People of 1381 project show how investigating historic protestors and their motives can strengthen policy and policing response today.

"> People of 1381 project show how investigating historic protestors and their motives can strengthen policy and policing response today.


Policy Papers

How medieval revolts help us understand modern mass protest

Andrew Prescott , Adrian R. Bell , Anne Curry and Helen Lacey |

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Executive Summary

  • Persistence of 19th-century notions of the madness of crowds is evident in recent characterisation of Black Lives Matter protests.
  • Historical analysis of revolts, particularly from the Middle Ages, helps understand social dynamics of mass protest.
  • Risings develop when many different grievances combine and protestors develop shared social identity.
  • Analysing the background of protestors and targets is essential to understanding the protest.
  • A strong moral economy develops among protestors, legitimising violent protest.
  • The multi-faceted nature of the protest generates complex patterns of shared leadership.
  • Hasty and badly-prepared prosecutions are always counterproductive.


The worldwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 were unprecedented in their international spread and were given additional urgency and energy by the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic disproportionately affected BAME communities, generating widespread concern about institutional racism and inequality.  

Despite the exceptional features of the BLM protests, some familiar themes quickly emerged in political discourse. Politicians complained that the protests had been hijacked by criminal extremists. Following violence in Whitehall and the destruction of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that ‘These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery’. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel declared that legitimate protests had been undermined by a criminal minority behaving as hooligans. In the United States, President Trump complained that protests had been taken over by ugly anarchists and domestic terrorists. The President’s son Eric described the protestors as behaving like animals.

Such comments reflect the continuing influence of classic crowd theory, first popularised by Gustav Le Bon at the end of the nineteenth century, which claims that people become irrational and inhuman when they join a crowd. Classic crowd theory has been widely criticised but still frequently shapes policy reactions to protests and demonstrations. By taking a historical approach to the analysis of protests and demonstrations, we can transcend the prejudices of classic crowd theory and develop a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of protest. A new AHRC-funded project, The People of 1381 at the Universities of Reading, Oxford, Southampton and Glasgow, demonstrates how the study of medieval revolts can inform modern policy issues relating to mass protest. These researches demonstate the need for more nuanced approaches to protest than was evident in some commentary on BLM demonstrations.

The myth of the madness of crowds

The progenitor of classic crowd theory was Gustav Le Bon who in 1895 published The Crowd, described as the most influential book ever written in social psychology. Horrified by the Paris commune in 1871, Le Bon portrayed crowds as irrational, violent and destructive. Le Bon claimed that members of a crowd were affected by a hypnotic contagion destroying their willpower and were prone to manipulation by powerful leaders. In Le Bon’s explicitly racist analysis, an individual joining a crowd ‘descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian – that is a creature acting by instinct’. Freudian theory also gave primacy to a charismatic leader, who exerts control on the crowd. An individual’s own ego is sublimated and people revert to a ‘primal’ emotional state.

These theories had a profound influence on military and police training, particularly in the United States. What has been called ‘the myth of the madding crowd’ is still evident in some sociological textbooks. Among the first to challenge classic crowd theory were historians investigating the background of participants in demonstrations and riots. George Rudé used judicial records to investigate the Gordon Riots in London in 1780. Previously, it had been claimed that rioters were criminal desperadoes encouraged to attack Catholics by the demagoguery of Lord George Gordon. Rudé showed that many of the participants were local tradesmen and illustrated how the riots expressed resentment of social inequality as well as anti-Catholic feeling. Rudé applied similar prosopographic techniques to other movements such as the 1830 Captain Swing protests against agricultural machinery, showing their social complexity.

While Rudé illustrated how portrayals of the irrational low-life mob were inaccurate, E. P. Thompson in a famous 1971 essay, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, showed how food riots were not spasmodic reactions to hunger but expressed long-standing community consensus about traditional rights and obligations in the provision of bread and corn. The forms of demonstration adopted were often disciplined and focussed. The targets reflected a communal understanding that violent protests could be legitimate when social obligations were neglected.

The pioneering work of historians such as Rudé and Thompson discredited classic crowd theory. Nevertheless, assumptions that demonstrators go mad when they are part of a crowd persist. After the poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square in 1990, one police officer commented about the demonstrators: ‘Something disengages in their brain. I am not a medical man or an expert in crowd behaviour; but something goes and they become part of the crowd’. 

