Edinburgh Book Festival: Melvyn Bragg, "Talking About a Revolution", Review

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Melvyn Bragg was introduced to the audience as someone who was well known as a broadcaster - working both for BBC and ITV, an author and a member of the House of Lords. Possibly he is best known as the editor and presenter of 'The South Bank Show'.

He said he was delighted to be back in Edinburgh and had not missed one of the Book Festivals for many years. He recalled how his mother used to enjoy coming to Edinburgh and the one thing she always wanted to see was the Floral Clock. "How do they do it?", she always asked and it was a great source of fascination to her - and to Bragg also as he was never able to explain its operation satisfactorily.

However, he was here to talk about his book, "Now is the Time" and to give the audience 'a taster' of the 'Peasant's Revolt' of 1381 which was the basis for the book. What we have to appreciate is that this insurrection was the largest popular uprising that has ever been seen in England. He said that accounts of the uprising were written in French at the time and that the literal translation of the French was deemed to be 'peasant'.

Bragg said that this, of course, was at the time of the Black Death which had ravaged the country and the effects were really enormous. In London alone some 47.3% of the population was wiped out - about half the people living in the capital. No one knew how to deal with the disease and it was regarded as a 'punishment from God' by all those in authority. The only 'doctors' that people knew were the ministers of religion who could probably lay claim to a doctorate. So all the results of the dreadful 'Black Death' were a form of punishment for the people of England who were constrained by everyone to behave better than before. As a result there were a large number of bequests which were spent on monastic schools, stained glass windows and other forms of memorials; all these were aimed at 'buying' redemption. The radical clerics like John Ball were demanding a return to high levels of religious behaviour which included the introduction of celibacy for the clergy in England.

One of the reasons behind the rebellion, also called Wat Tyler's Rebellion, was high taxation levels. They had to pay towards the cost of the Hundred Years' War with France which was most demanding and this was responsible for great hardship among the lower classes. It was the intervention of a royal official named John Brampton in Essex on 30 May 1381 when he attempted to collect poll taxes in Brentford, which finally ended in violent confrontation and rapidly spread across a wide spectrum of society.

Many of the local artisans rose up in protest and burned court records and let all the prisoners lose from local gaols. What the rebels wanted was a lowering in the levels of taxation coupled with a change in the 'serfdom' system and to effect a change in the way that officials could manipulate the legal system, including the law courts.

What started to change all of this was the reintroduction of the English language. This was first manifest through the translation that John Wycliffe made of the Bible in 1382. This was a brave thing to do as at that time there was great zeal in clamping down on anyone who appeared to transgress the very strict religious rules that existed. Wycliffe must have had some close friends in high places to get away with his act.

The followers of Wycliffe were known as 'Lollards' and they led the attack on the veneration of Saints and the Catholic Church itself. Bragg said that at about the same time Chaucer began to write in English verse. This was crucial as many others followed suit and the English language was reborn swiftly replacing French as the language of choice.

Secondly, the person of the King, who was only fourteen, was considered sacred, in spite of which he took refuge in the Tower of London when the rebels entered London. Most of the King's forces were abroad so there was little to stop the rebels who were still demanding a reduction in taxation. Although the King initially granted all the demands of the rebels, when he later met with Wat Tyler in Smithfield and Tyler was killed by the King's forces, all the concessions to the rebels were withdrawn.

But trouble extended northwards into Yorkshire and westward to Somerset. This was eventually put down by the King who raised some four thousand soldiers to deal with the rebel uprising.

Bragg did say that the revolt influenced the course of the Hundred Years' War as Parliament took note of the effects of the additional taxes on the people who had to pay them.

Asked whether this might be the moment for another 'revolution' Bragg said that at least some of the indicators were there - the north south divide and the high salaries of a small number of people with their pay being many, many times more than those of the average worker. But he could not really see a revolt of this type happening unless there were some dramatic changes to the way we were governed.

All in all a fascinating session. This was an Open University sponsored event.

Now is the Time(Sept 2016) by Melvyn Bragg is published by Sceptre.