Despite their prejudices and ideological objectives, contemporary chronicles and surviving illustrations from the late Middle Ages fail to support models drawn by historians and social scientists (George Rudé, Charles Tilly, James C. Scott and others). By their reckoning, modern ‘repertories’ of popular revolt have been large-scale, city-wide, organized in advance, and deliberately scheduled. These rely on complex networks of recruitment that extend beyond neighbourhoods and families. By contrast, popular protest before the nineteenth century was topographically and organizationally the opposite. By concentrating on images and words from contemporary chronicles, this lecture will investigate popular insurrection during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It will illustrate the ritualistic reliance on city-wide spaces and the importance of city-wide, even extramural, networks and organization by so-called ‘pre-modern’ rebels, who depended on visual and sonic devices for achieving their military and political objectives. That late medieval popular unrest was largely limited to neighbourhoods, parochially dependant on local groups, is a myth of twentieth-century social science. Even the French ‘Jacquerie’ of 1358 was not a ‘jacquerie’ as used in common parlance today: it was much more than an outburst of spontaneous, chaotic anger and violence.
Samuel Cohn is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow and a Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities (University of Edinburgh) and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Over the past sixteen years, he has focused on the history of popular unrest in late medieval and early modern Europe and on the history of disease and medicine. He has just completed a three-year Leverhulme ‘Major Research Fellowship’. His last book was Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns, Cambridge University Press, 2013. Currently, Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS is in production (OUP).