On this date in 1358, 14th-century France’s most serious peasant uprising was crushed when its capable commander was lured into his enemies’ power and torturously put to death in Clermont.
The Jacquerie (English Wikipedia entry | French) sprang from the fertile farmlands north of Paris. It had a hundred fathers, no one of them self-evidently the decisive cause but many in debatable combinations and proportions conspiring to render a perfect storm of catastrophe for the despised villeins who sweated out their masters’ chivalrous living.
The Calamitous 14th Century, historian Barbara Tuchman subtitled her popular work on this period: France was buffeted by famine, the Black Death, and attendant social and economic shocks; the Hundred Years’ War opened, laying the countryside waste at the hands of crossing armies, and then marauding mercenaries during the downtime between battles, and then “friendly” forces pillaging for sustenance and pressing peasants into uncompensated labor. In 1356, the English captured France’s King John II at the Battle of Poitiers, opening a yawning gap in the country’s political authority and undermining the mounted nobility’s military prestige vis-a-vis the (smaller) yeoman army that had routed it.
We do not seem to have a certain record of what match was set to this tinderbox — the most suggestive proximate cause is a fresh tax for fortifying noble citadels in the area — but the conflagration singed the gentry’s beard. Froissart, who wrote a few years after the fact and from a distinctly hostile standpoint, captured the aristocracy’s view of rising:
[C]ertain people of the common villages, without any head or ruler, assembled together in Beauvoisin. In the beginning they passed not a hundred in number they said how the noblemen of the realm of France, knights and squires, shamed the realm, and that it should be a great wealth to destroy them all: and each of them said it was true, and said all with one voice: “Shame have he that cloth not his power to destroy all the gentlemen of the realm!”
Thus they gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. … And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children.
Froissart’s Chronicle is the most notable of the age and (calumniously) the most defining one on the event; it helped establish the word “jacquerie” as a synonym for bloodthirsty insurrection that would be pinned to countless riots and risings for centuries to come. Some other chronicles suggest more deliberate and purposeful (and less maniacal) organization by these original Jacques, and the trenchant “charge against these noble traitors, who have shirked on their duties to defend the kingdom, who desire to do nothing but devour the sustenance of the commoners.” (Source)
Interestingly, and seemingly contrary to the obvious reading of a downtrodden underclass driven to desperation, more recent scholarship has pointed out that the rising broke out in the best farmland, seemingly among the wealthiest of the rural third estate — artisans, proprietors, petty bureaucrats and clergy.
Leadership fell to this day’s victim, Guillaume Cale, also known by the folksy sobriquet “Jacques Bonhomme” (Goodman, or Goodfellow). A charismatic man of some fighting experience, he was able to marshal this mob into a creature of passable military capacity.
His short appearance on our stage also suggests a character of strategic vision not the less impressive for its failure to materialize.
Cale was a well-off farmer, like the backbone of his movement, and reached out to make common cause with the nearby Parisian bourgeoisie then in rebellious possession of their own city — a far more consequential challenge to authority that was soon to meet its own violent termination.
The terrorized nobility turned to Charles the Bad, King of Navarre at that time attempting to exploit the captivity of John II to hoist himself onto the throne of France. Even though Charles was also treating with the Parisian bourgeoisie in this endeavor, as Jonathan Sumption puts it in his authoritative The Hundred Years’ War: “The opportunity to present himself as the leader of the united nobility of France was not to be missed.”
Charles handled the rebels with efficiency, if not with honor. Tuchman relates:
[Charles of Navarre] invited Cale to parley, and upon this invitation from a king, Cale’s common sense apparently deserted him. Considering himself an opponent in war to whom the laws of chivalry applied, he went to the parley without a guard, whereupon his royal and noble opponent had him seized and thrown into chains. The capture of their leader by such easy and contemptuous treachery* drained the Jacques’ confidence and hope of success. When the nobles charged, the commoners succumbed … To consummate his victory, Charles of Navarre beheaded Guillaume Cale after reportedly crowning him, in wicked mockery, King of the Jacques with a circlet of red-hot iron.
The potentially tricky Battle of Mello turned into a butchery that shattered the Jacquerie, and relieved nobles gorged themselves for weeks to come on peasant blood — no less horribly than any depredation of the Jacquerie. “Our mortal foes, the English, would not have done what the nobles then did in our homeland,” wrote another 14th century scribe, Jean de Venette. (Cited by Robert Knecht; some additional Venette commentary on the Jacquerie is here, in French.)
If Cale’s decision to risk parley seems madness in retrospect, picture his situation. Sumption says the Jacquerie’s bands were already beginning to dissipate; Cale himself was known and surely in line for execution — practically the preordained denouement of every medieval peasant uprising — if he were to throw in the towel peaceably. He had no way forward but forward, and even supposing that Cale-commanded peasant lines would have held at the battle that particular day, his forces had no military prospects beyond a few more weeks.
The Jacques needed something — an exit strategy, perhaps, with the opportunity to return to life pardoned of reprisal and guaranteed against the next onerous levy; or, a cemented part in the alliance of Navarre and the Parisian bourgeoisie. To get that something, Guillaume Cale had to throw the dice, and what better odds would he get than in a pavilion face to face with the man who might become king of France? Staying in the field at the head of his ill-armed peasant horde must have looked the more improbable gamble.
Cale’s wager failed horribly this day, but from the luxurious vantage of centuries, the movement of people in those days shows the germ of an altogether more revolutionary future. Thierry‘s history of the Third Estate (available free at Google Books):
The destruction of the Jacques was followed almost immediately by the failure of the revolution of the bourgeoisie in Paris itself. Those two movements, different as they were, of the two great classes of the commonalty, terminated simultaneously — one to revive and carry all before it when its time should come; the other to leave nothing behind it but an odious name, and sad recollections.
The Tiers Etat, displaced from the dominant position which it had prematurely won, resumed its ordinary part of patient industry, less pretentious ambition, and slow but uninterrupted progress.
* You’re supposed to think this is okay because chivalric codes written by nobles say nobles don’t have to keep oaths to commoners. Readers still appalled at Charles the Bad’s bad faith: enjoy the Schadenfreude of his bad end.