Popular Uprisings

Social Upheaval

When people started to move from their villages to the newly emerging towns, it created enormous social upheaval. People left the misery of the poor villages but there at least they had the security of their extended family, even under the poorest circumstances they had a safety net. This was rather different in the towns; no family meant no safety net. This provided ideal situations for the city elite to exploit the ‘villagers’, initially the nobles and the merchant just continued a sort of serf system that existed in the villages but towards the end of the 11th century these villagers had become towns people and started to become far more assertive, popular uprisings occurred in Normandy, Lombardy, Champagne, Picardy, Flanders and Rhineland. The following century saw similar events in Catalonia, Germany, the Loire Valley, Italy and the Languedoc.

The period following the Black Death was an even greater catalyst for change. There was a shortage of labour and in particular wages in the cities went up, this brought more people into the city but at the same time resulted in a scarcity of farm labour. This led to economic growth among the working class. This however, was rapidly followed by new laws from the nobility and stricter rules from the Church. However, times were no longer the same and the workers were less obedient towards the First and Second Orders of society and started to demand greater equality. These developments  trigger numerous popular uprising across Europe, between 1350 and 1550.

In a period of limited communication technologies and limited interaction between the nobility and the rest of the population, popular uprisings were also means of communicating between the emerging city burghers and city elite. Public spaces  such a market squares were occupied in a show of power and  to indicate the seriousness of the situation, church doors were used as billboards and public servants and even counts, dukes and kings were sometime imprisoned by the protesters.

Most of the communications was mouth-to-mouth. Politically loaded small leaflets (strooibriefjes) were also used  to rapidly communicate with larger number of people.

Rulers were keen to avoid uprisings and often employed larges numbers of spies to find out what the public opinion was and used heralds to proclaim rules, regulations and other news. During 1452/53 the city of Ieper employed 344 messengers of which 107 were simply used to ‘listen’.  There was often a genuine will to work together in order to keep the peace that allowed these cities to flourish. Uprisings and war were most destructive for trade and welfare.

With church ands state fully intertwined during the Middle Ages, they were often also a source of conflict and in general terms the population hated the clergy.

Punishment for those who instigated uprisings often faced exile. During the late Middle Ages on average exile took up between 10-20% of all penalties in the cities in Flanders. But in turbulent years that grew to between 35-40%. [1. Madoc Edition 25, Volume 1, 2011 -Quetselike Maren, Hannes Lowagie]

Often the peasants were supported by the cities and visa-versa, this indicates an ongoing strong relationship between the two groups. The uprisings were certainly not between peasants and city folk. However, the major problems in most of the uprising were lack of leadership, rivalries or different interests between different subgroups and an overall lack of unity. In the end none of the uprisings resulted in significant gains or improvements for the general population.


Mixing misery and religious zeal

Interestingly Pope Gregory VII proclaimed (in 1074) that the laity should rise against the misbehaviour of priests. This announcement coincided with the emerging unrest in the various cities, at a time that these townspeople were ready to revolt. See: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church 1000 – 1550

Religious concepts such as prophesies surrounding the end time (eschatology), the Antichrist, became mixed into this with religious zealots leading many of these revolts, foretelling, a better world and salvation (chiliastic). There were many occasions of mass megalomania.

These uprisings often coincided with other disasters such as floods, famine, epidemics. These were true signs of the end time and it was about time for the population led by the zealots to prepare for the New Millennium.

The First and Second Crusades followed a period of severe famine and the flagellant movement followed the Great Dearth.

The religious elements of these uprisings were at the same time an expression of emotional desperation and the zealots rapidly filled this gap, as the Church more and more lacked the credibility to fill the spiritual need of the people.

