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34.3 The Great Plague and the Dawn of Communism

The split among the Hussites was largely due to the drift of the extremer section towards a primitive communism, which alarmed the wealthier and more influential Czech noblemen. Similar tendencies had already appeared among the English Wycliffites. They seem to follow naturally enough upon the doctrines of equal human brotherhood that emerge whenever there is an attempt to reach back to the fundamentals of Christianity.

The development of such ideas had been greatly stimulated by a stupendous misfortune that had swept the world and laid bare the foundations of society, a pestilence of unheard-of virulence. It was called the Black Death, and it came nearer to the extirpation of mankind than any other evil has ever done. It was far more deadly than the plague of Pericles, or the plague of Marcus Aurelius, or the plague waves of the time of Justinian and Gregory the Great that paved the way for the Lombards in Italy. It arose in South Russia or Central Asia, and came by way of the Crimea and a Genoese ship to Genoa and Western Europe. It passed by Armenia to Asia Minor, Egypt, and North Africa. It reached England in 1348. Two-thirds of the students, at Oxford died, we are told; it is estimated that between a quarter and a half of the whole population of England perished at this time. Throughout all Europe there was as great a mortality, Hecker estimates the total as twenty-five million dead. It spread eastward to China, where, the Chinese records say, thirteen million people perished. In China the social disorganization led to a neglect of the river embankments, and as a consequence great floods devastated the crowded agricultural lands.[1]

Never was there so clear a warning to mankind to seek knowledge and cease from bickering, to unite against the dark powers of nature. All the massacres of Hulagu and Timurlane were as nothing to this. «Its ravages», says J. R. Green, «were fiercest in the greater towns, where filthy and undrained streets afforded a constant haunt to leprosy and fever. In the burial ground which the piety of Sir Walter Manny purchased for the citizens of London, a spot whose site was afterwards marked by the Charter House, more than fifty thousand corpses are said to have been interred. Thousands of people perished at Norwich, while in Bristol the living were hardly able to bury the dead. But the Black Death fell on the villages almost as fiercely as on the towns. More than one-half of the priests of Yorkshire are known to have perished; in the diocese of Nor wich two-thirds of the parishes changed their incumbents. The whole organization of labour was thrown out of gear. The scarcity of hands made it difficult for the minor tenants to perform the services due for their lands, and only a temporary abandonment of half the rent by the landowners induced the farmers to refrain from the abandonment of their farms. For a time cultivation became impossible. ‘The sheep and cattle strayed through the fields and corn,’ says a contemporary, ‘and there were none left who could drive them.’ «

It was from these distresses that the peasant wars of the fourteenth century sprang. There was a great shortage of labour and a great shortage of goods, and the rich abbots and monastic cultivators who owned so much of the land, and the nobles and rich merchants were too ignorant of economic laws to understand that they must not press upon the toilers in this time of general distress.

They saw their property deteriorating, their lands going out of cultivation, and they made violent statutes to compel men to work without any rise in wages, and to preventtheir straying in search of better employment. Naturally enough this provoked «a new revolt against the whole system of social inequality which had till then passed unquestioned as the divine order of the world. The cry of the poor found a terrible utterance in the words of ‘a mad priest of Kent,’ as the courtly Froissart calls him, who for twenty years (1360-1381) found audience for his sermons, in defiance of interdict let and imprisonment, in the stout yeomen who gathered in the Kentish churchyards. ‘Mad,’ as the landowners called him, it was in the preaching of John Ball that England first listened to a declaration of natural equality and the rights of man. ‘Good people,’ cried the preacher, ‘things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villeins and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? On what grounds have they deserved it? Why do they hold us in serfage? If we all came of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride? They are clothed in velvet and warm in their furs and their ermines, while we are covered with rags. They have wine and spices and fair bread; and we oat-cake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the rain and the, wind in the fields. And yet it is of us and of our toil that these men hold their state.’ A spirit fatal to the whole system of the Middle Ages breathed in the popular rhyme which condensed the levelling doctrine of John Ball: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?»’ [2]

Wat Tyler, the leader of the English insurgents, was assassinated by the Mayor of London in the presence of the young King Richard 11 (1381), and his movement collapsed. The communist side of the Hussite movement was a part of the same system of disturbance. A little earlier than the English outbreak had occurred the French «Jacquerie» (1358), in which the French peasants had risen, burnt chateaux and devastated the countryside. A century later the same urgency was to sweep Germany into a series of bloody Peasant Wars. These began late in the fifteenth century. Economic and religions, disturbance mingled in the case of Germany even more plainly than in England. One conspicuous phase of these German troubles was the Anabaptist outbreak. The sect of the Anabaptists appeared in Wittenberg in 1521 under three «prophets», and broke out into insurrection in 1525. Between 1532 and 1535 the insurgents held the town of Minster in Westphalia, and did their utmost to realize their ideas of a religious communism. They were besieged by the Bishop of Minster, and under the distresses of the siege a sort of insanity ran rife in the town; cannibalism is said to have occurred, and a certain John of Leyden seized power, proclaimed himself the successor of King David, and followed that monarch’s evil example by practising polygamy. After the surrender of the city the victorious bishop had the Anabaptist leaders tortured very horribly and executed in the market-place, their mutilated bodies being hung in cages from a church tower to witness to all the world that decency and order were now restored in Munster… .

