Search-for-justice mentality in social revolts ( Middle and Modern Ages)

‘International Conference ‘Justice/ Violence/ Hegemony’
The Berlin Institute of Critical Theory - Freien Universität Berlin
June 1st-4th 2000

Carlos Barros
University of Santiago de Compostela

Why does a social revolt break out in a given moment and time ?

The historiography of revolutions and social movements in the sixties and seventies was unable to answer this question, one which, in many cases, was not even posed.

In the nineties, the social movements are recovered as an object of research as a consequence of the return, in 1989, of the social subject in Europe and America .

This new cycle of great social mobilisations has changed its orientation with the Zapatist revolution in January 1994 and the French social movements in December 1995.

Why does a social revolt break out in a given moment and time ?

To my mind, the answer is to be found in the ‘immediate cause’ rather than in the ‘ultimate cause’, which is always influenced by intermediate levels. Economy does not usually have a direct influence on mass actions but on political struggle and the collective mentality, where the rational and the irrational, the real and the imaginary, the conscious and the unconscious events co-exist .

The weight of the formerly despised ‘superstructure’ becomes , if possible, more evident in the pre-capitalist historical periods, where the mental and the legal play a determinant role in the economic cohesion of societies .

Our research focused on the irmandiños revolt. Peasants, artisans, fishermen, traders, clerics and petty noblemen who organised themselves as the Holy Brotherhood of the Kingdom of Galicia and who, between 1467 and 1469 successfully rose against their lords, and their fortresses, bringing down the majority of them, and not without a certain support by the Castilian monarchy and the Church.

Thanks to the oral testimonies of the survivors and those of the descendants of the participants, we know that justice was an important motivating factor for the participants of the revolt and for the legitimisation of the upraise. They claimed that they suffered abuse and grievances at the hands of their lords and their representatives, who sheltered in their fortresses . For that reason, they had stirred up a revolt and brought them down. The right of vassals to show resistance was based on the dishonouring by lords of the feudal pact which bound the former to pay the rents and the jurisdictional services while the latter must protect vassals from third parties and administer justice within their domains.

Other scholars of the medieval and modern revolts have pointed out this triggering nature of the avenging mentality in the appearance of revolts but they have not given it enough relevance because of methodological, historiographical or epistemological constraints.

Thus, the maritime Flanders upraises begin in 1323 when the Count of Flanders tries to levy a new tax, fixed by France, on peasants and artisans when it was he ‘who had to protect them’.

The 1358 jacquerie was caused by the ‘requisitions for the provisioning of the nobility castles in the region of Paris’. Peasants in Ile-de-France were the victims of plundering by armed men who, according to Froissant ‘ day in, day out, they were robbed across the territory between the rivers Loire and Seine.

Tuchins peasants and artisans from Auvergne and Langedoc rebel against the Duke of Berry in 1360 because he raised the taxes while he proved unable to defend them against the English and their routiers mercenaries .

The search-for-justice motivation is therefore traceable in the most important peasant revolutions.

The breaking out in 1381 of the English peasant revolt corresponds to this pattern. Excessive taxes and indignation on the face of royal and lord behaviour provoke an armed rebellion, which immediately turns into sheer anti-lord action.

Without an inversion of values on justice there is no room for direct action of class and anti-lord nature.

Likewise, the search-for-justice mechanism of medieval revolts tends to be present in the social revolts of the Ancien Regime staged, to a greater degree in the Middle Ages, against the monarchic state.

The first triggering cause of the revolt of the Comunidades de Castilla, in 1520 was an increase -not a very important one at that - of royal taxes. This gave rise to a ‘wave of indignation against the monarchy and the royal representatives that passed it. A widespread feeling of grievance against the king and his incompetent advisers for betraying their judicial functions and the protection of the kingdom. This, in turn, is reinforced by the local revolts which originate in the grievances caused by lower-rank royal representatives.

In La grand peur de 1789 ( 1932) Geoges Lefebre clearly explains how the fear of bandits prompts the anti-lord revolt and the taking up of arms by French peasants, immediately after the taking of the Bastille . A general rural insurrection showing for the first time the ‘warring zest of the Revolution and allowed the expression and strengthening of the national unity’. Great leap qualitative the revolutionary process provoked by a enormous grievance imaginary, virtual . But equally or more effective, because of its preventive and disproportionate nature, than the real grievances that could be found in the local revolts that preceded the revolution in July 1789.

