This course will focus on the many texts involved with and surrounding the English historical event most commonly known as the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381. This term is an inaccurate description of the event, as we will discuss in class, but it reveals the biases of the writers of official history, who, while writing their records of the event, went to great lengths to depict the rebels all as members of the lowest social standing — and, besides that, as being coarse, base, and dumb. In fact, many of the rebels were peasants, but not all of them were. And the actions of all the rebels — peasant or not — were well-planned and organized; they demonstrate the fierce intelligence of a population tired of being oppressed by those making claims of superiority and power over them.
The rebels circulated news among themselves by means of several remarkable letters, some of them in verse, which we will study, along with the great Middle English poem Piers Plowman, which appears to have been a source of great inspiration to them. We will also read medieval historical chroniclers’ accounts of the revolt, which take considerable creative license to tell the “official” history of the revolt a certain way, and poems based on the revolt written by Geoffrey Chaucer and his lesser-known contemporary John Gower. Additionally, the revolt stimulated a number of anonymous poems of social critique and bears connections to poems and other creative texts associated with the religious heresy known as Lollardy — we will study a range of these works as well.
It is clear that those in power after the revolt was quieted wished the rebels to be forgotten or remembered badly. The course aims to remember them well, and to acknowledge and pay heed to the texts they produced themselves, the texts that inspired them, and the texts that they inspired.
Students will have to purchase two or three paperback books; the rest of the readings will be on CTools.
Course work includes two exams, two major papers of 5 or so pages in length, and some smaller written assignments and quizzes.
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The instructor will do some very brief lecturing, but this course will otherwise be discussion-based.