Tom Quelch 1910

Review of William Morris' “The Revolt of Ghent”

Source: Tom Quelch, Review of William Morris “The Revolt of Ghent”, Justice, 1st October 1910, p.3
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is wonderfully refreshing to the jaded reader of modern literature to turn to the writings of those quaint old chroniclers of the stirring times of the Middle Ages. The atmosphere of an old-world life hangs about their pages. They picture vividly to us, with a candour and outspokenness altogether foreign to our days, the deeds and misdeeds that stirred the hearts and minds of men at that time. Their humour; their use of words, long forgotten, yet possessing a potency of meaning; their rich and sane style, as solid as that Gothic architecture they have handed down to us; their naive beliefs, and odd conceits, give them a charm peculiar to themselves.

In this little book we have the genius of William Morris guiding the hand of a remarkable old chronicler, John Froissart, canon of Chimay, in Hainault, in an account of the revolt of the craftsmen — the proletariat — of Ghent against the Earl of Flanders.

Those who know anything of the life and writings of William Morris — and there should not be a Socialist who does not — know with what delight and love he pondered over the Middle Ages. He fairly saturated himself with mediævalism. He was heart and soul with the struggles, aspirations and dreams of the mediæval craftsmen. The beauty, strength and solidity of their work appealed to him with such force that he became in good sooth their brother, and strangely out of place in this age of factory chimneys and railway lines.

Small wonder, then, at the masterly manner in which he dealt with Froissart’s chronicle.

It was just at the birth of the capitalist era. Manufacturing by handicraft, pure and simple, without division of labour, was carried on by the Flemings about as far as it could go; “and the guild system was fully developed there, accompanied by a complete municipal system, democratic and social as far as matters within the association were concerned.”

“Within the guilds themselves there could be no capitalists or great men, because the rules of the guilds were framed to prevent she accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few: the masters were master workers, and were kept so by the rules aforesaid.”

The members of the guilds — the actual workmen — were masters of the town, subject to the feudal lords, however, to whom they owed homage and fealty.

Introduced thus to the social conditions of the times, we are next told of the manner in which the Earl of Flanders favoured the French and the people of Ghent, and the other towns favoured the English; how, while the Earl was hanging about the French Court, James van Artevelde, the guild leader, was practically master of Flanders. Then we are told of the manner in which James van Artevelde was slain — probably, for overmuch favouring the English. Next comes the plot of Gilbert Matthew to forestall John Lyon — both big guild men — in the Earl’s favour. The plot succeeds. John Lyon is deposed, and becomes a popular leader against the Earl. The Earl, residing at Bruges, stirs up a quarrel between the men of that town and those of Ghent. The townsmen of Ghent induce John Lyon to organise the White Hats — a kind of emergency corps. The Earl demands their disbandment. Quarrels and battles follow. In the midst of it all John Lyon dies — probably poisoned. Intervals of peace occur. Then follows one long campaign of blood and slaughter, mixed with the odour of sanctity, which winds up with the defeat of the Brugeois and the Earl by the Ghentmen. It is a marvel to read of the extraordinary courage and endurance of the workers of Ghent, who like the Communists centuries afterwards, made the mistake of not being as bloodthirsty as their enemies.

Morris closes the tale us telling us how the old order changed — how the communistic spirit which had prevailed, gradually, owing to the corruption of the guilds and the development of monarchical bureaucracy, gave way to the rising capitalist order.

Besides being intensely interesting from the historical point of view, this little book provides one with wonderful insight into class distinctions prevailing in the thirteenth century. It is, indeed, a moving chapter in the terrible story of the class struggle through the ages, whose consummation will be reached only by the achievement of the Socialist Republic.

T. Q.


Last updated on: 1.3.2010