Speak Of The Devil / Dangerous Women / When Adam Delved And Eve Span
Revised Aug. 22, 2016
In this column I’ll discuss the bookends of Medieval society: the king and his nobles on the one hand, and the peasants on the other.
How did a relatively small number of people keep the peasants in line?
Well, there’s the sword and mail, the gibbet, summary executions, and rotting carcasses of thieves hanging along the road. Justice swift and certain—bound to make an impression.
According to David Crouch:
“In 1124 the very noble count, Waleran II of Meulan, found that his peasants had been taking advantage of the siege of his castle of Vatteville-sur-Seine to take wood from his forests, so he rounded up those he could find and had their feet severed. The reason that we hear of this act of violence against the unarmed is the condemnation of it by a Norman monk, Orderic Vitalis. Orderic’s condemnation was not entirely because of the criminality involved in mutilating the poor and unarmed, but he was also unhappy that the count had done it in … Lent.”
The aristocracy in the Middle Ages was very sophisticated. One tried and true method of keeping peasants cowering in their huts was the skillful use of propaganda.
Consider this tale taken from “On The Instruction Of Princes” by Gerald of Wales, in which a mysterious woman, a countess of Anjou, was no mortal woman. She was called Melusine, a name with parallels on the Continent:
It was then revealed that Melusine was the daughter of Satan, to whom the consecrated Host was anathema. Today we dismiss such tales as superstitious nonsense, but many at the time believed it.
It was common then for kings and nobles to take great liberties with morals. They were effectively above judgement, citing exigency, so it’s not surprising they often felt the ire of the church. In 1122, a few days before the birth of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a mirthless pilgrim approached her parents William and Aenor and uttered the prophecy: “From you will come nothing good.” The pilgrim’s dour prediction may have been nothing more than pious interpolation, a reflection of resentment for a woman who never seemed to know her place. Eleanor became the wealthiest and most celebrated woman of the Middle Ages, heiress to a vast section of France and queen to two kings.
Eleanor’s grandfather Duke William IX was rebuked for abducting the aptly named Dangerosa, wife of one of his vassals, and marrying her daughter Aenor to his son William X. When Eleanor was born, Duke William exclaimed: “Oh, another Aenor,” and so was also born the name “Eleanor” which means “Another Aenor.”
(Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Fontevrault Abbey, France.)
But perhaps there was some truth in the legend of Melusine:
King Henry II had a 10th century ancestor called Fulk the Black, a pious monster whose appalling acts of cruelty were followed by fits of atonement. Vicious in battle, he sowed death, pillage, and ruin, but there was one act for which he may never have been forgiven: he burned his first wife at the stake for the offense of adultery. To expiate his sins, he made three pilgrimages to the Holy Land, visited Rome, and founded two abbeys. But even in an age when men hoped to balance sin with good works, was it enough? Or was Melusine the vengeful spirit of Fulk’s wife, sent from Hell to lay a curse upon his family?
Gerald, I think, was drawing on an older legend of Melusine, and given his love of fabrication, her position in the Plantagenet pedigree is suspect. Not to be outdone, rivals on the Continent had their own version of this sinister lady:
Fast forward to 1381. The Black Death was within memory, and King Richard’s namesake, Richard II, occupied the throne of England. It was said of the peasants that they possessed nothing but their bellies. While the king and his nobles feasted on the fruit of peasant labor, the peasants lived in squalor, rutting like pigs and dying in the fields—at least that’s how the upper classes imagined the downtrodden. Abbotts and bishops basked in luxury, the vast estates of the church donated by the nobility to buy prayers for their their own souls. Corruption and decadence were everywhere.
The Black Death had killed more than men. It had killed faith in their rulers.
With old King Edward III deposited in his tomb in Westminster Abbey, the most powerful man in England was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt had married the daughter of King Pedro the Cruel of Castile, and fancied himself Pedro’s rightful heir. Gaunt was brother to the Black Prince, but the Black Prince was dead—and the Black Prince’s son Richard, though king, was merely a youth. John of Gaunt now ruled England, and the peasants hated him.