One of the first of these religious zealots was Tanchelm (Tanchelijn), his career seemed to have started as a notary at the court of Robert of Flanders somewhere around 1110. He launched violent attacks on the clergy, as per the proclamation of Pope Gregory (he preached against the many priests who were living in open concubine). This was not very well received amongst the clerical establishment who went into denial. However, he received the support of  Count Robert and even traveled to Rome to get the support of the pope. On his way back he was arrested by the Bishop of Cologne.  He was expelled from Bruges (and Flanders) and started to travel through Zeeland, Brabant and Utrecht. Tanchelm now declared himself a prophet, very rapidly he went much further and soon he changed his monk clothes for robes and his crucifix for a sword. His follower blindly followed his instructions, which included handing over all their belongings to him. He finally was captured in Zeeland and killed by a priest in 1115, however his followers maintained the movement for another decade. Arguable other heretic movements such as the Free Spirit can be linked back to this earliest known zealot Tanchelm [2. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, p33]

The poor were an easy target in all of this, they had nothing to loose. Many were disorientated, coming from the rather protective village society and were frustrated with the total lack of any prospect in the towns. The conviction demonstrated by the zealots offered them hope. Another massive hysteria happened a century later with another imposer in Flanders, Bertrand of Ray (see Flanders).

While these prophesy and its surrounding megalomania was not supported by the Church, opportunism from the Church often fuelled these popular uprisings.

Unrest was in particular prevalent in the region between the Somme and the Rhine [3. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, p98] At the same time these protest led to massive raids, pillage and rape. Some of the most infamous raiding hordes in the 12th and 13th centuries were known as Brabançons, indicating that a notorious number of these mercenaries from Brabant happily joined any mass protest and battle to their own advantage.

It is also important to note that these uprisings never really reached mass proportion until Luther – unintentionally – set of the Reformation. Finally the time was ripe for this.

Assertive populations wants social justice

Soon after Pope Gregory VII had summoned the laity to rise against the many misuses of the clergy (especially married priest and simony) we are starting to see first popular uprisings in Cologne in 1074 (against the Archbishop) and in Cambrai in 1077 (the lord Bishop). In the following 50 years town after town in Rhineland, Brabant, Flanders, Utrecht and northern France revolted against bishops and princes. Many of these revolts were led or at least supported by the newly emerging merchants; they equally wanted to get rid of the many feudal burdens that were carried over from the village economy to the towns.

Throughout the Middle Ages the number of revolts grew in numbers and in size. An increasingly more assertive population opposed the ever increased tax burden from their secular and clerical overlords.

These revolts were never aimed at overthrowing the existing order, but to improve the situation of the ordinary people (mainly townspeople and peasants). These were genuine movement of these people to claim their own position in society; they no longer did want to be treated as slaves, and serfs. In many chronicles from that period they were often, by the ruling classes, referred to as parasites or pariahs.

Reoccurring issues underlying most revolts

  • Usury put down in an effective way.
  • Equitable game laws – to protect farmer’s fields.
  • No conscription for unjust wars.
  • Justice to be dealt with impartially.
  • Abandonment of bondage.
  • Tithes to be used only for the poor and appropriate parochial use.
  • All other ‘small’ tithes to be abandoned.

In so far as these revolts had a religious character this had more to do with the fact that the church was often the largest party involved in many of the unjust done to the peasants and/or that they did nothing to stop this from happening. Rather than supporting social justice, the church supported the unjust from their secular colleague-rulers. Many revolts were led by zealots who saw the clergy as the Antichrist and linked these uprising the eschatological events. A totally impoverished society would do anything for better times ahead (see also: The Great Death).

Eventually, these social revolts also became a critical trigger for (Luther’s) Reformation. A key issue this time around was the fact that the church was making money from what has been one of the biggest swindles in history, the sales of indulgences (these provided the buyers with a reduction of their punishment for their sins in their after life), of course the scheme was only available to those who could afford it; papal authority rapidly reached its lowest point.

Obviously there were also intelligent and more human rulers, however the overwhelming evidence is that of ruthless exploitation.

All of the revolts in the Middle Ages were eventually suppressed by the united ruling class (nobility and clergy). But each time, however small, progress had been made by the general population.

Early uprising in North Germany

Following the colonialisation of this region, the cities to the west of the Weser had received privileges and for decades  they were able to protect them. They also refused to pay the tithes.  In 1233 the Bishop of Bremen excommunicated  the revolting farmers and this opened the way for secular intervention. The following year a crusaders army was formed under the leadership of the Count of Holland and the Duke of Brabant who successfully crushed the revolt.


Flemish Revolts

Battle of the Golden Spurs Guldensporenslag – Kortrijk (Coutrai) July 11, 1302

After a lot of toing and froing Count Gwijde of Flanders ended his vassalage with the king of France and joins the English camp. This needs to be seen in the context of economic interests. England was the key supplier of wool, essential for the flourishing and lucrative textile industry of Flanders on which its wealth and prosperity was based.

