Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts

Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts

Jeanette Lamb - April 12, 2017

Historical peasant revolts occurred for a number or reasons. New laws, including banning churches, raising taxes, imposing conscription, and abolishing hunting privileges, were some of those reasons. During times of revolution, peasant uprisings were more common than during times when the wheel of history was quietly at peace.

The Peasants’ War and the Vendée Rebellion happened one after the other during the Fench Revolution; the Pitchfork Uprising was evoked by the Russian Civil War that followed its revolution; the Saxon Peasant Revolt is the only example that happened outside the fever of an upheaval or major pitched battles. Behind all the revolts were angry, hungry, discontent citizens who preferred to fight for something worth dying for, rather than accept conditions not worthy of living in.

Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts
The Peasants’ War, 1798. Public Domain

The Peasants’ War (1798)

The Peasants’ War of 1798 only lasted for a short time, just under two months. Still, by the end, the revolt killed 15,000 Flemish pepole and between 200-300 Luxembourgers. Notable factors that caused the outbreak were rooted in newly imposed laws implemented following the annexation of the southern Netherlands by France.

The French Revolutionary Wars were going into their sixth year (they began in 1792 and did not end until 1802). The French monarchy’s fall was marked by ongoing territorial changes that played themselves out in military conflicts. The Wars are divided into two parts. The War of the First Coalition ran from 1792-97. The first half is noted for a division amongst monarchies, the successful French war against Austria and Prussia, a growing desire to abolish the French monarchy, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, which resulted in French attempts toward expansionism and territorial gains to be overwhelmingly successful. The Peasants’ War falls into the War of the Second Coalition that began when Napoleon steered his forces outside Europe and the French invaded Egypt.

At the same time Napoleon was marching into Cairo and taking the pyramids, things were heating up in the southern Netherlands. When the peasant situation there reached its tipping point, Bonaparte was knee deep in conflict. During the Battle of the Nile, his fleet was defeated and consequently sank, which left him stranded in Egypt. Meanwhile, priests and commoners in the annexed region of the southern Netherlands struggled to come to terms with French authority.

Priests were offered an unattractive ultimatum. They could either take an oath declaring their allegiance to the new government or, if they refused, subject themselves to punishment reserved for enemies of the state, which made losing one’s livelihood and home likely. A second law passed making military service a requirement for males living under French authority. Those between the ages of 20-25 had to serve in the military (during this time, conscription was a foreign and new byproduct of the French Revolution).

Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts
French victory over the Prussians at the Battle of Valmy (September 29, 1792). Public Domain

Conflicts caused by revolts in Flanders were organized. The peasants appealed to French enemies like Great Britain and Prussia to assist their plight. In mid-October 1798 peasants armed themselves and fighting began in Overmere. Given many of the peasants were fighting in protest of conscription, it should come as no surprise they had little to no military training. This, in concert with being poorly armed, sealed their fate.

In December of 1794, the city of Hasselt became the stage for the most grisly defeat during of Peasants’ War. Between 5,000 – 10,000 peasants were killed and 150 leaders of the rebellion were executed.

In Luxembourg, the scene was dire for the opposite reason. Middle and upper-class citizens decided to forego fighting largely because the ideas bringing Europe into the age of modernity appealed to them. Peasants who stood little to gain by French rule fought, but without the support to obtain funding, necessary weapons, and little to no training, they were easily annihilated.

Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts
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Vendee Rebellion (1793)

The Peasants’ War is nothing compared to the War in the Vendee, where so many inhabitants lost their lives, the event has been considered by many as a genocide. Tens of thousands were killed, including civilians and Republican prisoners. Those watching from the sidelines fell victim to the fevered wrath, and armies from both sides massacred without discretion. The revolt spanned over a large area between the Loire and Layon rivers, home to the Vendee, a French coastal region. The rural environment did not fall prey to economic and social polarization like in other parts of France where nobility and peasantry never mixed. For this reason, the necessity and motives behind the French Revolution were not apparent to those living in Vendee.

