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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Canadian Peasants’ Revolt

Still from the film 'Winstanley,' 2016

As it so happens, for the past few months I have been researching into the history of enclosure laws as part of a book project, tentatively entitled The Land, about our/my relationship to land, both wild and cultivated. It’s a subject that has long interested me, and I write about it at some length in my book Transfiguration.

For those who may not know, enclosure laws were laws passed by governments from the late-medieval period through the early nineteenth century that chipped away at the common lands, “enclosing” them in hedges, fences, and walls; and thereby prohibiting the peasantry’s access to them and the subsistence they could derive from it. In Utopia, Thomas More bewails the cruelties of enclosure laws passed to increase profits from the English wool trade:

Now they are becoming so greedy and wild that they devour men themselves, I hear. They devastate and pillage fields, houses, and towns. For in whatever parts of the land the sheep yield the softest and most expensive wool, there the nobility and gentry, yes, and even some abbots though otherwise holy men, are not content with the old rents that the land yielded to their predecessors. Living in idleness and luxury, without doing any good to society, no longer satisfies them; they have to do positive evil. For they leave no land free for the plow: they enclose every acre for pasture.”[1]

Nevertheless, it was all legal. But legality, as the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson writes, is not equivalent to morality, calling enclosure, “a plain enough case of highway robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a Parliament of property-owners and lawyers.” [2] And in the nineteenth century, the poet John Clare, himself a rural farm laborer, observed, “Inclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain, / It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill / And hung the moles for traitors.” [3]

Enclosure hardly ended in the nineteenth century. Though Marxists like to claim peasants like Jack Cade, Robert Kett, and Gerrard Winstanely as proto-Marxists (they should more accurately be called “proto-distributists”), Marxism in practice has never been very warmly attached to the peasantry (the proletariat, to you and me). As Lynne Viola writes, “Russian Marxists were implicitly antipeasant. In glorifying a god of progress which, it was thought, doomed the peasantry to social and economic extinction, they rejected the very idea of the peasantry as a separate culture.” [4] Anyone who has spent even five minutes with contemporary university Marxist poseurs knows with what utter contempt they hold the working classes.

Many times through the history of enclosure, the peasants have rebelled. When everything was taken away from them, what did they have to lose? The power, money, and military were never on their side, so they usually lost. Many of them were likewise uneducated and illiterate, making them easy prey for the casuistry of the elite classes who pillaged them and who spread lies about them through their rhetorical and argumentative wiles. As Lord Edward Somerset, Protector during the minority of Edward VI, wrote concerning Kett’s Rebellion, “In most parts lewd men have attempted to assemble and, seeking redress of enclosures, have in some places, by seditious priests and other evil people, sought restitution of the old bloody laws, and some have fallen to spoil.” [5] Such slander.

In addition, John Taylor Gatto has argued that current real estate practices in the United States which divide and conquer rural lands to optimize capital through gentrification—often raising taxes 600 percent or more over time—also squeeze people off of their land and send them off to the “workhouses” of factory and retail “employment.” I drive by such “developments” all the time in rural Michigan, as McMansions and shoddy housing of Styrofoam and particle board go up in ghastly subdivisions. It’s a racket, played by politicians and real estate speculators. Talk about “lewd men.”

Those fighting enclosure, throughout all of history, have ever been up against a group of right bastards.

The synchronicity between my research project and the Canadian Truckers Convoy may have come to your attention by this point—it certainly came to mine over the last week. For what is this protest, but a postmodern iteration of a peasant protest?

Of course, I’ve seen some commentators try to dodge such a comparison. “Some of the truckers are owner/operators. They’re not working class.” Please. I have a 10-acre farm; that doesn’t make me BigAg. I would further argue that these truck drivers and their very working class supporters, in fact, are precisely rebelling against enclosure: the last frontier of enclosure, their own (and our own) bodies. Though many of them are vaccinated, they are protesting vaccine mandates and the inevitable social credit systems that will come in their poisonous wake. Our bodies, that is, will no longer be ours, if the powerful get to dictate what we do with them.

