The Jacquerie was a French peasant revolt in northern France in 1358, that got its name from the nobility’s habit of contemptuously referring to all peasants as Jacques or Jacques Bonhomme, after a padded over-garment worn by them called a “jacque”. The uprising was led by a well off peasant named Guillaume Cale, from Beauvais, about 50 miles from Paris.
France at the time was undergoing a rough patch following the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, with the peasantry, upon whose toil all rested and through whose fields the armies marched and pillaged, enduring the roughest patch of all. Their overlords, the French nobility, were not doing well, either, and their prestige had sunk to a low ebb after decades of humiliating defeats. Early in the century, France’s aristocrats had turned tail and fled at the Battle of the Spurs, leaving the infantry commoners to be slaughtered, and more recently, they had suffered catastrophic defeats at the hands of the English in the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers.
The latter battle was particularly humiliating because the nobility allowed the French king’s capture. Its aftermath was also particularly onerous upon the peasantry, because the English demanded a huge ransom for the king’s release, which ransom was ultimately squeezed from the peasants. Finally, the French nobility failed in their basic function and the raison d’etre that justified their high status, of protecting the populace from enemy depredations. Unchecked by the peasants’ aristocratic overlords and supposed protectors, bands of English and Gascon mercenaries roamed the countryside, pillaging and raping, at will.
Matters came to a head on May 21st, 1358, when peasants from a village near the Oise river killed a knight, then roasted him on a spit and forced his children to eat his flesh. The revolt spread quickly, as peasants razed local castles and slaughtered their inhabitants, and soon, the disparate rebel bands in the countryside began coalescing under the leadership of Guillaume Cale, who then joined forces with Parisian rebels under Etienne Marcel.
The revolt burned hot, but it also burned out quick, and the undisciplined and untrained rebels were soon routed once the militarily trained and better armed nobles organized and set out to suppress the revolt. The Paris uprising collapsed after its leader was assassinated, while Guillaume Cale, with his peasant army assembled to meet that of the nobles, unwisely accepted an invitation for truce talks with the armed nobles’ leader, Charles the Bad of Navarre. Cale was treacherously seized when he showed up, tortured, and beheaded. The now-leaderless peasant army was then ridden down by knights and routed, after which the peasants were subjected to massive collective reprisals and a reign of terror in which around 20,000 were killed.