In addition, many Vendeans practiced the Catholic faith. Along with a lack of distaste for the monarchy, a general lack of education allowed the region to fall out of lockstep with popular philosophical ideas. They were isolated and their education was limited through the church, which revolutionary-minded citizens living in Paris wanted to do away with. The scale of imbalances was further offset by a constellation of specific events that particularly unnerved those in the Vendee. To start, the expectation that clergy take an oath to the state, a hefty tax levy, and conscription were not taken lightly.

For the clergy who dared to stand in opposition to the state by refusing the oath, persecutions were enacted.This took the form of being cast into exile, or if a woman on her way to church, she risked a public beating. Laws were passed making crosses illegal to place on graves. The church by this point in time was impotent. With all power gone, religious orders were impossible to uphold. Church property was confiscated and bought up by the bourgeois. By 1793 churches were ordered to lock their doors permanently.

Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts
Revolts during the French Revolution. Public Domain

The hostile attack on religion enraged the Vendeans. Although there were pockets of those living in the region who supported the revolution, a majority did not. When the conscription law was enacted, the Vendee region was ordered to offer up 300,000 of its young men who would fight for a government it did not believe in. The Vendeans answered in retaliation by forming a rebellion militia aptly called “The Catholic Army.” Their strategies were not as clear as their goals. The overwhelming motive to fight was to regain their places of worship.

A couple of factors made the rebellion possible. Fortunately, at the outbreak of the revolt, revolutionary France was steeped in myriad rebellions, and the army was spread thin. Troops were too few in the four departments that makes up the south of Vendee to control the rebellion. Things manifested quickly from a protest into a full-scale insurrection and led to the army’s formation. Provisions were not plentiful, and artillery existed only after intercepting pieces during the fighting. The core of the army’s force consisted of rebels who utilized guerrilla tactics. At the center of the Vendee quadrant was a wild forest. Outside that landscape were marshlands and the ocean. At the heart of the quadrant were Vendee’s young, virile men who, despite not having military training, soon proved they were a forced to be reckoned with.

Young men descended on the commune of Cholet. They killed the commander of the National Guard whose pre-revolutionary position was well known. He was also the owner of a textile factory and stood to gain economically by the revolution. The rebellion pushed onward, reaching the marshlands where the peasants captured the town of Machecoul and killed a number of its citizens with revolutionary ties. One day later, the revolt seized Saint-Florent-le-Vieil. The Republic swiftly reacted, sending 45,000 troops to the area. Although there were few of them, the rebels were able to obtain reinforcements and thus defeated them and did the same a few days later during a battle in the North on March 22, 1793.

The peasant army was unstoppable; over the next months, they defeated the Republic’s forces time after time ,not slowing down until October 17 at the Battle of Cholet. The Republic instituted policies that later caused debate as to whether or not they fell into the category of genocide. Uncertainty rests on Infernal Columns, a brutal policy that the Republic used that called for the extermination of the Vendee population south of the Loire River.

Infernal Columns consisted of 12 army columns sent through the area with the purpose of purging the Vendee. Between 20,000 and 50,000 Vendeans were slaughtered between January and May of 1794 through the use of this method. This was in addition to the issuing of a “scorched earth” policy that required the burning of any fragment that could be of use to the Vendee, including farms, crops, forests, villages, and livestock. Men, women, and children discovered inside the Vendee region were massacred on the spot. Despite this, residents who survived continued in rebellion against the Republic for years to come.

Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts
Russian Civil War. Xenohistorian

Russian Peasant Uprisings

Years of calamity, fighting, unrest and grappling with new political heads of authority seem inextricably woven into revolutions. The Russian Revolution was a reaction by peasant farmers and factory workers to poor working conditions and the expectation of high outputs, whether a harvest or on an assembly line. Protests took two very different forms of expression.

Peasant farmers would slow work needed to produce massive crops, and the effects would trickle into the bustling cities where workers were living in dire conditions caused by intense overcrowding; add starvation to that and the peasants effectively triggered the onset of a massive revolt. Eventually, the city rebellion grew beyond the Tsar’s capacity. During 1917, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II was assassinated, and what followed was a civil war fought by political party factions all vying for authority.

