Featuring Sir John Froissart
Introduction to our series The Jacquerie Rebellion:
The defeat of the French under King John II, at Poitiers, by the British forces of Edward, the Black Prince, September 19, 1356, aroused great indignation among the common people of France, with scorn of the nobility; for these leaders, with an army of sixty thousand, had fled before an enemy whom they outnumbered seven to one. In the next assembly of the states-general the bourgeois obtained a preponderance so intolerable to the nobles that they withdrew to their homes. A little later the deputies of the clergy also retired, leaving only the representatives of the cities--among whom the supremacy of the members from Paris was generally accepted--to deal with the affairs of the kingdom.
At this point appeared a man who in an age "so uncivilized and somber," says Pierre Robiquet, "by wonderful instinct laid down and nearly succeeded in obtaining the adoption of the essential principles on which modern society is founded--the government of the country by elected representatives, taxes voted by representatives of the taxpayers, abolition of privileges founded upon right of birth, extension of political rights to all citizens, and subordination of traditional sovereignty to that of the nation." This man was Étienne Marcel, provost of the merchants of Paris--that is to say, mayor of the municipality, whom eminent historians have called the greatest personage of the fourteenth century. During a career of three years his name dominates French history—a brief ascendancy, but of potent influence. His endeavor, in Thierry's view, "was, as it were, a premature attempt at the grand designs of Providence, and the mirror of the bloody changes of fortune through which those designs were destined to advance to their accomplishment under the impulse of human passions."
After the disaster of Poitiers, Marcel finished the fortifications of Paris and barricaded the streets, and in the assembly there he presided over the bourgeois--the Third Estate. In the growing conflict between the two other estates--nobles and clergy--and the third, Marcel armed the bourgeois and began an open revolution, thus organizing the commune for carrying out his designs. The nobles were meanwhile laying heavier miseries upon the peasantry, and in the spring of 1358 occurred the rising of the Jacquerie, here described by Froissart, whose brilliant narrative is to be read in the light of modern critical judgment, which regards it as an exaggeration both of the numbers of the insurgents and their atrocities, while Froissart had no capacity for understanding the conditions which explain, if they do not also justify, the present revolt.
This outbreak, to which Marcel gave his support, was enough to ruin his cause, and he died in a massacre, July 31, 1358, having failed "because the time was not yet ripe," and because the violence to which he lent his sanction was overcome by stronger violence.
And now, Sir John Froissart.
A marvelous and great tribulation befell the kingdom of France, in Beauvoisis, Brie, upon the river Marne, in the Laonnois, and in the neighborhood of Soissons. Some of the inhabitants of the country towns assembled together in Beauvoisis, without any leader; they were not at first more than one hundred men. They said that the nobles of the kingdom of France, knights and squires, were a disgrace to it, and that it would be a very meritorious act to destroy them all; to which proposition everyone assented, and added, shame befall him that should be the means of preventing the gentlemen from being wholly destroyed. They then, without further counsel, collected themselves in a body, and with no other arms than the staves shod with iron which some had, and others with knives, marched to the house of a knight who lived near, and, breaking it open, murdered the knight, his lady, and all the children, both great and small; they then burned the house.
After this, their second expedition was to the strong castle of another knight, which they took, and, having tied him to a stake, many of them violated his wife and daughter before his eyes; they then murdered the lady, her daughter, and the other children, and last of all the knight himself, with much cruelty. They destroyed and burned his castle. They did the like to many castles and handsome houses; and their numbers increased so much that they were in a short time upward of six thousand. Wherever they went they received additions, for all of their rank in life followed them, while everyone else fled, carrying off with them their ladies, damsels, and children ten or twenty leagues distant, where they thought they could place them in security, leaving their houses, with all their riches in them.
These wicked people, without leader and without arms, plundered and burned all the houses they came to, murdered every gentleman, and violated every lady and damsel they could find. He who committed the most atrocious actions, and such as no human creature would have imagined, was the most applauded and considered as the greatest man among them. I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities they committed on the persons of the ladies.
Among other infamous acts they murdered a knight, and, having fastened him to a spit, roasted him before the eyes of his wife and his children, and forced her to eat some of her husband's flesh, and then knocked her brains out. They had chosen a king among them, who came from Clermont in Beauvoisis. He was elected as the worst of the bad, and they denominated him "Jacques Bonhomme."
These wretches burned and destroyed in the county of Beauvoisis, and at Corbie, Amiens, and Montdidier, upward of sixty good houses and strong castles. By the acts of such traitors in the country of Brie and thereabout, it behooved every lady, knight, and squire, having the means of escape, to fly to Meaux, if they wished to preserve themselves from being insulted and afterward murdered. The Duchess of Normandy, the Duchess of Orleans, and many other ladies had adopted this course. These cursed people thus supported themselves in the countries between Paris, Noyon, and Soissons, and in all the territory of Coucy, in the County of Valois. In the bishoprics of Noyon, Laon, and Soissons there were upward of one hundred castles and good houses of knights and squires destroyed.
Continued on Monday, September 8th.
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