Saturday, April 30, 2011

Peasant Soldiery: Discourse

It's been some time since I progressed this blog and my project for that matter. I have not been completely idle; however, having purchased a goodly quantity of synthetic teddy-bear fur and sourced polystyrene for the terrain. More on the table-top plans soon. What I did want to briefly discuss was the concept and notions surrounding peasant soldiery and their makeup within the Montfortian army at Lewes.


In spite of much work having been done in the last two generations within academia to rectify enduring misconceptions, peasantry are largely regarding today as being wholly constituted of a downtrodden serfs, wallowing in agrarian poverty, bounded by hopeless illiteracy and living in an ignorance barely one level above the beasts in their charge. If you were to conduct random interviews with people in the high street, the lingering notions of rag-clad unfortunates, less capable and clever than ourselves would be the consistent theme.

Even in wargames research, we sometimes translated an idea of peasants as an ill-equipped, slave like rabble into the army lists. By way of example, the Armies of Chivalry (WAB) lists provide for 'rebellious peasants' for the English Wars of the Roses. Whilst admittedly a later period, they are nevertheless armed with improvised weapons, unarmoured and have very low morale or leadership characteristics. This is by no means a universal trap, but it nevertheless lingers.


Well, definitions abound and there are plenty to be found on-line. Some are determined to ascribe them to a class of poor agricultural worker in a subsistence economy. Whilst the precarious state of the medieval agricultural economy is beyond dispute, there were plenty of good harvests and times of plenty enabling the elevation in wealth and status of motivated peasants with sufficient acumen. Divided into Villeins (or tenant farmers) who were tied to the land, owing labour or rents to their manorial lord and Freemen who, whilst owing duties to the crown and community, farmed without the Villein's manorial obligations. It can be argued that Freemen are a separate class altogether (1).

Most commonly to be found populating villages, the peasants could be quite well off, having expanded their holdings and trading well at market off their own labours after a lucky harvest or even the sweat of their own laborers. In short, the peasants are an entire class - the rural working class (in modern industrial parlance) with a considerable spread of income and life style from poor to wealthy.  Smallholders with a few acres at the bottom and those with considerable acreages as well as office holders (such as Reeve, Baliff or Steward) at the top.


The Assize of Arms compelled all men of the realm, high and low, to take the field in military service without distinction of class. The Assize was strictly in accordance with a man's wealth and included the peasantry as the majority of the population. In effect, the peasantry of England was an armed one, so we can dispense with notions of rag shirts and pitch forks from the get-go. Weaponry and self defence in the form of shield and gambeson were the orders of the day and in many instances it would be difficult to discern between the assemblies of the country from those of the town.


At times, the records abound with examples of when the peasantry collectively took the law into their own hands, driving off sheriffs or ballifs when they felt their rights trodden on. Even the poorest men and women of England had rights as well as obligations and they were not beyond defending them.

In the BBC TV documentary series Story of England by Michael Woods, some time is devoted to the Monfortian rebellion in the second part to that series; Doomsday to Magna Carta. This is a programme which examines English history through the town of Kibworth in Leicestershire. When speaking of Lewes, Woods makes much of the peasant soldiers part and the almost revolutionary fervor which likely took hold of many upon victory that day.

One of his eminent guests is Professor David Carpenter who discusses the reforms of Montfortian rule which followed and those which directly benefited the condition of the peasantry. He also speaks about the radicalisation of Leicestershire:

"The peasants themselves believe passionately in these kinds of reforms. I think particularly this area of Leicestershire, South Leicestershire is very radicalised politically and very informed - the peasants know what's going on."

Wood goes on in describing how the rebellion spilled into other aspects of county life. In an incident involving pilgrims from Kibworth to Bardon, one John Waddard (sp?) is cited a leading peasant who was later recorded as having been a part of Monfort's army some time before Evesham. It is clear that Montort relied on the armed peasantry from the counties including Leicestershire.

Professor Carperter adds:

"One of the things which has really emerged I think from recent work on this whole period is the way peasants were radicalised and took part in the actual fighting. They both took part in raid and counter raid, in the bands of Montfortians burning villages in surrounding areas. But they also fought in the great battles ... we may think probably of contingents, peasant contingents from Kibworth physically on the fighting side."


... or Leadership in WAB terminology for peasants need not be any less than any other body of foot. On the contrary, it seems that if the common men of England were motivated sufficiently to take up arms in a cause for which they must have strongly identified - to rebel against the injustices of the Kings administration - then I rather feel their morale would be higher or at least as high as any armed retinue. I will be revisiting my army list with a view to increasing the base Leadership rating of my rebel county infantry unit by +1.

(1) David carpenter: The Struggle for Mastery (The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284) 2003.


Bluewillow said...

I totally agree Greg, foiding suitable figures will be a challenge for us though.


Stephen said...

No dispute from this junior academic!

Mark said...

You forgot that it's de rigeur their faces are pasted with mud and they have rotten teeth from all the curley wurleys they eat.

Historians and in fact most everyday people of the industrial age are arrogant - we like to think of ourselves being superior to those in the past.

This preconceived imagery is born from that arrogance.

Having said that I quite like the idea of a downtrodden mass, as it tcikles me pink when they beat the backside off their 'superiors'.