For many centuries the French King tried to increase its powers over Flanders. Within Flanders there were a group of supports of the King, known as the Leliaards (French Lily) mainly the city patricians who tried to limit the taxes levied by the Count. Occasionally also some of the Flemish nobility joined the Leliaards.  Those on the side of the Count were known as the Liebaards (Leopard – Lion of Flanders) later on the were known as Klauwaards (claw of the lion). In 1302 the conflict between the two groups let to one of the most well known battles of the Middle Ages.

The battle was a French attempt to subdue the county of Flanders, which was formally part of the French kingdom and was added to the French Crown in 1297. This was heavily resisted by the Liebaards. In 1300, the French king Philip IV appointed Jacques de Châtillon as governor of Flanders and took the Count of Flanders, Gwijde van Dampierre, hostage. This instigated considerable unrest among the influential Flemish urban guilds.

On May 18, 1302, after being exiled from their homes by French troops, the citizens of Bruges went back to their own city and murdered every Leliaard they could find, this event became known as the Brugse Metten.

The French king could not let this go unpunished, so he sent a powerful force, led by Count Robert II of Artois.

The Liebaards were primarily town militia who were well equipped, with such weapons as the Goedendag and a long spear known as the Geldon, essentially a pike which had been barely used since ancient times but very effective against cavalry when used properly. They were also well organized; the urban militias of the time prided themselves on their regular training and preparation, this is what allowed them to use the Geldon effectively. They numbered about 9,000, including 400 nobles. The biggest difference between the French and other feudal armies was that the Flemish force consisted solely of infantry.

The French were by contrast a classic feudal army made up of a core of 2,500 cavalry, including knights and squires. They were supported by 1,000 crossbowmen, 1,000 spearmen and up to 3,500 other light infantry, totaling around 8,000. Contemporary military theory valued each knight as equal to roughly ten infantry.

After the Flemish unsuccessfully took  Kortrijk on  July 10, the two forces clashed the following day in an open field just outside the city.

The layout of the field, crossed by numerous ditches and streams, made it difficult for the French cavalry to charge the Flemish lines. They sent the servants to place some wood in the streams but didn’t wait for this to be done. The large French infantry force led the initial attack, which went well, but French commander Count Robert II of Artois recalled them so that the noble cavalry could claim the victory. Hindered by their own infantry and the tactically sound position of the Flemish militia led by the superb strategist Jan van Renesse (Zeeland), the French cavalry became  an easy target for the heavily-armed infantry. Jan van Kuyc also supported the Flemish with 50 troops.

When they realized the battle was lost, the surviving French fled, only to be pursued over 10 km by the Flemish.

Interestingly Godfrey of Brabant and a number of his supporters also participated in the battle. They fought on the French side and they were also killed. Godfrey had hoped that by aligning him with the French he would gain their support, to dethrone John I of Brabant.

The large numbers of golden spurs that were collected from the French knights gave the battle its name; at least a thousand noble cavaliers were killed, some contemporary accounts placing the total casualties at over ten thousand dead and wounded. The French spurs were hung in the Church of Our Lady in Kortrijk to commemorate the victory, and were taken back by the French two years later after the Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle.

An unique feature of this battle is that it is often cited as one of the first but also one of the few successful uprisings of peasants and townsmen, given that at the time most peasant uprisings in Europe were quelled. The uprising originated from the people themselves, without being provoked by a lord (the Flemish count and his most important lords were in French captivity).

In 2007 we visited the excellent museum at the Groeninge Abby with their  ‘Kortrijk 1302’ exhibit dedicated to the battle.

The battle also spilled over the northern part of the Low Countries, where Brabant, Holland, Zealand and Utrecht became embroiled in a conflict that had started with the murder of Count Floris V of Holland in 1299. The conflict was also used by the van Aemstels’ – one of the conspirators in the murder ploy trying the recoup his confiscated lands, he failed and as a consequence settled in Oss (See also: Holland).

In 1306 the count of Flanders again supported the local nobility and suppressed a revolt of the powerful trade guild. However, this also undermined the financial support he needed from these cities in order to continue his wars.

