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Jean Froissart on the Jacquerie (1358)

jacquerie.jpg (19992 bytes)The French historian and poet Jean Froissart (c.1333-c.1405) was educated for the church but at the age of nineteen began to write a history of the wars of his time. In 1360 he went to England, where he received a gracious welcome from Phillippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, who appointed him clerk of her chamber. In 1364 he traveled in Scotland, where he was the guest of King David Bruce and of the Earl of Douglas. In 1366 he went to Aquitaine with the Black Prince; in 1368 he was in Italy, possibly with Chaucer and Petrarch, at the marriage of the Duke of Clarence. About 1390 he settled in Flanders, and resumed work on his Chronicle. In 1395 he revisited England, and was cordially welcomed by Richard II. He then returned to Chimay, where he had obtained a canonry, and where he may have died.

Froissart's famous Chronicle deals with the period 1326-1400. Mainly occupied with the affairs of France, England, Scotland and Flanders, he supplies much valuable information about Germany, Italy and Spain. He is of all medieval chroniclers the most vivid and entertaining, accurate and impartial in his statements.

In the following selection Froissart describes the Jacquerie (1358)

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Not long after the King of Navarre had been set free, there were very strange and terrible happenings in several parts of the kingdom of France. They occurred in the region of Beauvais, in Brie and on the Marne, in Valois, in Laonnais, in the fief of Coucy and round Soissons. They began when some of the men from the country towns came together in the Beauvais region. They had no leaders and at first they numbered scarcely a hundred. One of them got up and said that the nobility of France, knights and squires, were disgracing and betraying the realm, and that it would be a good thing if they were all destroyed. At this they all shouted: "He's right! He's right! Same on any man who saves the gentry from being wiped out!"

They banded together at went off, without further deliberation and unarmed except for pikes and knives, to the house of a knight who lived near by. They broke in and killed the knight, with his lady and his children, big and small, and set fire to the house. Next they went to another castle and did much worse; for, having seized the knight and bound him securely to a post, several of them violated his wife and daughter before his eyes. Then they killed the wife, who was pregnant, and the daughter and all the other children, and finally put the knight to death with great cruelty and burned and razed the castle.

They did similar things in a number of castles and big houses, and their ranks swelled until there were a good six thousand of them. Wherever they went their numbers grew, for all the men of the same sort joined them. The knights and squires fled before them with their families. They took their wives and daughters many miles away to put them in safety, leaving their houses open with their possessions inside. And those evil men, who had come together without leaders or arms, pillaged and burned everything and violated and killed all the ladies and girls without mercy, like mad dogs. Their barbarous acts were worse than anything that ever took place between Christians and Saracens. Never did men commit such a vial deeds. They were such that no living creature ought to see, were even imagine or think of, and the men who committed the most were admired and had the highest places among them. I could never bring myself to write down the horrible and shameful things which they did to the ladies. But, among other brutal excesses, they killed a knight, put him on a spit, and turned him at the fire and roasted him before the lady and her children. After about a dozen of them had violated the lady, they tried to force her and the children to eat the knight's flesh before putting them cruelly to death.

They had chosen a king from among them who came, it was said, from Clermont in Beauvais; and they elected the worst of the bad. This came was called Jack Goodman. Those evil men burned more than sixty big houses and castles in the Beauvais region around Corbie and Ameins and Montdidier. If God had not set things right by His grace, the mischief would have spread to until every community had been destroyed and Holy Church afterwards and all wealthy people throughout the land, for men of the same kind committed similar acts in Brie and in Pertois. All the ladies of the region, with their daughters, and the knights and squires, or forced to flee one after another to Meaux in Brie as best they could, in no more than their tunics. This happened to the Duchess of Normandy and the Duchess of Orleans and to a number of other great ladies, like the humbler ones, as they are only alternative to being violated and then murdered.

Other wicked man behaved in just the same way between Paris and Noyon, and between Paris and Soissons and Ham in Vermandois, and throughout the district of Coucy. That was where the worst violators and evil-doers were. In that region they pillaged and destroyed and more than a hundred castles and houses belonging to knights and squires, killing and robbing wherever they went. But God by His grace provided a remedy -- for which He is devout lead to be thanked -- in the manner of which you shall now hear.