(Seated: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and King Richard II, attended by nobles and churchmen.)
And then came heresy.
John Wycliffe, once a Master of Balliol College, Oxford, denied the presence of Christ in the Host and the authority of the Pope. He called for an end to the Church of Rome. Poor parish priests sided with Wycliffe.
A new idea swept England: God had not ordained the classes. It was the greed of some men that kept others in bondage.
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then a gentleman?
The country was a tinder-box.
The war in France was not going well for King Richard II. Heavy taxes had caused great resentment. A tradesman named John Tyler attacked a tax collector and beat his brains out with a staff. Peasants began to desert their lords and wander the roads. In May 1381, violent electrical storms were viewed as a portent. The upper classes were uneasy.
Soon an army of peasants from Essex and Kent laid siege to Rochester Castle in an attempt to free a fellow bondsman. Built by the Normans, and long an impregnable symbol of oppression, it fell within hours. The aristocracy was horrified. The peasants ransacked manor houses and destroyed records that documented their servitude.
With their spiritual leader a rogue priest named John Ball, and their army under the command of Wat Tyler, the peasants quickly organized and sent summons throughout England to join them. They sacked Canterbury and then, flush with victory, made plans to march on London. By June of 1381, tens of thousands of peasants were camped just outside the greatest city in England.
A new society was about to be born. Or so they thought. Peasants from every part of England heard Mass from John Ball. A message was sent to the king at the Tower of London summoning him to meet them, but the royal party, frightened by the large numbers of peasants, retreated.
Infuriated, the peasant army, now 60,000 strong, entered London, put to the torch John of Gaunt’s Savoy palace and laid waste to religious houses and lawyers’ offices. They stormed the prisons, killing everyone in their path who represented the power that beat them down.
The king sent word asking the rebels to return to their homes, saying he would address their grievances. The rebels rejected his overture. The king then met them in a suburb of London and agreed to all of their demands. The rebels penetrated the Tower of London itself, terrorized the king’s mother, and dragged to his death Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
(The White Tower, Tower of London. Photograph by author.)
When numbers will not prevail, deceit is summoned. Wat Tyler requested and received another meeting with the king, but there was stabbed to death by William Walworth, one of the king’s retainers and a future Lord Mayor of London. Without their leader, the peasant army became marauders. The king granted authority to his minions to deal with the rebels by any means necessary. Richard’s forces soon routed the peasants, and the executions began. As many as 10 peasants were hanged at a time. After 2,000 peasants had been executed, the king thought to advise restraint, fearful of sparking another revolt.
The Bishop of London had renegade priest John Ball locked in the bishop’s dungeon, but was unable to extract penance. Ball was hanged, then taken down while still alive, and his entrails cut out of him. His body was hacked into pieces and sent to all corners of the realm.
So who ultimately won?
18 years later, King Richard II lost his throne to John of Gaunt’s son, Henry of Lancaster, and was murdered. The ensuing Wars of the Roses decimated the nobility. It was customary after each battle to behead the leaders of the losing side. Henry’s line ended in madness, and the first Yorkist king, Edward IV, was knocked off his throne, regained it and died, his sons murdered by his brother Richard. In 1485 King Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor, and for centuries no one knew where he lay buried.
Perhaps the Devil had finally taken the House of Plantagenet to himself.
However that may be, the power of the Commons grew, until in 1649, on the orders of Parliament, King Charles I was beheaded. The divine right of kings had been brought down to earth. There was a new law in the land: the Commons made and unmade monarchs, and no one after King Charles I was to forget it.
(British archaeologists discovered Richard III’s skeleton beneath a car park in Leicester where his body had been deposited in an earthen grave without clothing or ornamentation. On 26 Mar 2015 he was formally reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.
In this column I use religious concepts like “heresy” to help tell a story from the perspective of the era. I don’t support, endorse, or offer for belief such concepts for any purpose beyond a literary value. It’s a scary story and if you’ve made it this far I hope it scared you!)