The uprising of the merchants of Paris and the french peasent revolt in 1358.


John Ball

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Etienne Marcel and Guillaume Calle

King John needed money. The hundred years war was very expensive. Especially he thought of making contribute the towns. He was confident because he had made some concessions in the past. In 1350 the guilds obtained the first regulation of working hours, thus recognizing their importance.

But when the Estates-General voted an income tax, it was generally refused. In the opinion of the merchants a military success would have justified increasing expenses for the war, but what followed was the most disastrous defeat of the french army. At the battle of Poitiers in 1356 in western France, the french army, though superior in number, was beaten by the english army. The nobility fled from the battlefield, leaving their king as a prisoner.

The population of Paris is excited. The chairman of the merchants guild, Etienne Marcel, is very popular, in particular because he asked an efficient control of expenditure at the Estates-General. Charles, the son of the king, was the Regent during the captivity of his father, again needed money and so he had to convoke the Estates-General. Merchants and craftsmen were very self-confident this time. At first they obtained an inqiry-committee, which later on should be replaced by a sort of supervising board next the throne. The supervising board would have been composed of 28 members, 12 of those representing the third Estate. The most urgent task of the committee was to re-establish a stable currency. The concerns of the merchants were well founded: since 1350 the silver marc had been devaluated 39 times! Furthermore, the tax-excemption of the nobility should be abolished as well as their privilege to levie their own special taxes. In exchange, every town would have to send one soldier for every 100 households. The Regent had no other choice than to consent everything. This was published as the "Great Decree". But this was only a sheet of paper and Charles the Bad (as he was called later) had no intention to apply what he consented. When the Parisian population understood that they had been cheated, they attacked and took the Regents Residence. But Charles escaped and went to Compiegne.

Faced to this unforeseen development, the merchants became afraid of what they had initiated, and they were not sufficiently determined to force the application of the Great Decree. That's why Charles propaganda and the intrigues he started had a certain success.  [map of France] Nevertheless, things were not so simple, because now, admittedly with a noticeable delay, the peasants on their turn stood up in northern France: in Laon, Soissons and the whole region around Paris. Their Leader was Guillaume Callé. The reasons for the peasants revolt were the same: the taxes they had to pay were much too high. And the tax collectors were more violent with the peasants, torture was a common practice at this time. The peasants revolt, called Jacquerie, rapidly extended to neighbouring regions such as the Brie, Champagne and the region of Amiens. The peasants conquered Ermenonville, northwest of Paris, while Meaux, south-east of Paris, joined their movement on its own. At Meaux peasants and citizens for the first time fought together for their rights. Besides, many towns in northern France were well defended because of the hundred years war.

A siege of every town was impossible for Charles. His only rescue was swindle and treason. At a great meeting in Meaux the peasants should negotiate with the Regent. But instead, Charles came with a small army, entered the town and started killing the peasants. It is only known that several thousand peasants died that day. After this event, the peasants movement lost its force.

The merchants and craftsmen were sufficiently developed to stand up self-conscious and to fight for their rights, but not enough to continue what they began. The threats of Charles had an effect on them, and the slaughter of Meaux did the rest. At the end, Etienne Marcel was alone. He was murdered by one of his friends, Jean Maillard. But Charles never forgot his fear in the year 1358, because some time after the events he ordered the construction of the Bastille to dominate Paris. This fortress, build after a repressed revolt, will later be destroyed by a victorious revolution.


John Ball

Last modified: Nov 26, 2004, /english/marcele.html