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literacy, eschatological discourse, Peasants' Revolt of 1381


The literature of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, a miscellany of fourteenth-century poetry and prose penned before, during, and after the insurrection, often stresses the importance of literacy to the nonaristocratic population of England. Since literacy was a primary marker of one’s social status in the stratified society of medieval England, the rise of literacy in the lower orders pointed to a dramatic change in the prevail- ing socioeconomic structure. In the literature of the revolt, eschatological themes highlight the tensions resulting from this tremendous upheaval in the traditional estates. The power of literacy is depicted as adumbrating a new social order free from class division; these themes of revolution are reinforced by eschatological motifs, including the prevalence of falsehood, God’s judgment of his enemies, the beginnings of war, and the appearance of natural disasters such as famine and earthquakes. The eschatological thematics of the Peasants’ Revolt literature reflect the insurrectionists’ conviction that, unless the inequities of England’s economic caste system were ameliorated, God’s judgment was at hand; these eschatological motifs also evince the poets’ concerns with the ideological, political, and social ramifications of literacy. We can see in these writings a twin concern with literacy and eschatology predicated upon the spread of dissident thought and the society’s reaction to these ideas.