Date: Sat, 30 Sep 1995

Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381, The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics 27, Stephen Greenblatt, gen. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). xiv + 290 pp. ISBN 0-520-08325-3. $40.00.

Reviewed by Stephen Stallcup--Princeton University

Anyone who has ever studied the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 will have encountered, usually without much editorial comment, a series of short letters in Middle English filled with enigmatic admonitions and ascribed to the equally enigmatic figures Jack Milner, Jack Carter, Jack Trewman, and John Ball. These letters, which also appear in some Langland studies, are the only surviving voices of the revolters (in contrast to the multiple and lengthy chronicles presenting the voices of their opponents) and serve as the basis for Steven Justice's new book, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Justice uses these letters in concert with the chronicle accounts of the uprising, often playing them against each other, to expose many of the cultural dynamics at work in this still dimly understood historical event.

Justice's goals in this book are not, as he readily admits, the goals of previous historians who have sought to explain the causes and effects of the revolt. In fact, he virtually ignores these issues, concentrating instead on the revolt within its immediate cultural context, trying "to understand the thought of a rural revolt and of the rural communities that produced it; to trace what the English vernacular meant to those who spoke nothing else, and what writing meant to those who were not thought to read ..." (4). Indeed, one of his most useful projects involves not only wrenching the interpretation of the events of the revolt away from the contemporary chroniclers who recorded them, but also explaining the basis for those interpretations--why the chroniclers (especially the crusty Henry Knighton) could not and did not understand these letters and much of the revolt itself. In looking at these letters not as historical curiosities but rather as legitimate historical documents and in looking through the letters back to the circumstances of their production and consumption, Justice's work yields its most interesting results.

Justice's methodology partakes of both "old" and "new" historicist techniques--ranging from paleographical and linguistic analysis to broader theoretical questions regarding the concentration of power and the representation of peasant culture--and as such should satisfy members of either camp. Despite Justice's apology for what he calls "this old-historicist project," New Historicist methodology looms large throughout the work. Although Justice does not expound any grand theories about late 14th-century English culture or suggest a recursive relationship between literature and power or engage in any of the self-conscious hand-wringing so characteristic of New Historicist criticism of the past few years, he does examine texts and authority using many of the same methods applied by such critics as Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, Nancy Armstrong, and others. That is to say, he asks not only Who wrote the letters? but How did they write them? Who read them? How were they used? What does it mean (to both sides involved) for peasants to be writing letters? And, he is especially concerned with mistakes, those things about the revolt that the chroniclers just don't understand, and shows then even when the royalist chroniclers are most self-consciously setting their narrative against the revolters, they are also, unselfconsciously, exposing their own deepest fears about the rebellion.

"Writing," the first word of the book's title, lies at the core of this study, both as the act itself and as the result of that act. Perhaps the most strikingly original of the book's six chapters is the first, "Insurgent Literacy," in which Justice examines the circumstances under which the letters were produced. He begins by noting that to the chroniclers (taken here also as representatives of "elite" culture) the very idea that the letters could have been written by anyone other than the cleric John Bell (of "Whanne Adam dalfe and Eve span" fame)--namely the laymen Milner, Carter and Trewman who purported to write them--was simply unthinkable. Yet he goes on to show that by virtue of dialectical differences the letters could not have been written by the same person. "John Bell authored them," Justice states, "But he did not write the letters we have ...: he did not hold the pen and make the marks on the copies that eventually reached [the chroniclers] Knighton and Walsingham" (22). Although Justice posits a closer alliance between the rural clergy and the rebels than has been previously suspected, he also suggests a more widespread (functional) literacy on the part of the rural peasantry than previous historians, both medieval and modern, have allowed.

Justice's portrait of peasant literacy in Plantagenet England is markedly different from that posited by David Cressy in his well-known study of literacy in the Tudor and Stuart periods. He suggests that in contrast to the "full" literacy demanded in Cressy's study, widespread "partial" literacy was more likely the case. Although rural workers had no need to read Virgil or Augustine, many of them did need to know how to recognize their own names as well as references to their lands in the court rolls, the terms of which determined so much of their own existence. This minimal acquaintance with the rudiments of documentary culture on the part of the peasantry has important ramifications for Justice's reconsideration of the revolt. One of the key features in contemporary narratives of the revolt is the rebels's obsession with destroying books and other documents. The chroniclers, who saw the revolters merely as illiterate boors, interpreted their destruction of records as the violence of the ignorant blindly striking out against books as symbols of a culture they did not understand. But as Justice shows, the revolters' destruction of texts was hardly haphazard. They knew what they were looking for, often asked for it by name, and generally exhibited a surprising familiarity with the documentary culture of their day.

At one point, the St. Albans insurgents accost the Abbot Thomas, demanding "a certain ancient charter confirming the liberties of the villeins, with capital letters, one of gold and the other of azure; and without that, they asserted, they would not be satisfied with promises" (256-57). Such an episode epitomizes Justice's argument about peasant literacy: the peasants knew and understood that it was documents that determined their relationship with their lord and the land; their revolt had as one of its immediate goals the renegotiation of these relationships in terms favorable to them; and, given the fact that looting is almost uniformly absent from the rebels' course of destruction, theirs was a revolt concerned with documents, the writings that had most profoundly affected their lives and with which many had been acquainted on a first-hand basis.

