(Review by Scott Daly)
A 3-word review on the front of this book reads like this: ‘Bold. Surprising. Unputdownable’. Within that trio the one I would most agree with is ‘Surprising’. You see, I was most motivated to buy and read this book by my lack of knowledge of this subject. Of course, I knew the famous names involved: Wat Tyler, John Ball, and the boy King Richard II, but as far as the actual events surrounding the Peasants Revolt of 1381, my expertise was decidedly limited.
I think one of the problems people have when revisiting the Peasants Revolt is the connotations that the term ‘Peasants Revolt’ incurs. It’s extremely easy to think of illiterate countryside yokels banding together in an ill-planned march on London equipped with burning pitchforks and agricultural instruments as weapons. However, upon reading Dan Jones’s Summer of Blood, I found that most of my pre-conceived notions of this historical incident were ultimately subverted. The ‘Peasants’ of 1381 from Kent and Essex were in Medieval terms fairly affluent. Although little is known of Wat Tyler now, he was clearly a talented general with a flair for focusing the anger of the mob. John Ball, his ‘partner in crime’ as it were, was an egalitarian preacher who was somewhat of a thorn in the side of the church establishment. Egalitarian?! Do the words ‘medieval’ and ‘egalitarian’ ever go together in the same sentence? It’s also extremely surprising to read about how the mob of 1381 went about targeting the perceived wrongdoers in the highest echelons of society. The real figure of hate was John of Gaunt, who was effectively the ruler of England during King Richard II’s minority. At all times during the revolt, the rebels were actually outwardly loyal to the young King. They were more concerned with removing men like Gaunt and the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury from the positions of power they enjoyed during the Kings minority. Sudbury was beheaded in the Tower of London, and John of Gaunt’s great Savoy Palace was burned after the rebels entered London.
Where this book really succeeds is in the way it delivers the narrative of the events during the Summer of Blood. Unusually for a book in the popular history genre, Jones uses very short chapters, which serves to really drive the story along at a ferocious pace. This also really brought home to me just how quickly the crisis spiralled out of control for the Royal party, and just how close the rebels came to effecting a dramatic upheaval of English society. It’s also probably fair to say that the events of The Peasants Revolt do lend themselves rather well to this type of historical writing. The meeting between the King and the rebels at Smithfield is the stuff of legend, and its dramatic resolution almost unbelievable. However, whilst helping to quicken the pace of the narrative, the shortness of the chapters leaves the book as a whole feeling a little light. I personally felt it could have been at least 50 pages longer, which would have helped to embellish the causes and consequences of the revolt with more details and explanations.
In the end though, it’s appropriate to end this review in this way: The Peasants of 1381 were protesting against a poll tax levied by the rich who were in control of government and wanted the poor people of the country to bear the brunt of it. Are we basically living in the same type of society today as the peasants were 600 years ago?