and peasants of the countryside, as well as against the growing power of the municipalities and their trade combinations, were closely bound up with theirs. Even if he and his successors had been genuinely favourable to the people they could not afford to dispense with the support of the feudal chiefs, or force them all into one camp against their superior by attempting to sap the foundations of the whole system. The time was far from ripe for such a policy; nor did any king of France before or after the fall of feudalism frankly adopt it. Henry IV, who, with his “every peasant his fowl in the pot,” had some tendency in that direction, and was a far stronger monarch in every way than Charles the Bad, could not go further than words in expressing his sympathy; while his inevitable campaigns told heavily against the welfare of his subjects.
Large as this particular rising of the peasants looms in French history under its name of 6#8220;the” Jacquerie, the whole revolt, so far as the serfs themselves were direct parties to it, lasted no more than a month. It was the fear inspired, rather than the success achieved, which gave the upheaval its importance. But a movement of far greater significance took place in Paris at the same time, which was to some extent associated with and helpful to the Jacquerie. This was the uprising of the citizens of Paris under the leadership of the famous Etienne Marcel, the head and provost of the merchants and trades of that city. But for the aid given from this quarter, it is probable that the attempt of the Jacquerie would have failed even sooner than it did. Marcel had the alliance of Robert le Coq in his endeavour to rouse the citizens of Paris and other towns against the Dauphin Charles, who had fled with no fewer than eight hundred lances from the rout of Poitiers, displaying on that occasion almost equal pusillanimity with the Duke of Orleans, who, with a powerful force, never took any part in the battle at all. The entire condition of France at this period was rendered well-nigh desperate, not only by the razzias and ravages committed by the companies of men-at-arms, frequently headed by or in alliance with the nobles, but by the systematic debasement of the currency, the terrible exactions demanded to pay the ransoms to the English for the release of King John and other high-placed prisoners in their hands, the insecurity of the roads, which rendered trade difficult if not impossible, and the lack of any capable central authority. Yet bad as all this was, the conduct of the citizens of Paris took a different line to that of the Jacquerie. They and their envoys attacked and burned castles infested by brigands and freebooters, and had no hesitation in fighting against nobles who resisted them. But the armed forces of Paris were rarely if ever maddened into excesses against the defeated, or their women and children.
Etienne Marcel himself, however, committed a great blunder – crimes then were so common that we cannot apply the ethic of to-day to the deeds of the fourteenth century. He made the mistake of putting to death, without trial, one of the King’s legal representatives in the Parliament; while his slaughter of the marshals of Normandy and Champagne, not only in the presence of but in actual touch with the Dauphin, was worse than a crime. “Stone dead hath no fellow.” Yet the leader of the people in troubled times who acts upon that aphorism plays into the hands of his rivals and enemies, and renders any accommodation with the ruler whose counsellors have been sacrificed impossible, when circumstances give him in turn the ascendancy. This removal of the marshal by Marcel’s followers in the royal presence, even if it had been justified, in view of the marshal’s own treachery to the people, furnished an excuse for similar action at Marcel’s expense when he, being unable to control the Dauphin and the opposing party of citizens in Paris, intrigued with the King of Navarre and was ready to hand over Paris to that prince.
But whatever his mistakes may have been in practice, the policy of Marcel and his coadjutor, the Bishop of Laon, was very different from the anarchical effort of the serfs and peasants, who merely sought to avenge their wrongs upon the nobles without having any clear idea of what they would do next. Marcel and Robert le Coq had for their part quite definite objects in view – objects so admirable in themselves and so beneficial to France, if they could by any means have been attained, that even in the twentieth century they have not as yet reached their fulfilment. A brief summary of M. Siméon de Luce, from the Charters promulgated at the time, seems to put Marcel and his friends on a very high plane, in company with the greatest men who, being unfortunately in advance of their time, tried to accommodate their ideas and principles to the practical possibilities of the epoch in which they lived.
First and foremost Marcel intended to cut at the root of the abuses of royal despotic authority by enforcing the recognition of the self-government of the communes of France combined in a federation after the model of the good towns of Flanders, and having at their head the Commune of Paris, safeguarding only the high political suzerainty of the King. Private wars between nobles forbidden; payment and equipment of the army and, more important still, the power to carry on or to suspend war decided by arbitration of the States; dominial concessions made since the reign of Philip le Bel revoked; the safety of all subjects ensured against the abuse of judgments by commission; trade freed from unfair and ruinous competition by restraining magistrates from carrying on business; the receipt of supplies voted removed from the hidden accountancy of the agents of the treasury and placed under the control of public functionaries elected by the States, audited also by delegates nominated by that body; royalty prohibited from debasing the coinage; lastly, the government, while the assemblies were not sitting, to be entrusted to the King, aided by thirty-four members of the Council of the States, seventeen from the Tiers Etat (bourgeoisie), eleven from the clergy, and six from the nobility.