As with earlier peasant rebellions, this one is also countered from the side of the ruling class with slurs, epithets, and other forms of vitriolic propaganda, not least from the Canadian Prime Minister, who apparently has done more blackface than Al Jolson.

During Gerrard Winstanley’s protests against enclosure during the seventeenth century, local lords like Sir Francis Drake organized gangs to attack his compatriot, called “The Diggers,” much like agitators who disrupt peaceful protests in our own day. Winstanley’s Diggers were accused with trespassing and they were arrested on specious charges—and local courts, easily compromised by the wealthy and powerful, habitually sided with the oppressors. Not much has changed.

Most of the peasant revolts ended in flames of ruin, the power of governments, their comparably inexhaustible wealth and military might too overwhelming to resist for long, especially when the rebels simply wanted the powers to leave them alone. But not all failed. One exception would be the African and Indian farmers telling Monsanto and Bill Gates to take their GMO seed and get bent in the last decade. And a notable one is the Solidarity Movement in Poland, which turned the tradesman Lech Walesa into a household name as his movement eventually led to the downfall of the Communist Party in his country (and elsewhere). He was arrested several times for his illegal (but completely moral) activities and was eventually Poland’s first democratically-elected President. So the peasants don’t always lose. Sometimes the bad guys go down. But there are always people who support the bad guys, just so we’re clear. Just don’t be one of them.

John Clare’s poem “Badger” is one of the most subtle commentaries on the relationship of the peasant to power. It is also a brilliant cautionary tale. Badger

The badger grunting on his woodland track With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black Roots in the bushes and the woods, and makes A great high burrow in the ferns and brakes. With nose on ground he runs an awkward pace, And anything will beat him in the race. The shepherd’s dog will run him to his den Followed and hooted by the dogs and men. The woodman when the hunting comes about Goes round at night to stop the foxes out And hurrying through the bushes to the chin Breaks the old holes, and tumbles headlong in. When midnight comes a host of dogs and men Go out and track the badger to his den, And put a sack within the hole, and lie Till the old grunting badger passes bye. He comes and hears—they let the strongest loose. The old fox hears the noise and drops the goose. The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry, And the old hare half wounded buzzes bye. They get a forked stick to bear him down And clap the dogs and take him to the town, And bait him all the day with many dogs, And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs. He runs along and bites at all he meets: They shout and hollo down the noisy streets. He turns about to face the loud uproar And drives the rebels to their very door. The frequent stone is hurled where e’er they go; When badgers fight, then every one’s a foe. The dogs are clapt and urged to join the fray; The badger turns and drives them all away. Though scarcely half as big, demure and small, He fights with dogs for bones and beats them all. The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray, Lies down and licks his feet and turns away. The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold, The badger grins and never leaves his hold. He drives the crowd and follows at their heels And bites them through—the drunkard swears and reels. The frighted women take the boys away, The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray. He tries to reach the woods, an awkward race, But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase. He turns again and drives the noisy crowd And beats the many dogs in noises loud. He drives away and beats them every one, And then they loose them all and set them on. He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men, Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again; Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies And leaves his hold and cackles, groans, and dies. Some keep a baited badger tame as hog And tame him till he follows like the dog. They urge him on like dogs and show fair play. He beats and scarcely wounded goes away. Lapt up as if asleep, he scorns to fly And seizes any dog that ventures nigh. Clapt like a dog, he never bites the men But worries dogs and hurries to his den. They let him out and turn a harrow down And there he fights the host of all the town. He licks the patting hand, and tries to play And never tries to bite or run away, And runs away from the noise in hollow trees Burnt by the boys to get a swarm of bees.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. Sir Thomas More, Utopia, trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams (W. W. Norton, 1992), 12.

2. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage Books, 1966), 218.

3. “By Langley Bush,” lines 7–9. Quoted in Jonathan Bate, John Clare: A Biography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 50.

4. Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin (Oxford, 1999), 14.

5. Quoted in Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2002), 62-63.

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