He tried to conquer South Holland (district of medieval Holland) from the pro-French count John II of Holland, but was not successful.

The French wanted to use this opportunity and invaded in 1315 Flanders again, however, this happened during a period of dramatic climatic change (Little Ice Age) which resulted in extreme cold winters and extreme wet summers. The French army got bogged down in Flanders and had to burn their provisions as they could not take them with them on their retreat.

The Flemish revolt of 1323 to 1328 – led by the peasants Nikolaas Zannekin and Jacob Pety – saw for the first time some cooperation between the towns and the peasants. Well organised mostly well-to-do and free  peasants in villages along the coast of Flanders and in particular around Bruges revolted against the unfair taxes and dues of their overlords (lords and churches, in this situation the abbeys). The peasants were supported by the towns (Bruges, Ghent, Ypers, Coutrai) who had their own issues with their overlords. They captured the Cout of Flanders and negotiated peace in 1326. However, different towns joined different overlords and therefore such revolts in the longer term never provided long lasting, solid changes. In 1328 the King of France supported by Willem III of Holland defeated the rebels at Mount Cassel (near Calais). The defeat ended in excile of many of the farmers and all of  their leaders were killed.

However, for the next 50 years the weavers in these cities remained restless and there were many bloody insurrections followed by equally bloody repressions.

The Jacquerie of 1358 is another large-scale revolt which take place during the 100 year war in northern France, which led to an increases in taxes and an impoverishment of the northern  regions where the battles were fought. Its revolutionary leader Guillaume Cale was also popularly known as Jacques Bonhomme, hence the name of the uprising.

Popular uprisings and local wars also ruined his finances of Duke Jan II of Brabant and in 1312 he signed the famous Charter of Kortenberg, in which he made very significant concessions to the cities (See: Duchy of Brabant).

In 1375, a similar charter (known as the Landbrief) was also issued in Utrecht  (See: Utrecht)

In November 1382 a Flemish city army under Philip van Artevelde was defeated by a French army under Count Louis II of Flanders during the Battle of Roosebeke (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Westrozebeke). The Count had called upon the help of the French king Charles VI after he had suffered a defeat during the Battle of Beverhoutsveld.

The Flemish army was defeated, Philip van Artevelde was slain and his corpse was put on display. This did end the ongoing revolts and uprisings. A peasant rebellion in Cassel (near Calais) which started in 1427 lasted for 4 years. The weavers in Ypres revolted 1qn 1429 in protest against their textile monopoly not being enforced, corruption of the local alderman brought the people into the streets again the following year. The weavers in Ghent led yet another revolt in 1432.

Peasant uprising in England

A serious peasant rebellion in 1381 in  England was a reaction to the much hated poll (personal) tax. These were introduced to pay for the Hundred Years War effort in France. This was levied on the earnings of the self employed (free farmers and trades people), while the church and the nobility were exempt. The revolt initially concentrated on the the king’s advisers (the architects of the tax) and the judges and tax collectors who were send to the regions. The rebels also opposed the opulent clergy with often very serious breeches of morality, this was the key reason why the philosopher and pre-reformist John Wyclif was accused of  being an instigator of the revolt despite the fact that he publicly distanced himself from it.  He however,  had condemned any warfare as contrary to God’s Commandments. What didn’t help him here was that the leader of the revolt John Ball was a Lollard priest (Lollards was the name given to Wyclif’s  followers). The third cause of revolt would be labour issues, either in the relation between lords and their serfs and employers and employees. Those who revolt issued lists of grievances and issues they want to see resolved. Also here some initial successes but soon afterwards the revolt was crushed and many of the farmers were executed.

The tax increased the divide between the ordinary people and the elite and caused increase poverty and this in turn led to a growth in pre-reformation religions such as the Lollards.

They were greatly assisted with the arrival of the printing press in 1436 (Johann Gutenberg). Their manifestos and ‘article letters’ rapidly started to be distributed throughout Europe. Printing destabilised the old feudal and religious hierarchies and the Church initially prohibited the use of it. The printing revolution spurred on literacy amongst a whole new class of people and became a critical tool in the transformations of the Renaissance. (Printing was of course already in use in China as early as 800CE).