Inspired by the work of Rudé and Thompson, social psychologists such as Steve Reicher, Clifford Stott and John Drury have proposed an Elaborated Social Identity Model of Crowd Behaviour (ESIM). This argues that, as crowd actions develop, different social groups perceive themselves as sharing a common social identity. This social identity can be consolidated by shared resentment of an ‘out-group’ such as the police. ESIM explains the apparent changes that occur in people when they join demonstrations. It helps understand how peaceful protests become violent and suggests the best policies to safely police protest.

The crowd is often portrayed as a phenomenon of modernity, but traditions of mass protest go back much further – the food riots discussed by Thompson were a feature of English life from the sixteenth century onwards. Many large popular revolts took place in the Middle Ages and it may be that the medieval 'mob' is not very different from the modern crowd. One of the largest medieval risings was the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381. The rich legal and administrative records relating to this revolt enable the crowd to be anatomised in a way that may not be feasible with more recent disturbances. The People of 1381 is creating a database of people involved in the 1381 revolt, both as participants and victims, which illustrates the huge scale of the rising and provides important insights into the way protesting crowds develop and behave and helps test models such as ESIM.

How protests grow

The trigger for the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 was the imposition of a regressive flat rate poll tax to finance the faltering war against France. This was the third such tax in four years. However, the rising quickly grew beyond a tax revolt. The process by which a variety of social groups joined the rising vividly illustrates the principles of ESIM.

The poll tax required everyone over 15 to pay one shilling. It was bitterly resented and there was widespread evasion. Attempts to enforce payment led to violent resistance. These protests became enmeshed with other grievances. Those obliged to perform labour services for land demanded cash rents to replace them. There was resentment against the labour legislation, recently introduced after the Black Death of 1348-9, which capped wages and obliged labourers to work against their will. Townsfolk seeking greater autonomy made common cause with rural tenants. Radical clergy seeking church reform joined the disturbances. Members of the gentry used the rising to pursue land disputes. Even tropes of gendered violence came to the fore, as government officials were accused of sexual assaults on girls and young women.

The potency of the 1381 rising came from the way in which local and personalised grievances drew a range of social groups into the protests. These different constituencies expressed their shared identity by describing themselves as ‘the king’s commons’. The disturbances covered much of south east England and East Anglia and far beyond. Rebel bands converged on London where there was a huge insurrection. The magnificent palace of John of Gaunt, the uncle of the young king Richard II and his most powerful advisor, on the site of the modern Savoy Hotel, was destroyed.

The king met the rebels at Mile End, where they requested that traitors in government should be executed. The rebels pressed their demand for a flat rate rent of 4d an acre for land, the abolition of the labour legislation and improvements to criminal law. The king agreed to these demands, but the Tower of London was seized and the Chancellor and Treasurer of England were beheaded. At a further meeting between the king and rebels at Smithfield, the rebel leader Wat Tyler was killed. The rising was ruthlessly suppressed with hundreds killed, but eventually a general pardon was granted to the remaining rebels.

Apart from brief experiments in the seventeenth century, there was no further attempt to impose a poll tax until Margaret Thatcher’s government revived the idea with the introduction of a community charge to fund local government. Thirty years ago in 1990, serious riots against the poll tax in Whitehall and Trafalgar Square precipitated the process which led eventually to Margaret Thatcher’s resignation and the scrapping of the community charge. There are similarities between the 1990 poll tax riots and the Peasants’ Revolt which reflect the process of development of crowd protests described in ESIM.

In both 1381 and 1990, the protests were fuelled by a variety of different grievances and became more all-encompassing. The way in which poll tax protestors in Trafalgar Square in 1990 linked up with anti-apartheid protestors to attack South Africa House recalls how rural labourers, merchants and gentry made common cause in 1381. In 1990, anger about the community charge became fused with wider resentments over social inequality (which had risen dramatically since Thatcher took office in 1979) . As the rioters left Trafalgar Square, they attacked shops in Regent Street and Oxford Street because they were symbols of opulent consumerism. As one demonstrator put it, ‘The rich had been directly terrorised. The disinherited, the dispossessed, the alienated, the angry, the militant had risen as a unified whole to confront the ruling class with its crimes’.