Overall, the war was divided into two sides, the Red and White armies, but along with them were pro-independence movements. Countries such as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland celebrated independence as a result of the war. Other countries, such as Ukraine, fought for autonomy but ultimately were defeated by the end when the Soviet Union was created. The vast differences between the Red and White armies are staggering when considering the outcome. The Red Army was made of 300,000 soldiers and the White Army 2.4 million. The White Army stood in opposition to the Bolshevik movement. they were anti-communist, anti-Bolshevism, pro- monarchy, and pro-Russia.

The overarching ideology of the White Army was rooted in the established political landscape, as it was under the Russian empire. Nationalistic overtones were widespread throughout the part,y which was rife with anti-Semitic views. The inability or lack of foresight to offer a clearer ideology than this points to the underpinning reason for the party’s demise. Despite international support from the British Empire, France, Greece, the United States, China, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, and Italy, the White Army had no set plans regarding a foreign policy. Its leaders placated the public telling them a governmental structure would be decided upon after the war concluded. The White Army was little more than a massive group with a dead Tsar at its helm.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Red Army had a detailed ideological blueprint that mapped out who they were and what they believed. Thanks to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist playbook, Red leaders had been organizing since before the outbreak of the revolution. Leon Trotsky served as the Red Army’s war commissioner and acknowledged the peasants and city factory workers by overhauling the old Red Guard as a way of bringing them into the fold.

With its new name, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army enabled Trotsky to organize a professional military force. The Reds knew they were short on men and had to make well-informed decisions about organization if they were to win. Trotsky appointed political heads to each of the Worker and Peasant Red Army units with the purpose of keeping morale and thus loyalty intact. His most impressive and effective move was recruiting 80% of the former Tsarist soldiers to the Red’s sidelines.

After the peasant-infused Russian Revolution, a number of peasant revolts occurred during the Russian Civil War. During the Pitchfork Uprising in 1920 in the village of Yanga Yelan, peasants organized a rebellion in reaction to the confiscation of their food by the Red Army, who reacted by arresting some of the farmers. This set the stage for a revolt, and 50,000 peasants joined the fight. Because they had no access to artillery, the peasants used tools of their trade as weapons: pitchforks, spades, and axes.

Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts
The Saxon Peasant Revolt 1790. Public Domain

Saxon Peasants’ Revolt (1790)

Flails, clubs, and axes were reached for during the Saxon Peasants’ Revolt of 1790 that pitted military nobility against peasants. Things were most heated in the cities of Dresden, Leipzig, and Zwickau, but the dispute was over rural areas and hunting rights. The nobility reserved rights of hunting for themselves. This happened at the same time laws were being passed that took away old ways of doing business during feudal times. The creation of a feudal rent system established financial arrangements allowing peasant land workers to pay for the right to work land for a monetary exchange in accordance to their crop output.

Laws being passed unfairly aligned with the economic interests of the landowners. With this in place, it took only a few more key factors before peasants’ lives were endangered. Lower monetary gains were accented by limited access to hunting rights on gamekeeping reserves. After one long winter and a summer-long drought, peasants feeling desperate for food began to revolt against the state. The outbreak of the revolt was in the quiet village of Wechselburg where the House of Schonberg were the monarchs in resident. The Schonberg territorial ownership spanned from Saxony into Thuringia and Bohemia. Depending on a number of factors that status of nobility living in the areas was dependent on the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

By August of 1790, the peasant revolt became serious; farmers had taken over fifteen patrimonial country districts that equaled 5,000 square meters of land, including areas around cities Dresden, Dippoldiswalde, Stolpen, Radeberg, and Torgau that were experiencing outbreaks of violence. Peasants launched attacks on castles and had managed to disarm the Saxon military through a show of force. Some southern Saxon villages had to release their labor force because of pressure from peasants. In the city of Meissen, 2,000 rebels successfully released peasants who had been imprisoned.

The revolt overall was a success. Peasants were clear in their desire to eliminate hunting laws that favored the privileged, the feudal rent system, and forms of interest on contributions. Some lords were dismissed by the peasants, in other cases, lords agreed to all the peasant requests. The rebellion soon ended and was quelled by the military by September of that year.