If someone wrote a history of Europe from the standpoint of peasants and artisans, what story would it tell? The French historian Marc Bloch once observed that rebellions were as much a part of Europe’s agricultural economy and society before 1800 as labor strikes would become during the industrial revolution. One response to the question might be to track to the changing incidence and geographical extent of rebellions in Europe over the entire period between the late Middle Ages and the contemporary age.
This history was characterized by a number of important shifts. The late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1450) witnessed relatively few large-scale upheavals. Beginning in 1400 or so, rebellion became endemic in certain regions, especially the Rhineland, the Alpine borderlands between Austria, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Swiss confederation. A crescendo of revolts in this region culminated in the Peasants’ War of 1525, arguably the largest social upheaval in European history prior to the French Revolution. Then the action shifted to southern and western France, the scene of almost continuous rural protest and rebellion until the 1670s. In contrast, the eighteenth century was a time of relative calm all across Europe, ending finally in the convulsions of 1789.
No single factor can explain these shifts. Some historians emphasize the expansion of markets and their disrupting impact on local economies. Others see a major cause in the consolidation of state power and its ever-growing hunger for tax revenues. Still others argue that communal assertiveness was the decisive factor. In some regions, ethnic and religious differences played important roles. However, all would agree that whatever the immediate cause, an important variable was whether peasants and artisans could get all their needs addressed without recourse to violence.
The following series of maps explores each of these themes in turn. The first segment traces the shifting pattern of urban and rural unrest throughout Western Europe between 1300 and 1800. The second segment tests the hypothesis that late medieval rebellions were the expression of communalism in towns and villages; the third examines the relationship between rebellion and taxation. A fourth and final segment looks into the relationship between markets and a specific form of unrest, the food riot.