In every case, oral transmission is decisive and accounts for the ‘snowball’ effect. The current mass media facilitate this instantaneous communication but they also facilitate its manipulation. A case in point is the images on television where false corpses of citizens massacred in Timisoara were shown and which spread and multiplied the sense of grievance both nationally and internationally, against the Ceausescu regime, thus promoting the 1989 democratic revolution in Romany .

In the 1960s and 70s historiography there were latent approaches that prevented the understanding of the key role of the ‘immediate cause’ in the outbreak of many of these small and big revolts, like for instance the last traces of the ‘conspirative theory of history’ and the alleged ‘conservatism’ of medieval revolts.

A good example of this is Mollat and Wolff’s interpretation of the urban revolt in Saint -Malo, in the French Brittany in 1308: ‘the Saint-Malo sedition followed a classical pattern: conjuration, disorders, election of an alderman and councils, assemblies’. We cannot say that this is a pattern that can be generally applied : in most pre-contemporary revolts the leading group is formed as the movement advances.

Even in the most contemporary case of an upraise planned by an enlightened minority, the mood and the avenging motivations of the population that takes part in it at the risk of their lives proves decisive ( 1994 Zapatist movement).

The most conservative interpretation of medieval revolts upholds their conservative , even reactionary nature on the basis of their primary search-for-justice nature and not purely social or anti-lord .For a traditional mentality it is not easy to understand that the criterion over what is fair goes from the ruling classes to popular classes. Neither for a classical Marxist is it acceptable that ethics, even when collective, decides whether a revolt takes place or not. Hence the characterisation of the medieval jacqueries as ephemeral movements . They are emotional and violent and ultimately conservative because they do not ‘question’ the social and the structural bases of economy and society . We fully disagree with this.

If there is any consensus between lords and vassals in the Middle Ages, it is because they share values and beliefs that can be used by those at the bottom and those at the top when a hegemony crisis occurs . Consensus is then the strength and the weakness of feudal hierarchy . Dominant ideas turn against the ruling class when, in the opinion of the rest of society, ‘betrays’ its obligations and, despite it, demands their ( feudal) rights. This should be construed not just as justice ( in the form of a notion of peace and security ) but also as the image and the belief in the king and God. The image of an search-for-justice king who supports vassals against noble ‘traitors’ is one of the most frequent components of the medieval mentality of the revolt and paradoxically it even appears at the initial stages of the great modernity revolts like the Comunidades de Castilla or the French Revolution. The belief in divine support to the anti-lord cause is also frequent in the Middle Ages and not just in those social revolts that develop as heretic movements. The use of dominant ideas against the ruling oligarchy that tends to revolve around the fair/ unfair dichotomy. The image of the fairness of the revolt, therefore, organises the alternative use of concepts, images and dominant values .

The knightly model prevailing in feudal lords during the Middle Ages extents its values to the whole of society. The victims of grievances are entitled to avenge the wrong on the body and the possessions of the person who has caused the grievance. That is how medieval vassals felt just before their anti-lord revolts.

The unleashed violence by either vassal or lords does not have the capacity to maintain social cohesion although it may lay the foundations for a re-structuration of mentalities, of power and of socio-economic relations, which we do not hesitate to call revolutions in the case of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age, although they do not lend themselves to the dogmatic ‘five stage’ scheme.

The establishment of the modern state, is it not a political revolution ? The Humanism and the Renaissance , are they not an intellectual revolution? The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, are they not a religious revolution ?

Are these revolutions in the ‘superstructure’ possible while the economic and social ‘infrastructure’ remain essentially unchanged ?

There is not better symptom, cause and consequence of the profound social transformations taking place between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries than the late medieval and early modern popular revolts .

We are in urgent need of a new social historiography that looks at revolts from their immediate mental cause to their ultimate economic cause with renewed global approaches that allow us to leave behind the theoretical, historiographical and methodological constraints of the new-old history and advance towards a new paradigm of history that does not do away with all our most recent historiographical past.