As feelings of shared identity between protestors develop, their grievances become broader. The same process occurred in the international spread of the BLM protests. As the protests gathered momentum, demonstrators felt a shared identity with George Floyd because of their own local experiences of police racism. This fed into a wider condemnation of the institutional racism of much of western society. Governments seeking to address such protests, both in the Middle Ages and today, need to ponder how this sense of shared grievance can readily widen into a general condemnation of society. Scale is also important – as grievances become more generic, protesting crowds become larger.

Who are the protestors?

The prejudices which underpin classic crowd theory are ancient. Just as Eric Trump claimed that BLM protestors behaved like animals, so the medieval poet John Gower depicted the rebels of 1381 as savage wolves and bears descending on London. There is a risk that these atavistic reactions can shape policy and lead to violent crackdowns which make matters worse. It is vital to remember that protesting crowds are composed of a variety of people from many different backgrounds and each individual is at a different place on the spectrum of ‘buy in’ from the most ardent believer to the relative sceptic.

Rudé showed how disparaging eighteenth-century descriptions of protestors were misleading. The same is true today. In 1990 The Economist claimed the poll tax rioters were ‘no hopers’ living ‘on the edges of British society’. While many young people took part in the 1990 riots, they were drawn from a wide social spectrum and their participation reflected broad resentment on issues like prolonged mass unemployment and underfunded education. Whilst media coverage often stereotypes revolts as overwhelmingly working-class phenomena, it downplays the involvements of those from more affluent backgrounds. A counterpoint to this has been the recent scrutiny of climate change protests, that have proven to be overwhelmingly southern and middle class, with more women than men taking part.

Contemporary references to the 1381 revolt describe it vaguely using such terms as ‘the rising of the commons’ or ‘time of rumours’. The term ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was coined in the nineteenth century and gives a false impression of the social structure of the rebellion. Far from being exclusively composed of downtrodden serfs, the 1381 rising drew on every level of society below the aristocracy. The ranks of the insurgents included not only a wide range of rural tenants but also craftsmen, merchants, sailors, small farmers, disaffected gentry and women from a range of social backgrounds.

Shared antagonisms were important in drawing these groups together. In 1381, the antipathy towards John of Gaunt and all those connected with him was a major factor drawing rebels together. Another cause of resentment were the networks of corrupt royal and legal officials, whose dealings had alienated people from a wide range of backgrounds. Such ‘out groups’ became the focus of intense hatred. There were associated massacres of Flemish weavers and merchants who were seen as taking over the English wool trade.

In understanding mass protests, identifying ‘out groups’ and the reasons for the hatred of them is essential. In particular, in dealing with modern riots, there is a risk that the police themselves can be seen as the ‘out group’ even if the protests were not initially directed at them. This happened during the 1990 poll tax riots and was a major issue during the BLM protests in the US.

Another vestige of classic crowd theory is the assumption that most demonstrators are peaceful and that violence is the work of radical troublemakers. In 1381, the finger was pointed at religious radicals such as the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe and mendicant friars. It was claimed that a small group of radical aldermen had let the rebels into London in 1381. In 1990, policemen were convinced that the demonstration was hijacked by a small group of radicals. One commented: ‘There were a few that came to orchestrate whatever they could … whether you are IRA supporters of A[nimal] L[iberation] F[ront] or whatever you could co-ordinate something with ten people with megaphones or radios and get things going’.  Even Neil Kinnock claimed that the violence in 1990 was the work of criminals bent on creating a riot.

Research undertaken by the People of 1381 project into the background of the participants in the Peasants’ Revolt has shown how the rebels came from many different social backgrounds and were brought together by shared feelings of injustice and inequitable treatment. These were further complicated by the impact of wider societal changes, such as the militarisation of society as a result of the long-running war with France. Radical preachers like the chaplain John Ball became associated with the revolt because their message echoed wider discontent, not because they were manipulating a mob.

It is also important to investigate the ways in which the gender and age profile of ‘agitators’ aligns with their perception and subsequent treatment. Often, those who take part in revolts are characterised as young and male and this becomes stereotyped as the thuggish ‘hoodie’ of Daily Mail front-covers. It might also be true to say that modern media coverage is less likely to attribute any idealistic motives to the young-male profile, instead condemning them as simply driven by frustrated consumerism. Gendered treatment of those who take part in insurrection is also clear: women who take part in collective protest transgress the patriarchal norms of society and are subject to stereotyped critiques for doing so.

