Hannah Serneels and Jelle Haemers on How to Organize an Urban Revolt in Medieval Northern France

In the second in our new hors d’oeuvres series, we caught up with Hannah Serneels and Jelle Haemers to talk about their new article ‘How to Organize an Urban Revolt in Medieval Northern France’ in the latest issue of the journal.

Hannah Serneels is completing a PhD at the University of Leuven on the reciprocal relationship between political conflict and urban space in the late medieval Low Countries. Her research is concerned with the practice of political protest, the importance of spatial contexts in late medieval politics, and the intersection of spaces in the late medieval city.

Jelle Haemers is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Leuven. He studies the political and social history of cities in the late medieval Low Countries (1100-1600). His research interests include urban political conflict and the social history of women in late medieval cities.

Q: Hi Jelle! Hi Hannah! Thanks for joining us to talk about your new article on medieval urban revolts. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?

We found a parchment roll of 11 meters long, describing a revolt in 1306 in incredible detail.

The rebels speak directly: they recall what they said during their illicit meetings, they quote letters they had sent, and even the insults they used to challenge the urban governors.

Amazing material!

Image shows a table in the archives with Hannah Serneels wearing a mask and unrolling a parchment in the foreground
Hannah Serneels on a ROLL.

Q: Wow, that does sound amazing! Do you have a favourite example you came across?

The letter of Peter De Coninck. He was a Bruges rebel hero, who defeated the French army on the battlefield of Courtrai in 1302. The roll copies a letter sent by him to the Saint-Omer craftsmen saying that they should ally against their enemies, ‘because that is how I saved the city of Bruges’, Peter claimed.

These are Peter’s only words ever found in the archives. 

Q: What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?

For this article we used the court roll as a way into the complexity of the practice of revolt, but there’s much more in it. One section of depositions, for example, gives great insight into the functioning of customary law in this court case: you can see the law at work there as a cooperative process. To support the indictment against the mayor and aldermen, witnesses were asked whether the actions of their governors were in line with the customs of Saint-Omer. The scribe noted down their arguments and reasonings, so the section as a whole turns into a debate on reasonable expectations of the behaviour of governors according to custom.

It’s a fascinating subject, but it requires further research. Maybe the topic of a follow-up article soon!

Q: Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?

HS: Jelle gave me the case at the start of my PhD research. I still suspect him of hiring me mainly to get that court roll finally transcribed. 

JH: She’s right.

HS: I started out with old pictures, but we soon realised we needed to consult additional charters in the archives. This was during the Spring of 2021: archives and borders were finally opening again, but we found ourselves battling the ‘committee for risk destinations’ at the university that still banned work trips abroad. 

JH: Imagine, Saint-Omer is a 90-minute drive from my home, but there is a national border in between. We endangered our lives when crossing it in 2021. What devoted historians we are!

To be honest, the biggest problem was the airconditioner of my car that broke down. The temperature outside hit 35°C. Inside, too…

Q: Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.

HS: If I did my PhD would probably be finished already. 

JH: Never write at the weekend, that’s my method. Take a break when needed. Or, try what we did in Saint-Omer: some re-enactment . We hired a boat to find out where the rebels met. The evidence outlined that the Saint-Omer rebels met in the ‘Marais’, the swampy area outside the city. So we did the same, but as rebels without a cause, unless you count ‘enjoying the sunshine on the water’.  

Q: Éclair or saucisson?

We’d prefer a glass of good French wine!


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