This series of thoroughly statesmanlike measures was carried in 1356-1357, and accepted by the Dauphin and his nobility, enfeebled as they were by the crushing defeat of Poitiers. But we have only to look at the terms imposed upon the Dauphin and the Regent, and consider how the economic and social development of France then stood, to see that no heir to the throne would submit to the surveillance of thirty-four delegates of the etats-géneraux one moment longer than he need. The murder of his adherents at the instance of Marcel and the proclamation by Marcel’s allies, Robert le Coq and Jean de Pacquigny, of Charles the Bad of Navarre as King of France complicated the situation still further. Moreover, the dominant position given to the Tiers Etat in the Council of thirty-four (from which, of course, the peasantry were entirely excluded) is conclusive evidence that neither Marcel nor le Coq understood that the middle or trading class had by no means risen to the level of influence which entitled them to such representation. They felt the need of support, and looked to the rising power of the bourgeoisie to maintain them in their control of the Dauphin. Yet a hundred years later Louis XI, with all his supreme statecraft and unscrupulous polity, found his capacity strained to the utmost in his endeavour to play a similar game under far more favourable conditions. Meanwhile Marcel’s co-operation with the Jacquerie, and the high tone adopted by the Commune of Paris in the provinces, turned a large portion of the population around the metropolis against him: an antagonism which has been strongly exhibited even in our own day. Thus the collapse of the Jacquerie, the impossibility of keeping the Dauphin under his control, the growth of the party of opposition among the citizens of Paris themselves, induced Marcel to enter into his fatal intrigue with Charles the Bad by which he was to have given the keys of the city to that prince in return – as the provost expected – for his installing Marcel as virtual Mayor of the Palace and the real master of France. The result was to embolden his chief enemy in Paris, John Maillart, to make a sudden attack upon him just as the plot was on the point of being carried out. Marcel was killed by John Maillart on the spot, and his followers and friends were tortured to death with every refinement of cruelty.
Thus the Jacquerie and the great effort of the first Commune of Paris as a political entity came to an end almost simultaneously. Greatly as we must admire the attempt of Marcel, le Coq and their coadjutors to bring some sort of democratic and representative order out of the social, economic, financial and other troubles which then afflicted so large a part of France; much as we may regret the fate of Guillaume le Cale and others who tried in vain to discipline the peasantry and inspire them with some sort of strategy and tactics; fully also as we can recognise that these struggles for freedom, though futile, helped forward the cause of emancipation through the centuries: none the less the whole endeavour which then so speedily collapsed came to its sudden end, not on account of the mistakes made or the crimes committed by leaders or followers, but by the truth, once more made manifest, that the stage of economic and social development then attained did not permit of success. This does not mean that the revolts of the French middle class or the French serfs against tyranny and misgovernment were unjustifiable. They were justifiable on every ground that one can urge for political action or violent upheaval of any kind: never more so than in the day of Etienne Marcel and John le Coq. But again and again and again we see, in the cruel and protracted effort of mankind to get free from its own self-imposed but unconscious domination by an oppressive minority, that ideals, justice, truth, morality or character have little or no effect on the result of the conflict. Marcel was in every way superior to his opponents and murderers. The cause of the serfs and peasants was light against darkness as compared with the claims of the nobility and the brigands – at that epoch almost convertible terms. But these were ineffective incidents in the long, grinding, bitter class war between serfs and nobles, traders and king. The antagonism was more relentless in France than in England, because, as French historians have often pointed out, at the time of the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt there were in France no such great bodies of free yeomen as those who fought in their own ranks, side by side with the English feudal barons, and won great victories for the overlords of England. But even if there had been, nothing shows that the general progress could have been more rapid under the economic and social conditions then existing.
So four hundred and thirty-five years passed away in foreign and domestic warfare, and frightful misery and hardship for the French people, before the feudal system was put an end to by law and a portion of Marcel’s programme for the Tiers Etat was realised.
Last updated on 7.7.2006