This assumption that violence in mass protests is the result of crowds being easily misled by outside agitators is a vestige of Le Bon’s crowd theory. It discourages policymakers from identifying the shared grievances which bind the demonstrators together and prevents them understanding the reason for particular people and institutions becoming regarded as 'out-groups'. In 1381, one rebel ‘confessed’ that he and his companions had been bribed by a French military commander to stir up insurrection. This might well have been a fabricated plot constructed by those in authority in order to shift the blame onto a well-known hate figure. This might even allow for some kind of reconciliation, by externalising the blame on the French, something everyone could get on board with.

Targets and leadership

One of the most useful methods of understanding mass protest is to analyse its targets and forms of protest. Although the rebels in 1381 were drawn from diverse social groups, they adopted common forms of protest as a means of expressing their shared identity. They carried standards with the arms of St George to express their claim to embody the body politic as the loyal commons of the king. They burnt tax, financial and manorial records as a protest against the legal and tenurial system. These were seen by many communities as legitimate targets. Even the most violent actions of the 1381 rebels, such as the beheading of royal officials, was justified on the grounds that this was a suitable punishment for traitors.

Thompson explained how rioters come to regard criminal acts as legitimate by reference to what he called the moral economy of the crowd. The importance of this sense of moral economy can also be seen in the BLM protests. Extreme actions such as the destruction of statues of white supremacists and racists were considered acceptable by demonstrators because of the exceptionally offensive nature of racism. The forced removal of these statues represents an attempt to create a more diverse and inclusive public space. The outrage caused by these statues was seen by protestors as warranting actions that other sections of the community might regard as criminal vandalism.

A shared moral economy generates common understandings among protestors as to what actions are acceptable. It is vital for policymakers to understand this process when policing mass protests, whether in 1381 or 2020. It appears that in 1381 the killings of the Chancellor and Treasurer of England were directly precipitated by the King naively agreeing that traitors could be punished. The attacks on statues in the BLM protests cannot be considered in isolation but need to be placed in the context of the relationship of different communities to public space (and in the case of Bristol, frustration that long-running local campaigning on the issue had failed to bring about change). In both cases, effective policing is dependent on understanding how consensuses emerge as to appropriate forms of protest.

Classic crowd theory stresses the role of the leader in manipulating crowds and ignores the communal nature of mass protest. The idea of crowds enthralled by their leaders is prominent in descriptions of the 1381 revolt which stress the role of Wat Tyler in London or the dyer Geoffrey Lister in Norfolk. The dramatic killing of Wat Tyler at Smithfield and the brave actions of King Richard II in leading the rebel bands away to prevent them avenging Tyler have been seen as pivotal to the outcome of the rising.

However, the role of leaders in mass protests is more complex than this. Contemporary reports of the Peasants’ Revolt state that one of the leaders was Jack Straw, a mythological figure who occurs in popular drama. It seems that the use by rebels of such nicknames as Jack Straw or later Captain Swing were part of the means by which protests claimed popular legitimacy. The invocation by protestors of these mythical figures as leaders emphasised the communal nature of their actions and appealed to ancient customary ideas as to when it was acceptable to revolt.

Leadership of risings is often diverse and collective. In East Anglia, local rebel leaders such as John Wraw in Suffolk and Geoffrey Lister in Norfolk were in contact with each other. Rebels from Essex and Kent were communicating at an early stage of the rising across the Thames Estuary. The People of 1381 project has shown how a number of rebels had military experience (some very recently returned from campaigning in France) and these former soldiers were mobile and active in spreading the revolt. It was these interconnections which made protests successful, not the charisma of individual leaders.

This dispersed model of leadership reflects the complex social makeup of crowds. Contemporary descriptions of the 1381 revolt describe the insurgents as a single homogenous group but this was not the case. Likewise, the Poll Tax demonstrators in 1990 reflected a range of interests from trade union activists to Animal Liberation Front and anti-apartheid campaigners.

A crowd demonstration is a multi-layered articulation of a range of social aspirations, resentments and anger. Whether in 1381, 1990 or 2020 they lay bare key social dynamics driving society and assist in identifying areas for social policy priorities. By examining the moral economy of revolts from all periods, we can draw important conclusions about the way in which social discontents interact and understand how society can accommodate these concerns more equitably.

Policing and prosecution

The 1381 revolt illustrates the potential difficulties for governments in communicating and negotiating with protestors. Initial attempts ruthlessly to repress protests backfired and caused the rising to spread. Attempts by the King to negotiate with the rebels led to misunderstanding and bloodshed. The 1381 revolt demonstrates time and time again the need for governments to develop clear and trustworthy lines of communication with protestors.