But printing – through pictures more so than text – also allowed the people to start understanding life itself, they were able to get a sense of history and their place in all of this, it spurred on an enormous amount of creative energy. It was a true communications revolutions similar to later ones such as the Internet,

An interesting observation can be made that these popular uprises often took place in periods of economic growth, in areas of relative wealth and amongst the better-off people. This has given rise to the conclusion that these revolts were driven by those strong enough to aspire to greater liberties. Most of the Flemish revolts do fit that profile.

The Dutch Revolt

Reliquary 17 Martyrs of Gorkum, St Nicholas Church Brussels

The 60s of the 16th century were a very violent and turbulent period throughout the Low Countries effecting Brabant, Flanders, Limburg, Holland and Overijssel  the revolts and uprisings were the result of  frustration with and position against the unpopular Spanish occupation under Philip II  and his very harsh rule especially against the Protestants this was fuelled by the socio-economic problems caused by the harsh treatment  of  the trading cities in Flanders by the Spanish government – which led to massive unemployment both in the harbours as well as in the textile industry – and the food shortages during periods of extreme cold winters (Little Ice Age). During that decade some 50,000 people were on the move from the south to migrating to Holland, Cleve and Ost Friesland (Emden).

The Dutch Revolt started in all earnest in 1566 the southern part of the Low Countries. The brutal regime of the new Spanish Governor Alva, together with his new tax, saw many people forced into the camp of the rebels. The reason was at that stage certainly not religious, that became a side effect of the rebellion. However, religion soon became a catalyst in the war.

This led – on both sides against – to horrendous brutalities, the Spaniards used the Inquisition to suppress the demand for independence and the rebels used it to create hatred amongst the populus that led to iconoclasm (the beeldenstorm in 1566) whereby many religous people – amongst them 17 priests in Gorinchem – known as the 17 martyrs of Gorkum – were murdered under terrible circumstances. Within two weeks the beeldenstorm had spread From Flanders (15 August) to Amsterdam (September 1).

The Revolt moved further north in 1572 when the States of Holland for the first time met without the approval of their King (Phillip II) in Dordrecht -eighteen cities were represented who all received their own vote.  The key driver for the north was to maintain its leading trading position which was under threat from the oppressive Spanish regime and their tax system . The States (cities)  in fact took control over the financial and political affairs, with Prince William of Orange the elected Stadtholder (military leader).

Amsterdam was a reluctant participant in the Revolt and only several years later (1585)  joined the rebellion. Also interesting to note is that it was during this revolt that the power of printing went from the religious to the secular, in the Netherlands printing was used on both sides of the political divide that led to the independence of the Netherlands.  The Spanish occupation used pamphlets (plakaten) to intimidate the population and the ‘rebels’ used it to entice a revolt against the occupier (and their religion- Catholicism).

There was less unity in the southern part of the Low Countries. The various fractions within the city councils often tried to hang on to their own interests. Also political rivalry between cities, especially in this instant in Brabant between Brussels and Mechelen, muddied the waters. In the end a lack of finances made it very difficult to fight the Spaniards. The centuries old divisions in Flanders , made this region the most unstable and the most fractious of all the Provinces. Ghent did gain its independence (which it had lost in 1540) but internal rivalry stopped the city from taking a leadership role in the Revolt. The south was still stuck in medieval structures and systems, while the north had undergone an  economic and political transformation. The north was able to gain their independence while the south remained subject to the ruling  foreign powers. Brabant was divided in two and the norther part became a colony of the north which led to severe economic and social decline, a situation that  lasted for 200 years.

Before Luther became the most popular reformer, in the Netherlands, a different reform movement that had  started in Switzerland took hold around 1530, known as Anabaptist. They objected to  the monastic excesses as well as the many abuses of the Church hierarchy.  However, Anabaptism led to its own excesses and never became a lasting reform movement. It is also intersting to see Calvinism became more popular in the Netherlands than Lutheran, especially among the low nobility and the merchant class. They were attracted by its discipline, frugality and simplicity. They were well organised with a strong emphasis on the Bible rather than on church structure and the rules and regulations in the Catholic religion. This ‘lifestyle’ was seen as a good way to overcome the political and economic problems of that difficult period.

