Here before you is a wall installation of a selection of drawings in ink, acrylic, graphite, and Fine-liner on various types of paper, as part of a larger continuous body of work covering various intertwining themes, which explore the history of the under-documented and the persecuted - radical peasants, vagrants, anarchic fools, masterless men. The continuous research helps me understand and, in turn, visualize the effect pandemics, famines, as well as authoritarian acts, laws, and reigns of terror (culminating with the era of the 'Great Confinement') had on lower class people, their culture and communities; and how radical and heretical sects, sometimes together, displayed various and continuous acts of resistance in response to this oppression.
I refer to the 14th century as 'The Century Of Death' where, within a space of 30 years, two of the most devastating events in recorded history occurred - the Great Famine and the Black Death - causing not only a massive death toll, but a knock on effect of political, religious and social turmoil which continued throughout the following centuries, the remnants of which can still be felt to the present day. The historian, Silvia Federici, identifies the Black Death as a "watershed" moment in history, and understandably so, however, I'd personally apply that across the entire 14th century because, as well as massive depopulation due to the pestilence, there was political and religious upheaval on a national scale in contrast to a more familiar parochial level previously.
With the Black Death severely reducing the labour supply and, in turn, increasing the need for the remaining labour force, which came with a higher wage demand, landed eiltes could not meet these demands so farmers and labourers would flea the estates in search of work elsewhere. Marxist historian Christopher Hill touches on this in his book, 'Liberty Against The Law': "the catastrophe of the Black Death was followed by a century of declining population. There was a shortage of labour, land was unoccupied, and so a splendid opportunity was offered to serfs to liberate themselves by running away and settling elsewhere on uncultivated land."
So, vagabondage was a route out of serfdom, and although it had existed in various ways and for various reasons prior to the Black Death, it became a continuous and a more concerning problem, with authorities implimenting vagrancy and labour laws in an attempt to tackle it - the 1349 and 1351 labouring statutes, along with an enforced wage cap. These laws and their future variants, however, were never all that successful at controlling the mobility of labourers and masterless men. These authoritarian acts, laws, and reigns of oppression were the focus of a rebellious turning point - vagrancy, radical peasantry, anti-tax and anti-enclosure solidarity - during the crisis of the late middle ages, which brought the otherwise fragmented idea of class consciousness from below into a more solid concept.
A. L. Beier's 'Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem In England, 1560 - 1640' provides a great insight into this vagrancy concern and the era of state punishment which followed to counter it. From the mid 14th and 17th century there was a significant growth of corporal punishment in statute law. Stocks, used in medieval gaols, were ordered to be built in every town by the Statute of Labourers for the detention of runaway servants and labourers. In a statute of 1495 vagabonds and beggars were to be set in stocks for three days and nights with a diet of bread and water. The pillory was employed against fraudulent dicers and beggars, and in some cases signs were placed above their heads stating their offences. Another form of punishment was whipping, which was implimented widely due to it being cost effective and an efficient way to deal with vagabonds. To hold vagrants for trial, or send them to a house of correction, was expensive and troublesome, whereas a thrashing and a passport saw them off to be someone else's concern. However, rather than alleviate the vagrancy problem, it kept vagrants on the move.
Carnival, the history of which precedes the Medieval period, was a staple of popular/folk culture. Considered, in some way, as a safety valve from above to prevent revolt from below by providing a space for 'letting off steam', it was also believed to be a cover for revolt by dissenters taking advantage of the relaxed laws during that time, or a starting point for revolt with the intention of eventually spilling out into everyday life. In any case, a subversive phenomenon in whatever capacity - upturning social norms, if only mockingly and symbolically (such as role-reversal), where social status is dissolved, and spectators don't exist as everyone involved is part of a social body; reduced to their basic bodily functions of eating, drinking, fornicating and shitting.
Other examples of this 'vulgar' culture include: the public humiliation of Charivari and rough music (banging pots and pans) - a community parading a wrong-doer backward on a horse, for example; singing and dancing, at times frowned upon or criminalised; whistling, which went hand in hand with peasants and their work, but declined at the advent of industrialisation due to stricter working conditions, and to machinery noise drowning out and ending its communal spirit; drumming, considered by polite society as a symbol of low social status and, in some instances, banned by authorities; laughing, a symbol of carnival and festival, and contrasting the seriousness of authority and upper class life; and cant (or slang), a coded language of variant styles used by the underclass - thieves, vagrants, hawkers etc., which in some way deceived authority.