In the wake of major protests and disturbances, there is often political and social pressure to identify ringleaders and punish troublemakers. A characteristic reaction is that of UK Home Secretary Priti Patel after the BLM protests in Bristol, who stated: ‘To the criminal minority who have subverted this cause with their thuggery, I simply say this: your behaviour is shameful and you will face justice’.

Pressures such as these mean that criminal investigations into mass disturbances, whether conducted via police or intelligence agencies, are frequently conducted over-hastily and ineffectively. After the 1990 riots, policemen felt justified in taking short cuts to convict culprits. An internal police report noted that many police statements compiled after the 1990 riots were unsatisfactory: ‘A significant number of officers are not able to write a concise or even accurate statement of events. Careless mistakes, such as failing to date or sign statements, were frequent. Descriptions were often too vague to be of value'. Such problems led to the failure of a number of prosecutions.

Similar issues affected the prosecution of rebels after the 1381 revolt. Some nobles took peremptory military action against the rebels and had to be pardoned. Private individuals and factions in towns such as London took advantage of the prosecutions arising from the revolt to bring false charges against their enemies. Commissions allowing victims of the revolt to recover looted goods ran out of control. The chaotic legal proceedings after the revolt contributed significantly to the pressures which eventually forced the government to offer a general amnesty to the rebels except for alleged ringleaders.

The way in which prosecutions arising from mass disturbances are conducted is of fundamental importance in addressing the tensions causing the protests. Hastily conducted, repressive and poorly informed prosecutions exacerbate the discontents which caused the initial disturbances. Moreover, if governments engage in over-hasty crackdowns, their authority can be weakened when prosecutions fail or it becomes necessary to grant amnesties.

Assessing the long-term impact of mass protest

The 1381 revolt and the 1990 poll tax riots were both successful in sealing the fate of the primary cause of their protest. No attempt was made again by Richard II's government to impose a poll tax and the 1990 riots precipitated a political crisis which eventually led to the scrapping of the community charge and even the resignation of Mrs Thatcher, their prime ministerial author. It is too early to assess the achievements of the BLM protests but it is clear that they have highlighted political concerns about policing methods in the US and across the world.

However, what is significant about these larger scale risings is the way in which they developed beyond a single cause to reflect much wider social agendas: the abolition of labour services in 1381; protests against unemployment and a generally uncaring approach to the poor in 1990; the persistence of racial inequalities and colonial legacies in the case of BLM.

It has been difficult for economic historians to discern that the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 had a direct impact on the decline of serfdom and indeed some historians have consequently seen the rising as futile. Yet it is clear that the revolt cast a huge cultural shadow over late fourteenth-century England and its impact can be seen in the way literary works of the period interrogate and debate shifting social structures.

Likewise, the 1990 poll tax riots brought to the fore debates about regional and social inequality, unemployment and social responsibility in ways which fed into the subsequent rise of New Labour. Again, it is too early to be certain about the long-term effects of the BLM protests, but there seems to be little doubt that it is generating wider debate about racial injustice which transcends the immediate issues of policing.

Assessing the long-term social effects of mass protests has hitherto proved difficult, so that these events may seem elusive in character. This may perhaps be partly due to the continued influence of classic crowd theory and the idea that risings are a temporary collective madness. In order to better assess the significance and impact of events such as the Peasants' Revolt, the 1990 poll tax riots and the BLM protests, we need to break away from classic crowd theory, absorb the lessons of the ESIM and think about what the identity of the protestors tells us about the discontents of society.

The People of 1381 is a collaborative research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council involving the University of Reading, University of Oxford, University of Southampton and University of Glasgow:

Further Reading

Juliet Barker, England Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 (London: Little Brown, 2014).

Justine Firnhaber-Baker and Dirk Schoenaers (eds), The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt (London: Routledge, 2017).

George Rudé, The Crowd in History; a Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England 1730-1848. Rev. ed. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1981).

Clifford Stott and John Drury, "Crowds, context and identity: Dynamic categorization processes in the "poll tax riot". Human Relations 53 (2000): 247-73.

Clifford Stott and Steve Reicher, Mad Mobs and Engishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots (London: Constable and Robinson, 2011).

E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common. Rev. ed. (London: Penguin, 1993). 

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