Finally the Reformation also led to the contra- Reformation (also known as Barok Reformation) a revival of Catholicism in southern Germany and the southern Netherlands, Spain and Austria. Again the printing press – now adopted by the Church – played a key role in this as well.

Spanish Uprisings

Also here the unfair treatement of the peasants and the ongoing tax burdens levied on them are the key to the revolts. Early uprising stared already in Catalonia in the 13th century in protest to the amount of money that unfree peasants had to pay (the remensa)  in order to end their serfdom. Ongoing protest again all of the various services (malos usos) the unfree farmers had to perform continued until they were finally abandoned in 1486.

At the end of the 15th and the start of the 16th century also the tension between the nobility and the merchants grew. Also here more privileges were needed to get the cities to show their allegiance to the king. With the arrival of Charles V, a foreign king entered the country, which provided the cities with even more opportunity to wrestle for better conditions. Valencia was a hotbed of rebellion, here the so called ‘Germania‘ ruled the trade and formed a powerful alliance against the nobility. When only two years after his arrival Charles left for Germany, to claim his Hapsburg inheritance, this mess was left to his representative Adrian of Utrecht (who later on became pope). He certainly was not strong enough to stand up against the rebels. Toledo, Segovia, Avila and Zamora formed a league. But also here the towns were unable to maintain their unity and while the Cortes had great problems settling the situation in the end they were able to quieten the situation down.


The Hussite and German Peasant Wars

The Hussite wars in Bohemia (modern Czech), followed the death at the stake of the religious thinker Jan Hus in Prague in 1415. The major difference in religion was the fact the Hussites took the eucharis in two forms (bread and wine) but in medieval catholic Europe that was more than enough to declare a crusade. Deeper under the surface however, lay a social revolution, with the local population being fed-up with the social injustice they incurred on a daily basis from both the secular and the clerical lords. The Hussites eventually were able to negotiate a peace deal that allowed them freedom of religion.

These wars also stimulated the big revolt that would nearly a century later engulf the German states. These were more organised than the revolts that had happened over the previous 200 years. There was a political agenda, people wanted more self government. Also these revolts happened at rather prosperous times, most previous revolts happened shortly after major disasters such as famine and epidemics.

Between March and May 1525, a large number of local communities were actually able to negotiate better deals with their Lords.

However, the underlying conflict that was gripping the German States was a struggle between the Emperor and the hundreds of local rulers (lay and ecclesiastic) the uprisings did fuel this conflict. These revolts rapidly led to near anarchy and a collapse of central power. These escalated conflicts grew in force which in turn also led to a far more forceful and brutal suppressions.

Tens of thousands of peasants in the (southern and western) German lands were massacred and executed during the Peasant Wars of 1525/26. The atrocities committed on both sides during this war where horrific, with the wholesale slaughter of villages and the total destruction of over a thousand castles and monasteries.

In Würzburg we read the story in the museum in the castle Marienberg about the peasant revolt against the Prince Bishop. It is rather incredible that the peasants where able to nearly conquer the Bishops’ enormously fortified stronghold on the top of a hill, the attack however, ended in a total massacre of the peasants when the Bishop and his forces flattened them with gunfire and by hurling boiling pitch and blazing rings of sulphur down on them.

From the south the revolt spread northwest and interestingly here it were the ecclesiastic cities such as Münster, Paderborn, Ösnabruck and Utrecht who took the lead. This coincided with a range of disastrous events in the region. There was, in 1529, an outbreak of the plague at the same of a major harvest failure, which let to severe famine during 1529-1530. On top of that an extraordinary tax was levied to finance resistance against the invading Turkish armies in the eastern territories of the Empire.

There were also  small revolts for example by the serfs belonging to the Monastery of Wietmarschen, it is not known if there was a direct link with the other peasant revolts in the south, but the serfs in Wietmarschen destroyed in 1530 part of their harvest in protest to the wheat tax.

On top of that there were plenty of local German rulers who used the opportunity to obtain political gain out of these revolts and at the same time these revolts also attracted the bottom layer of the society, eager to plunder, rob and kill. This as well as the ‘leadership’ religious zealots often led to internal divisions and nearly always undermined a positive outcome for the peasants.

While Luther distanced himself from the revolts, the fact is that they indirectly supported the Reformation, it created the fertile grounds that also led to a revolt against the often opulent and corrupt clergy.