When the gentry of the Beauvaisis and of the other districts where those wicked man assembled and committed their barbarous deeds saw their houses destroyed and their friends killed, they sent to their friends in Flanders, Hainault, Brabant and Hesbaye to ask for help. Soon they arrived in considerable numbers from all sides. The foreign noblemen joined forces with those of the country who guided and led them, and they began to kill those evil men and to cut them to pieces without mercy. Sometimes they hanged them on the trees under which they found them. Similarly the King of Navarre put an end to more than 3000 of them in one day, not far from Clermont in Beauvaisis. But by then they had increased so fast that, all taken together, they easily amounted to a hundred thousand men. When they were asked why they did these things, they replied that they did not know; it was because they saw others doing them and they copied them. They thought that by such means they could destroy all the nobles and gentry in the world, so that there would be no more of them. . . .

At the time when these evil men were plaguing the country, the Count of Foix and his cousin the Captal de Buch came back from Prussia. On the road, when they were about to enter France, they heard of the dreadful calamities which had overtaken the nobility, and were filled with horror they road on so fast that they reached Chalons in Champagne in a single day. Here there were no troubles from the villeins, for they were kept out from there. They learnt in that city that the Duchess of Normandy and the Duchess of Orleans and at least three hundred other ladies and their daughters, as well as the Duke of Orleans, were waiting acts Meaux in a state of great anxiety because of the Jacquerie. The two gallons knights decided to visit the ladies and take them whenever support they could, although the Captal de Buch was English. But at that time there was a truce between the Kingdoms of France and of England, so that the Captal was free to go wherever he wished. Also he wanted to give proof of his knightly qualities, in company with the Count of Foix. Their force was made up of about forty lances and no more, for they were on their way back from a journey abroad, as I said.

They road on until they came to Meaux in Brie. They are they went to pay their respects to the Duchess of Normandy and the ladies, who were overjoyed to see them arrive, for they were in constant danger from the Jacks and villeins of Brie, and no less from the inhabitants of the town, as it soon became plain. When those evil people heard that there were a large number of ladies and children of noble birth in the town, they came together and advanced on Meaux, and were joined by others from the County of Valois. In addition, those of Paris, hearing of this assembly, set out one day in flocks and herds and added their numbers to the others. There were fully nine thousand of them altogether, all filled with the most evil intentions. They were constantly reinforced by men from other places who joined them along the various roads which converged on Meaux. When they reached that town, the wicked people inside did not prevent them from entering, but opened the gates and let them in. Such multitudes passed through that all the streets were filled with them as far as the market-place.

Now let me tell you of the great mercy which God showed to the ladies, for they would certainly have been violated and massacred, great ladies though they were, but for the knights who were in the town, an especially the Count of Foix and the Captal de Buch. It was these two who made the plan by which the villeins were put to flight and destroyed.

When these noble ladies, who were lodged in the market-place -- which is quite strong, provided it is properly defended, for the River Marne runs round it -- saw such vast crowds thronging towards them, they were distracted with fear. But the Count of Foix and the Captal de Buch and their men, who were ready armed, formed up in the market-place and then moved to the gates of the market and flung them open. There they face the villeins, small and dark and very poorly armed, confronting them with the banners of the Count of Foix and the Duke of Orleans and the pennon of the Captal de Buch, and holding lances and sorts in their hands, fully prepared to defend themselves and to protect the market-place.

When those evil men so them drawn up in this warlike order -- although their numbers were comparatively small -- they became less resolute than before. The foremost began to fall back in the noblemen to come after them, striking at them with their lances and swords and beating them down. Those who felt the blows, or feared to feel them, turned back in such panic that they fell over each other. Then men-at-arms of every kind burst out of the gates and ran into the square to attack those evil men. They mowed them down in heaps and slaughtered them like cattle; and they drove all the rest out of the town, for none of the villeins attempted to take up any sort of fighting order. They went on killing until they were stiff and weary and a flung many into the River Marne.

In all, they exterminated more than seven thousand Jacks on that day. Not one would have escaped if they had not grown tired of pursuing them. When the noblemen returned, they set fire to the mutinous town of Meaux and burnt it to ashes, together with all the villeins of the town whom they could pen up inside.

After that routes at Meaux, there were no more assemblies of the Jacks, for the young Lord de Coucy, whose name was Sir Enguerrand, placed himself at the head of a large company of knights and squires who wiped them out wherever they found them, without pity or mercy.

[Source: Jean Froissart, Chronicles, selected and translated by Geoffrey Brereton, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp.151-155.]

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