Friday, 17 January 2014

Johanna Ferrour, Kentish Heroine?

Who is Johanna Ferrour?

My sum knowledge of Johanna Ferrour comes from this article which I encountered following a text from my sister that read (something along the lines of) "Here, check this out. Reckon we should get t-shirts, Johanna Ferrour, Kentish Heroine."

I don't make a secret of where I was born, how that defines me. No matter how long I live in East Anglia, I will always be a Kentish. As such, I will insist gavelkind is superior to primogeniture, mutter, "Invicta!" when I see a white horse rampant on a red field, and make the odd, dark reference to 1381.

Yes, 1381.

Kent cannot boast Luddites, smashing machines to defend their livelihoods. Kent does not salute the Levellers, combining religion and pacifism with an attempt to reclaim the commons. Certainly Kent does not have the dignified heroism of Nowich's Robert Kett (of whom more later), protesting enclosure and receiving - many years after his execution - a pardon.

No, in Kent we have the murdered Tyler, the 'mad' John Ball.

And now, it seems, Johanna Ferrour.

There was a cartoon in Terry Deary's Measly Middle Ages - about how the rebels wanted all men to be equal (and that the women could stay home and be oppressed.) Now, I love Martin Brown's cartoons as much as the next facile history geek, but I always worried about this one, especially the way it played into the cultural expectation that rebellion itself was a boy's game, that the peasant's revolt was on a par with football hooliganism: a bunch of dudes storming up to the capital and smashing things. Women have always been a part of civil disobedience: when there is structural, economic inequality, it affects women as much as men - often it affects them more severely. Is it any wonder then, that they too nurse grievances. That when things kick off, that they are involved?

And in this case, they were not only there, but were central. They did not only fight alongside the men, but lead them. To quote the BBC article, Ferrour, "arrested Sudbury and dragged him to the chopping block, ordering that he be beheaded."

No, we shouldn't forget Johanna Ferrour. And, yes. If the rebels were heroes, certainly we should count Ferrour as an equal with Tyler, with Ball.

But what about 1381?

When I was taught this at school, I remember getting angry with the way the story was told. We were presented with a (historically inaccurate) picture of feudalism, a simplified version of the Black Death, land rights, and serfdom. With grievances that were legitimate, but with actions that went too far. Tyler's death was unjust, true, but he showed bad manners in front of the King. He dared to take offence at being called a thief. If you're a peasant, the narrative implied, you can't afford honour - it'll get you slashed with a sword, get you stabbed in the stomach.

Oddly - or perhaps not - much of this reminds me of the commentary on the riots of 2011. There are parallels. Long term disenfranchisement and oppression finding an outlet after a significant event - the poll tax, the murder of Mark Duggan. You wring your hands. You say, "of course this is bad", you say, "but this isn't legitimate protest. You can't hide behind that grievance if you're doing this."  You say, "your actions have justified your enemies prejudice", you tell them their  cause has been hi-jacked by "rebellious evildoers".

But these events are significant, and the dichotomy of 'good protest' and 'bad protest' is inadequate. It is to overlook the fact that, being powerless, one cannot negotiate upon the same terms as a powerful person. I might sound as Kentish as they come when I say Tyler was murdered - but he was killed on a mistaken pretence, without trial. Does the fact that the people who killed him walked away without 'needing' to be forgiven make that a 'lawful killing'? The narratives we tell about history affect the narratives we create today.

 Still, although I could spend all afternoon drawing parallels between 1381 and 2011, it would be as much of a simplification to try and understand both events in entirely the same way. The causes- although following a similar basic 'shape' are historically specific, the motivations of the participants markedly different. What's more, the manifestations of the disorder was not at all similar. In 2011, although personal violence did occur, this was part of the general riot - an incidental consequence. In 1381, interpersonal violence was the focus and aim of the uprising: the rebels identified certain individuals as enemies of the country and had them targeted, apprehended, executed. In 2011 shops and houses were smashed and looted. In 1381 (initially at least) the shops and houses of those figures were smashed - but (again, initially) - those who attempted to steal rather than destroy were arrested and punished by the rioters themselves. The events of 2011 are certainly politically pertinent, politically motivated, but the destruction caused was an expression of that. In 1381, the violence was conducted with explicitly political aims.

Co-opting the image of the rebels: 

This political engagement, of course, is what tempts us to paint Ferrour as a heroine. She was a woman in a time when that was a significant disadvantage, a woman who was able to take the lead in times of danger and trouble. She was an attempted revolutionary who wanted to take justice into her own hands, to unsettle an oppressive government, to make the ruling classes quake in their boots.