In the end the centralised  powers of the many territorial states increased, in line with the European wide trend of stronger centralised power at the costs of the decentralised powers of the cities and the local nobility and communities that had dominated the political landscape during the previous 400 years.

Kaas and Broodspel (Cheese and bread game)

This was a peasant revolt in Holland in 1491/92 against the high taxes that had to be paid to Count Jan III van Egmond the Stadholder of Holland-  appointed as the provincial governor of the Burgundian/Habsburg ruler Maximilian of Austria (see: Dukes of Burgundy) – to finance his army (so called ruitergeld – knights tax). As usual is the case with these uprisings they are an accumulation of a range of issues but always include suffocating taxes. One of the issues was that the city elite and the church – who were buying up more and more property in the rural areas  – had to pay far less tax on these transactions.

A delegation of the peasants from the North Holland regions of West Frisia and Kennemerland had travelled to Den Haag to argue their case and they seemed to have made progress. However on their return they learned that on the one hand the tax burden was lessened while now a new tax would be levied of two golden Andreas Guilders on every house.

Severe rain in 1491, resulted in food shortages and at the same time two grain ships were confiscated by the regent. There was no way that the peasants could afford the new tax. During this period the people were also hit with plague epidemics.

This event happened when the Hoeken and Kabeljauwen conflict – a civil war – (see: Holland) had costed the economy in Holland dearly. As a result of this money had been devaluated which had put even more pressure on the already marginal existence of most farmers.

The Habsburg Regent for the Burgundian Netherlands Duke Albert van Saksen was relentless in suppressing the freedom the people in the county had enjoyed during the previous reign of a rather weakened central administration.

After they heard the bad news from Den Haag the peasants in the summer of 1491 marched to Alkmaar. The banners used by the protesters featured bread and cheese. They apparently also carried bread and cheese around their neck most likely to feed them on the way.

They initially received good support in Alkmaar and also in Hoorn, however their shear numbers and their increasing demanding attitude saw the city of Hoorn offering them a sum of money to leave the town. From here they marched back to Alkmaar, on their way ransacking two castles the Nieuwburg and the Middelburg.

The Stadholder prepared himself to travel to Alkmaar to teach these ‘cheese and bread ‘ peasant a lesson. He called it the Cheese and Bread Game. However, when he saw the mob he turned around and went back home, which the peasants celebrated as a victory.

By spring 1492 the peasants started to create serious problems for the City of Alkmaar, they supported the group with better weapons as they had decided to march to Haarlem to face the Stadholder again. The interesting twist here was that the Hoeken in  Haarlem had promised their support, so the revolt now also received a political angle. Those who didn’t support the peasants in Haarlem were either killed or their houses plundered.

From here the mob moved on to Leiden. The Stadholder (from the Kabeljauw fraction) and a large group of knights had assembled here. While the peasants were able to occupy some of the outlaying buildings they were no match for the military power of the knights with canons and crossbows. Many of the peasants were killed and when the rest saw the carnage they started to flee. The Stadholder and his man started the pursuit and many more killed or taken prisoner. However, a substantial number reached Haarlem and tried to fortify themselves.

In the meantime Albert van Saksen had send a number of his his German troops to the Stadholder for assistance. The peasants were intimidated by this and send a delegation to Den Haag for negotiation. However, the government was not interested in any of this and the Duke marched to Haarlem, where most of the peasant had already left the city and had gone back to their farms. The citizens showed great humility and handed the Duke the keys of the town, but nevertheless the Duke erected gallows on the market place and executed those who had revolted.

The Kennemers and West-Frisians as well as the cities of Alkmaar, Medemblik, Hoorn, Edam and Monnikendam  received severe financial penalties. People also had hand over their weapons, some of the cities had to built fortifications in order to keep their population under control and a large delegation of people had to walk barefoot and with exposed heads to Den Haag where they had to kneel down as ask for forgiveness.

While the rights of Alkmaar en Kennemerland were restored, it wasn’t until Charles V that the other cities were given their privileges back.

The Duke continued to other cities which were held by the Hoeken and claimed to end the civil war forever [4. Vaderlandse Letteroefeningen, 1871, De dochter van Skernewibe, Historische Novelle, D.Dekker]


The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)