1381 HATF: calling time on classroom myths and misconceptions!

The Historical Association’s People of 1381 Teacher Fellowship programme is underway. It began with a residential at Mansfield College, Oxford last week. The team of fellowship teachers spent an intense and enjoyable two days working with the People of 1381 academic project team to understand what their research is revealing. It is now our task to bring this new research to teachers and pupils. This blogpost is written by Helen Snelson (@Snelsonh), the teacher educator for the programme, and is the first of several across the year that will share the results of the project as they emerge.

I remember when I started teaching at the very end of last century, I was aware that for some older colleagues the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was a ‘non-negotiable’. That is, something that HAD to be taught. For them it was so very important to English history and had such meaning for our own times. I confess, I was never entirely clear why, and there was never really time to ask. I had a history teacher’s level of knowledge for Year 7 about it and I cracked on. To be honest, I was very busy worrying about my A level teaching.

Since then, it is my perception, that the 1381 Uprising has both faded and become rather ‘fossilised’ as a topic in school history. This is just a perception, of course open to challenge. But look at the Hodder ‘Understanding History KS3’ as an example of a recent textbook and you will find that the Revolt has a line. And this line is firmly linked to the Black Death – more of that later. In the really hard discussions about what to put in (and what to leave out) of the book, the people and events of 1381 did not ‘make the cut’.

You will be unsurprised to know that the People of 1381 project team are keen to change minds and argue for the historical significance of their work as a school curriculum topic. However, in this blogpost I want to share with you really interesting things that the academics said this weekend that suggest to us why this demise might have occurred in the teaching of 1381 in many English schools. I also want to set out a few key distortions and myths that are there because school history is adrift from the historical scholarship on this topic.

As part of our residential course, we were interested to learn that academic research went quiet on the 1381 Uprising post 1989. The end of the Cold War changed the cultural landscape, and framings of 1381 through a Marxist lens (or arguing against that position) seemed in some ways as old and tired discussions in a ‘new world’. Professor Andrew Prescott explained to us that it was as if the historical conversation had reached the end of the road, and it was not until the early 2000s that academic historians restarted the engine and began to consider new questions. As a fellowship team we wonder if a reason that ‘1381’ may have faded in schools is because of this period where, temporarily, it stopped being a topic of major ‘live’ historical scholarship. Lots of history teachers are aware that the topics that really ‘fly’ and ‘land well’ in classrooms are those imbued with historical scholarship. If something stops being topic of intense academic historical debate, does it fade in the school classroom too? Unlike older colleagues, I had not picked up academic ‘buzzing’ about 1381 in my undergraduate degree (even though I did quite a lot of study in the medieval period). My teaching of 1381 in my first school was not being fed by historical scholarship.

During this weekend’s residential with the academics, we were all privileged to ‘see’ their minds at work, to watch them interact, and to witness the historical process. In schools we make very complex things simple for historical novices (pupils). But if that simplifying is not still in touch with – true to – vibrant historical scholarship it becomes somehow ‘frozen’ or ‘fossilised’. That is how I would best describe my early teaching of 1381.

Now we have a problem – a nice one! A problem because that quiet period is over. Academic historians are once again buzzing about 1381, doing exciting work, mining new sources with new techniques, and so much new knowledge is emerging. That means that even when 1381 IS being taught in schools, it is a long way adrift of the historical scholarship. Bluntly, school history is not asking the questions historians are asking about 1381, nor is school history reflecting new findings and perspectives from recent research.

As a 1381 HA Teacher Fellowship project team we are excited to be working with the academic People of 1381 team to change this. There will be more blogposts, there will be resources, there will be lots of other lovely things to support colleagues in the coming months. But for now I want to focus on a few things it is clear from the research are myths and distortions (MD) lurking in school classrooms that we need to debunk:

MD 1) the centrality of the ‘march on London’ narrative

Putting this centre stage fails to do justice to the uprising in terms of its scale, its geographical range, its purposes, its duration, and its participants. Much of the uprising happened after mid-June. And closely allied to this is…

MD 2) teaching the death of Wat Tyler at Smithfield as a central event

Wat Tyler may not even have existed. The rising was just getting going / yet to get going in many places by mid-June. More importantly, the evidence does not suggest this is an uprising with one, or even a few, key leader(s). It is far more interesting as a social and political movement.

MD 3) ‘the Black Death directly caused the Peasants’ Revolt’

Of course the trauma of that pandemic was still shaping the world of the people and events of 1381, but the causal relationship is vastly more complex and nuanced. And while we are at it, the ideas of rebels vs victims, and of freemen or villeins, are far too simplistic as well. The People of 1381 were involved in the uprising in interesting ways and the same person could hold land and be connected to lordship in different ways too.

MD 4) the chronicles that survive are our best source for finding out about the People of 1381

The academic team compared this to using The Sun or The Daily Mail to find out about protestors today. The chronicles are wonderful to have, but they do not get us very close to knowing about the People of 1381. Really interesting work is going on with what might appear, at first glance, more mundane documents. Big data techniques are enabling people to be seen in the records for the first time. This is VERY exciting!

And so, as a fellowship team of teachers we now know that some of our framings of 1381 in class are way off the mark. We are now doing a lot of learning and a lot of head scratching. It is consoling to know that the academic historians also find the framing of the narrative really, really chewy and complex. It is not simple and we must not shy away from that, either by ahistorically focusing on the ‘easy bits’ or by ignoring it as a topic. What happened in 1381 was the largest ever rising of the people in English history to date and a ‘first’. The old narrative framework is broken and we now need to think about what new narrative frameworks we are going to create. We will do this by working with the academic team and we will return with some thoughts later in the year.

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