Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

Mark Ormrod looks at a ‘blood-and-guts’ account of a dramatic 14th-century protest

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Reviewed by: Mark Ormrod
Author: Dan Jones
Publisher: Harper Press
Price (RRP): £20

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The church at Wickhambrook, Suffolk, contains a surprising relic: the severed head of Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and royal chancellor, who was savagely murdered in London during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Sudbury’s skull gets no coverage in Dan Jones’s new book, Summer of Blood – the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Such material survivals tell us much – should we want to know it – about how collective memories of this first great protest movement were preserved in the generations that followed. Dan Jones, though, is not greatly concerned with the reasons why we continue to find the Peasants’ Revolt significant. His task, he tells us, is simply to write a “cracking good story”.

Whether he has succeeded in this task depends on taste. Those who favour the blood-and-guts approach will certainly find plenty to amuse them here, for Jones dwells in vivid detail on the myriad atrocities of the summer of 1381. Those interested in following the rebels as they marched into London will also find much of interest.

Jones is at his best in plotting the chroniclers’ accounts onto the medieval street plan of the capital and in evoking powerful mind-pictures of the terror that swept through the city on those hot June days. His account of the bloodiest act of suppression before Monmouth’s Rebellion of 1685 also occasions fruitful comment on the emergence of King Richard II’s notorious tendency to vengefulness.

For those readers who prefer a more measured assessment of the context of 1381, however, Summer of Blood offers relatively little. Beyond the demagogues – Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw – Jones offers virtually no comment on the social profile of the rebel bands and of how their perspectives impacted on the agenda for reform.

Above all, the requirement to supply a single narrative means that many of the most revealing elements of this complex story are marginalised. One thinks here of the rebels in the Tower of London raising their ‘filthy sticks’ against Joan of Kent; of the hapless royal messenger who, sent out of the Tower to address the rebels, had to stand on an ‘old chair’ in order to make his voice heard; and, above all, of the letters of John Ball, which speak to us in a vernacular idiom that is at once highly enigmatic and strikingly accessible.

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The best general history reflects not just on past events but on why we should relate to them. Jones’s publishers claim he has written “the first popular account in a century” of the events of 1381. He has certainly retold an old story in an accessible form. But it is greatly to be regretted that he seems so often content to write in a way that reinforces current popular prejudices about the general nastiness of the Middle Ages. The protesters of 1381 surely deserve better.