History Seminar – Alexandra Sippel (Université Toulouse 2/ délégataire LARCA). ‘Political Economy and Popular Demands: Jane Marcet’s Interpretation of the Peasants’ Revolt (1381)’

Posted on May 30, 2023

30 May 2023 - 17 h 30 min - 19 h 00 min

This paper proposes to examine the passages in which Jane Marcet (1769-1858) alludes to fourteenth-century revolts in order to question the debates of her days on wages and prices. The second half of the fourteenth century offers her the perfect case study to promote the Malthusian economics she upheld in her two main textbooks (Conversations on Political Economy, intended for young upper-class ladies, and John Hopkins’s Notions of Political Economy, destined to the literate working man). The plague epidemics that culled the British (and indeed European) population in 1348-1349 took a particular toll on the poorest, notably peasants. When they demanded increases in their wages, King Edward III and his Parliament adopted the Statute of Labourers (1351) that forbade to increase wages beyond what they had been in 1346, prior to the epidemics, thus, according to Marcet, violating the law of free markets according to which labour should be more expensive when the workforce is smaller than when it is more plentiful. John Hopkins discusses the post-plague events with his wife in a conversation that shows that he has accepted the natural laws of economics as promoted by Jane Marcet and her friends of the Political Economy Club in the first half of the nineteenth century. Somehow though, he is made to vindicate the revolts that occurred after the King tried to unnaturally cap wages:

“But the book went on to say, that when the King who reigned in those times heard that his subjects would not work without higher wages, he fell into a rage, and made a law such as you were thinking of, wife, to forbid under severe pains and penalties, that the poor should take higher wages than they had before the plague.” — “Why, then I think he was no better than a tyrant, to hinder the poor from getting what they fairly could: he must have been quite another sort of man from our good King William.” — “That he was,” said John; “but it would not do; and after a hard struggle, the king was obliged to give in, and the people got the wages they asked.”

Yet, what John remembers from the book he was told about by his child’s schoolmaster is historically wrong: the Statute of Labourers was implemented, and popular protests only arose three decades later in 1381 when Edward III’s successor, young King Henry II, imposed a new poll tax on all above the age of 15, kindling the rebellion that became known as the Peasants’ Revolt.

So this paper proposes to examine the reasons why the events described in the history book John mentions are likely to conflate all popular unrest that followed the 1349 epidemic, and, more importantly, to see how Jane Marcet (who also wrote history textbooks) bends historical facts in order to convince nineteenth-century workers who were tempted by radical protests for higher wages, that reason actually commanded other ways to reach that objective – the ways of Malthusian economics.

Alexandra Sippel – Université Toulouse 2/ délégataire LARCA


History Seminar

This research group is devoted to the history and politics of English-speaking countries, using methodological tools from social, intellectual and cultural history to ask questions about political identities and political subjectivities, and about the interconnectedness of politics and everyday life. History is understood in a longue durée, with scholars working on the 17th century to the 21st century. The aim of our group is stimulate interdisciplinary research across the social sciences and develop work cutting across time periods, questioning the nature of an ‘English-speaking’ world and its boundaries and looking at its links to the wider world.

The group’s research is organised around five main themes:

  1. The Atlantic World and the first age of globalization, 1600-1850
  2. Migrations, discriminations, ethnic and racial inequalities
  3. International policies and diplomatic networks in the Anglophone worlds
  4. Constructing national identities and national myths
  5. Democracy, democratisation and politicization in North America and the United Kingdom

The group has close connections with the research group on gender and the different transversal groups (Writing history from the margins;  popular classes ; material culture) which stem from the History group.

Reading group

In early 2021, the LARCA history* research group launched a reading group. Co-organised by Laura Carter and John-Erik Hansson, it gives LARCA members an opportunity to engage collectively with new research in the modern history of the English-speaking world(s)** (18th-21st centuries). The reading group convenes four times a year (twice per term), with each session focusing on one book.


Stéphanie Prévost  Daniel Foliard



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