On 17th January 1382, a series of new taxes were published by the Council in France. It was a tax in the usual form, the gabelle, to take effect on the 1st of March 1382. The tax would impose a sales tax on a range of items, at a higher rate than had previously been charged.
The issue of taxation was always problematic. In early 1382 it was more of a problem than usual. France had lost control of some lands, resulting in a smaller area from which revenue could be collected. Grants of tax had not been issued by Parlement since the death of Charles V. Open fighting against the English was reduced but military expenditure remained a burden. From a governance perspective, taxation matters were a priority.
The period was though one of hardship for many people. Across Europe there had been an economic depression. It had resulted in revolts in England and Flanders, to the point where one French observer in London had noted of the events of the Peasants Revolt that, ‘before long worse things than these will come to pass in France.’
The observer was right. The northern cities of France were experiencing high levels of unemployment, with traditional industries struggling and migration leading to increased burdens on the towns. Taxes from Parlement added to a burden that was already hard. Local tax levies and church tariffs were resented and already causing friction. The higher gabelle was far from welcome.
For 6 weeks there was a sense of discontent as the government planned for the tax collection. On 24th February, it exploded into revolt in Rouen.
A draper called Jean de Gras rang one of the large bells in the commune within Rouen. It was a call to arms.
“Craftsmen came forth from all parts, raising a standard of white cloth” Cousinot Ie Chancelier
The crowd that gathered was large. They took control of Rouen, blockaded the gates, and freed those in the city gaol. The mass of people from the commune were among the poorest in Rouen. They ransacked the city, particularly targeting those with wealth. The riot spread into churches, and the Cathedral. Fine ornaments, the archives and many documents were trashed. Clerics were made to sign away the church’s rights. That the church was targeted is little surprise given the high level of tax they extracted from the commune. The anger was most symbolically illustrated through the tearing down of the gallows used under the justice meted out by the abbot of St. Ouen.
The revolt spread to Paris, where the riots were joined with murders. The mob broke into the Maison aux Piliers which was well stocked with iron cudgels. They proceeded to riot through wealthy parts of Paris, breaking into church treasure rooms, attacking moneylenders, destroying the Jewish quarters and ransacking the Paris home of the Duke of Anjou.
The young King and Duke of Burgundy had been travelling to Rouen when the violence in Paris broke out. They turned around and returned upon hearing the news. At the gates they were met by members of the Paris Guilds. These men were not rioters, but shared frustration at the new taxes. They attempted to bring an end to the violence through negotiation.
There was little common ground. And the protests spread to other towns across northern France. By the months end, it was clear that the Harelle was uncontrollable unless the King and his ministers were willing to back down. They did so on 4th March.
The authorities gradually regained control of the major towns and cities. In the aftermath, the King symbolically “dismantled the bell that had called the commune to action” [Chronique de Religieux de Saint-Denys].
Image: Rouen and the Cathedral in 1525, from the “Livre des Fontaines” by Jacques Le Lieur.