Make no mistake, the government was unsettled by Ferrour and her ilk. It's a lesson rulers should always remember - the people they govern outnumber rulers many times over.When the marginalised organise, they are dangerous.

And the cause of the rebels of 1381 is so very tempting. What were they demanding? An end to villeinage. An end to an oppressive government taxing the poorest disproportionately hard. Is it any wonder, then, that they are painted as heroes? As proto-socialists? Even John Ball's chant, (modernised here) "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" sounds so very good from a egalitarian perspective. 

This, certainly, is how they are seen in much of Kent.

Kett's men stormed Norwich more than once and burned down half the city. Yet he, diplomatic, middle class, is seen as the ultimate champion of worker's rights. The Luddites live on not only in people like me (incapable of running a defrag programme on my ailing laptop), but in the artisan creators who reject mass production in favour of local businesses, forgotten skills, small industries. The Levellers have been posthumously tidied from property destroying reprobates into ye-olde-hippies, preaching peace, love and organic gardening.

I wish, with my whole heart, I could call Ferrour a heroine and leave it at that.

History is messy.

On the 14th June 1381 around and near St Martin Vimtry, between 30 and 40 Flemish immigrants were dragged from their churches or places of business and beheaded, their bodies left in the streets. In and amongst the agenda of social disruption and legitimate grievance, the Kentish rebels harboured a strong anti-Flemish sentiment, and acted upon it in what is the bloodiest episode of the peasants revolt. It is recorded in four contemporary sources (The Westminster Chronicle, Anonimalle Chronical, Letter Book H and The Saint Alban's Chronicle) and is unlikely to be a fabrication. Far from unity and equality, we find ourselves faced with plain old xenophobia.

It would be very nice, it would be very nice indeed, to be able to say that figureheads like Ferrour, Tyler, Ball, would not have acted that way, that they were above the crowd. It would also be very easy to say they were all racist murderers, to say that this condemns them despite the legitimacy of their other complaints. To say, see, they were no better than football hooligans all along.

Both of these views are wrong.

Not all of the rebels took part in these actions. There were probably some who would have loved to kill a few foreigners and were in the wrong place to do so. There may well have been others who harboured no anti-Flemish sentiment and would have been appalled by this. Almost certainly, there were still more who did harbour such sentiment and were happy to smash some stuff, but wouldn't take it so far as decapitation. Simply because people, en masse have a tendency to behave despicably does not mean that everyone in a movement is despicable. One of the major problems with mass events is that no one person in the crowd can be answer for the actions of the others, but - seen as part of the crowd - they cannot definitely be excused of those actions either.

Of John Ball, we can say that he wasn't there, that he was a rabble rouser, not an executioner. Of Tyler we can say he was a spokesman, a figurehead. We don't know where either of them were at any specific point of the riot. What of Ferrour? Well, she physically dragged Simon of Sudbury to the block so they could behead him. She ordered the death of Robert Hales, the treasurer. Clearly, she was not uncomfortable with summary execution. Would she take that beyond a hatred for a few wealthy, powerful men?

What were her personal politics? That enviably catchy chant of John Ball's betrays another sentiment on the rebels' part that would be distasteful to modern socialism. Yes, the goal may have been to dismantle the social order than bound them in villeinage, but that is because they bowed to another, greater order. It is a philosophy that was radical enough for the time, radical to some even now - All men, all women, were equal under God. But with that as an ideal, what was their commitment to this goal? Richard II was a bad King - a terrible King, in fact - but their wrath was reserved for his 'evil councillors'. Was  When Tyler met the King, there was no indication that Wat would serve Richard as Ferrour served Sudbury.

Was Ferrour involved in ethnic cleansing? Would Ferrour have risen to regicide?

Speculation, speculation.

We can't say for certain that she was racist, can't be sure she was egalitarian. We don't know if her motivations were financial, personal, political or religious. Who, then, was she? What, then, did she do?

She "was the chief perpetrator and leader of the rebellious evildoers from Kent". She led a group of men in riot at a time when it was believed the root of mulier was mollior, when it was expected that a woman should not be placed in authority over a man. She was a woman with a political complaint who took this grievance to the men she blamed for it and executed them.

 Johanna Ferrour, rebel leader. Johanna Ferrour, not to be forgotten.

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