But legal documents were not the only texts with which the revolters were acquainted. In the book's third and fourth chapters, Justice examines the role of John Wyclif and Piers Plowman in the rising and suggests that the teachings of both played a considerable role in, if not exactly inciting the peasants to revolt, then at least giving them an ideological apparatus with which to articulate their grievances. The importance of Wyclif's vernacular teachings, Justice argues, lay not so much in their specifics (i.e., the notion that "bona ecclesiae sunt bona pauperum") but rather in the general idea that located "the authority of all just governance, including the king's, in the presence of the poor, who, by their poverty, constitute the political presence of the evangelical Christ" (101).

Having established Wyclifite theology (if only in its rudiments) as the ideology that allowed the revolt to occur, Justice goes on to examine Langland's poem, which "offers an astonishing opportunity to watch a contemporary poem being processed to serve an ideology, and to exemplify a notion of writing that are alien to its own" (104). In this process, we see the revolters using Piers Plowman not so much for what it says (they had Wyclif for that) but for how it says what it says. Justice argues that the poem gave the peasants both a vocabulary and a modality to articulate their collective complaint. "Trewman borrows not just the phrase, but the mode of thought enabled by its grammatical form: the confident promotion of 'falsnes' and 'gyle' as partial personifications that can reign provides a metaphorical language that analyzes particular complaints into structural criticism, and therefore permits significant political statement" (134). Such an assertion may strike some readers as logically tenuous. But Justice is not performing the kind of old historicist maneuver that would be content with mining the recensions of Piers Plowman in search of analogues (or sources) of the rebels' rhetoric. Rather, he suggests a more profound, but less concrete relationship--that "Piers Plowman gave the rising a language and a style, an imaginative model of rural articulacy that conferred on empirical language a conceptual utility and a public force" (137).

One of the chief factors that has hampered understanding of the Revolt of 1381 has been that accounts of it, both medieval and modern, have been written from the perspective of "those who were threatened by it, rather than . . . those who made it" (194). By seeking to understand what he calls the "idiom of rural politics," Justice accomplishes what much New Historicist scholarship of the past few years has also done, to examine, interrogate, and reassert the importance of those betes noires of New Criticism: audience, author, and intention. Justice endows the time of the revolt, most of whose events occurred on and around major feast days--Pentecost, Trinity Monday, Corpus Christi--with more than symbolic significance. Rejecting Bahktin's notion of the "carnival," Justice instead argues that the peasants turned the discord and misrule typically associated with the summer feasts into an occasion for unity and self-rule, a truly threatening proposition. By such actions as diverse as seizing legal documents and carting them back to the village to be burned in the traditional mid-summer bonfires or the seemingly bizarre act of removing, breaking up, and distributing the paving stones of a local monastery (here, St. Albans), the rebels transformed annual symbolic rituals of community into acts of autonomy. Justice shows how many of the incidents in the revolt fit in with larger patterns of life in rural communities, patterns which were imperceptible (because held unimportant) to the chroniclers but which nevertheless help explain some of the revolt's most curious aspects.

Although the rebellion primarily comes to us from chronicle narratives (with varying degrees of reliability), it also seeped into less overtly historical works such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the C-recension of Piers Plowman. In the book's final chapter, Justice examines the ways these texts represent or are affected by the rebellion. Justice reads the Nun's Priest's Tale (esp. ll. 3383-3401) as a complex joke at the expense of John Gower. He finds in Chaucer's description of the din accompanying Chaunticleer's abduction by the fox (the famous "Jakke Straw" passage) systematic verbal parallels with passages in the prologue to Book 2 of the Vox Clamantis, a work singularly unsympathetic to the rebels. Further, he suggests ways in which the Nun's Priest's Tale, as part of a coterie composition aimed at a London audience, works to contain memories of the uprising, even as the pilgrims ride through the area where insurrection was most fierce. Justice's argument about Piers Plowman is much more complex. Comparing the C with the A and B versions, he suggests that Langland's revision excises the violence (and hence memories of the revolt) but not the basis of the insurgents' claims: "by refusing to represent the rising in narrative, Langland refused any attempt to contain it by explanatory cause and effect, and therefore by closure" (240). Although Langland recasts his text to disassociate himself with the rebellion, he nonetheless acknowledges "--tenuously, evasively, and by analogy only--what no other poet or chronicler was willing to: that the commons who rose in 1381 defined themselves too as textual communities" (251).

Although parts of Writing and Rebellion may raise the eyebrows of some historians and some Chaucer and Langland scholars, its overall reading of the revolt is strong enough to squelch any of the minor quibbles that might arise. Indeed, if one were to ask anything of the work, it would be for more, not less. For one, a map would have been helpful, especially for American readers, who have no reference point for such places as Bocking, Brentwood, St. Albans, Fobbing, Chelmsford, or Great Coggeshall. Likewise, glosses of such legal terms as gavelkind tenure, messuage, affeerer, amercements, and others would have helped readers unacquainted with the intricacies of 14th-century English property law. Justice has done his readers a great service by providing in the footnotes the (often lengthy) Latin of the texts translated in his work. In Writing and Rebellion, Justice provides a thought-provoking study of one of the most famous but least understood moments in 14th-century England. His deft examination of the revolt in both historical and literary terms makes this an important book for all students of the period.