These upheavals of the common labouring men of the Western European countries in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were more serious and sustained than anything that had ever happened in history before. The nearest previous approach to them were certain communistic Muhammadan movements in Persia. There was a peasant revolt in Normandy about A.D. 1000, and there were revolts of peasants (Bagaudae) in the later Roman Empire; but these were not nearly so formidable. They show a new spirit growing in human affairs, a spirit altogether different from the unquestioning apathy of the serfs and peasants in the original regions of civilization or from the anarchist hopelessness of the serf and slave labour of the Roman capitalists. All these early insurrections of the workers that we have mentioned were suppressed with much cruelty, but the movement itself was never completely stamped out. From that time to this there has been a spirit of revolt in the lower levels of the pyramid of civilization. There have been phases of insurrection, phases of repression, phases of compromise and comparative pacification; but from that time until this, the struggle has never wholly ceased. We shall see it flaring out during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, insurgent again in the middle and at the opening of the, last quarter of the nineteenth century, and achieving vast proportions in the world of to-day. The socialist movement of the nineteenth century was only one version of that continuing revolt.

In many countries, in France and Germany and Russia, for example, this labour movement has assumed at times an attitude hostile to Christianity, but there can be little doubt that this steady and, on the whole, growing pressure of the common man in the West against a life of toil and subservience is closely associated with Christian teaching. The church and the Christian missionary may not have intended to spread, equalitarian doctrines, but behind the church was the unquenchable personality of Jesus of Nazareth, and even in spite of himself the Christian preacher brought the seeds of freedom and responsibility with him, and sooner or later they shot up where he had been.

This steady and growing upheaval of «Labour», its development of a consciousness of itself as a class and of a definite claim upon the world at large, quite as much as the presence of schools and universities, quite as much as abundant printed books and a developing and expanding process of scientific research, mark off our present type of civilization, the «modern civilization», from any pre-existing state of human society, and mark it, for all its incidental successes, as a thing unfinished and transitory. It is an embryo or it is something doomed to die. It may be able to solve this complex problem of coordinated toil and happiness, and so adjust itself to the needs of the human soul, or it may fail and end in a catastrophe as the Roman system did. It may be the opening phase of some more balanced and satisfying order of society, or it may be a system destined to disruption and replacement by some differently conceived method of human association. Like its predecessor, our present civilization may be no more than one of those crops farmers sow to improve their land by the fixation of nitrogen from the air; it may have grown only that, accumulating certain traditions, it may be ploughed into the soil again for better things to follow. Such questions as these are the practical realities of history, and in all that follows we shall find them becoming clearer and more important, until in our last chapter we shall end, as all our days and years end, with a recapitulation of our hopes and fears-and a note of interrogation.

[1]Dr. C. O. Stallybrass says that this plague reached China thirty or forty years after its first appearance in Europe. Ibn Batuta, the Arab traveller who was in China from 1342 to 1346, first met with it on his return to Damascus. The Black Death is the human form of a disease endemic among jerbons and other small rodents in the districts round the head of the Caspian Sea.
[2]The seeds of conflict which grew up into the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 were sown upon ground which is strangely familiar to any writer in 1920. A European catastrophe had reduced production and consequently increased the earnings of workers and traders. Rural wages had risen by 48 percent in England, when an unwise executive endeavoured to enforce in the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers (1350-51) a return to the pre-plague wages and prices of 1346, and aimed a blow in the Statute of 1378 against labour combinations. The villeins were driven to desperation by the loss of their recent increase of comfort, and the outbreak came, as Froissart saw it from the angle of the Court, “all through the too great comfort of the commonalty.” Other ingredients which entered into the outbreak were the resentment felt by the new working class at the restrictions imposed on its right to combine, the objection of the lower clergy to papal taxes, and a frank dislike of foreigners and landlords. There was no touch of Wycliffe’s influence in the rising. It was at its feeblest in Leicestershire, and it murdered one of the only other Liberal churchmen in England.—P. G.

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