Thursday, 2 January 2014

'The Good Old Days': Rebellions and Nostalgia

‘The Good old Days’: Rebellions & Nostalgia

There’s something funny about rebellions in history and the feelings of nostalgia central to them. Take the Peasants Revolt of 1381 (pictured above), led by Wat Tyler in opposition to political and social grievances, economic problems resulting from heavy taxation, and instability in local leadership. The rebels (who weren’t even peasants, mostly) tried to justify their uprisings by claiming that they weren’t angry with the king himself, but were merely hostile to his advisers and law enforcers. They desired, they insisted, a return to “the good old days”, when serfs and lords were equal, instead of lords ruthlessly oppressing serfs economically and politically. Take the infamous rhyme which was ubiquitous during these events: “when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” (ie. in the Garden of Eden, everyone was created equally – there were no such things as lords, serfs, and nobles).

But it was very ironic that these rebels looked ideally back to a golden past in which, or so they believed, social equality was respected, and lords and serfs worked peacefully together. Oppression and inequality were unknown. But the historical facts relating to medieval England don’t bear this out. Many modern historians, for instance, suggest that the conditions of serfdom were actually better in the fourteenth century, compared with the harsher preceding centuries. Proving that this misguided belief wasn’t just a one-off in the dire climate of 1381, insurgents in the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion in southwest England demanded the deaths of gentlemen who they felt to be unlawfully oppressing them. Nostalgia for the not-so-distant past was present in a religious sense, for the rebels desired a return to the conservative ceremonies and practices of Henry VIII’s church.

Of course, nostalgic desire for the good old days surfaces not just in rebellions but in many other contexts. Medieval historians have suggested that women across Europe may have experienced a 'golden age' in terms of both living and working conditions, enjoying a degree of freedom harshly restricted in the early modern period. But specific to this article is rebellions and the feelings they produce of nostalgia and hatred of present day life as it stands. Rebels in both the 1381 and 1549 risings were deluded in thinking that the ‘good old days’ were infinitely better than they were at the time of the rebellions, but they can surely be forgiven for wishing to escape what may have seemed to them a life not worth living.

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