Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Women and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Jonathan Jarrett directs me to the blog Bavardess, which I have missed up till now. Its author has an interesting post on the role of women in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, saying, among other things:
While most historical accounts up until the 1980s (at least) discuss the revolt as an almost wholly male enterprise, source documents including trial records and pardons show women were very much active participants, and even instigators and organisers of rebellion.
At left, for example, is an extract from a commission of Oyer and Terminer (‘hear and determine’) held in Essex directly after the revolt to seek out those responsible. Amongst the people accused of riding armed through the countryside and inciting the commons to rise against the king is one “Nichola Cartere who was lately taken as wife by William Dekne of South Benfleet”*. In another case, records from the court of King’s Bench describe Johanna Ferrour as the “chief perpetrator and leader” of a rebel group from Kent who burnt the Savoy and executed Sudbury and Hales**[an extraordinarily important episode--SM].
A good insight -- and there is more good stuff about the gendered language of revolt in the original post. When it comes to women's participation, I am reminded of how much the Peasants' Revolt reminds me of the earliest stages of the French Revolution of 1789. John Ball's list of demands makes me think that he would've loved The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And of course 1789 was famous for the inspiring/scandalous political participation of women, which was not unprecedented even if they went much farther in 1789.

Then there is Tehran, 1979 and 2009, both times when women's initiative was/has been a key factor...

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Councils in Venezuela (history of democracy thread)

Today's Washington post has a very interesting article on Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. It's about the founding of community councils to partially replace elected mayors and municipal councils. It's not exactly clear how these councils are constituted, but the article states that for "big decisions" the elected councillors have to go back to community assemblies for a final decision.

I don't know quite to think about it. I haven't bought into the official American propaganda about how evil and threatening Chavez is, since it's entirely self-interested, but neither do I trust Chavez. The danger sign for me is that his preferred political methodologies seem to be ranting at the population for hours on end about every subject imaginable, and throwing government money around like there's no tomorrow. He reminds me all too much of Castro the Omniscent, not to mention every 20th century dictator you've heard of and all of those you haven't.

Also, the use of "community councils" can be a mere mask for dictatorship. Khaddafi abolished all the government institutions of Libya in favor of assemblies supposedly inspired by Berber customs, but guess who still controls everything, notably the energy revenues that constitute practically the entire economy the country?

Going back a couple of centuries, there are also the "section assemblies" of Paris during the Revolution that gave democracy such a bad name in Europe during the 19th century. "Section assemblies" were grassroots neighborhood groups that elected an electoral college which elected members of the National Assembly. After they chose the electoral college -- by voice vote -- the people were supposed to go home and let their betters run the government and guide the revolution. Well, a lot of them came back the next day, and the next, and the day after that and in the name of the people continually critiqued the elected government.

Sounds all very democratic, yes? Unfortunately, the sections in Paris became dominated by people convinced that they knew what the people wanted, and that everyone who opposed the people were evil "aristocrats." Continual voice votes in each section allowed the local aristocratic stooges (not necessarily nobles or even rich) to be identified and expelled. The sections, full of zealots, set up a communication network, armed themselves, and eventually seized control of the capital. This was a further step to dictatorship and government by Terror.
(The awful flavor of the word "terrorists" comes in part from the open use of terror -- revolutionary justice dispensed by kangaroo courts leading to execution -- by the resulting regime.)

So these community councils could go nowhere or worse. On the other hand, according to the WP article, there's a lot of enthusiasm on the popular level for this experiment, even among opponents of Chavez. Some people think that the old institutions of local government, which go back to colonial times, are worthless and the new councils may provide a way for them to solve some of their own problems. I direct you for some relevant thoughts about the vital role of local government in real democracies in Phil Paine's blog (under Sept. 25).

Good luck, Venezuela!

Image: Chavez surrounded by "the people"(?).

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