Following the defeat of the French at Poitiers, and the capture of King Jean, who was led through the streets of London as the prisoner of the Black Prince in May 1357, France fell into a state of anarchy, although arguably the defeat itself was explicable only as a symptom of existing national disunity and potential disintegration.

Be that as it may, the disintegration started with the loss of the King, with those who could of the French forces flying for the gates of Poitiers to escape capture. The defeat in fact swept France of its leadership, with those captured too numerous to take back to England such that most were released on a pledge to bring back their ransoms to Bordeaux before Christmas. The unanswered question is why the forces fled as they did, with the most likely explanation that the nobility were already disaffected with the King; whatever the cause, however, the result was to spread mistrust of the noble estate, and shake confidence in the established structure of society. Popular sentiment immediately showed itself against lords returning to raise their ransoms. Froissart reports that they were “so hated and blamed by the commoners” that the had difficulty in gaining admission to the towns and sometimes even to their own estates.

In a timeless reaction, outright treachery was a bewildered people’s explanation of the inexplicable. Surely only betrayal could have permitted a handful of “archers and brigands” to have taken the great King of France and defeated the great host of French chivalry. The reality was that separatism in Normandy and Brittany, the failure to resist the Black Prince’s raid in Languedoc, and the intrigues and betrayals of Charles of Navarre were all aspects of the disunity that lost the Battle of Poitiers. Finally, as Barbara Tuchman notes, the right of independent withdrawal, which the ordinances of 1351 had tried to suppress, had never been yielded by the nobles in their own minds; the defeat at Poitiers was a Pyrrhic victory of Baronial independence.

In its wake, the Third Estate of Paris seized upon the decapitation of the monarchy to try to impose some form of constitutional control, led notably by Etienne Marcel, a rich draper who was in essence the Mayor of Paris. The Third Estate sought to impose its Magna Carta, a Grand Ordinance of some 61 articles that was essentially a set of corrections of existing abuses, but which included three political elements, namely that the monarchy could levy no tax not voted by the Estates, that the Estates General had the right to assemble periodically at their own volition, and that a Grand Council of Thirty-Six, twelve from each estate, was to be elected by the Estates to advise the crown.

The reform movement fell into trouble, however, when the nobility, resenting the terms of the Grand Ordinance, withdrew their support. Meanwhile, outside Paris the breakdown of authority was reaching catastrophic proportions.

Underlying this breakdown was the brigandage of military companies as a result of the warfare of the previous fifteen years. These were the so-called “Free Companies”, principally English, Welsh and Gascons discharged after Poitiers by the Black Prince, a soldiers customarily were to avoid further payment. Augmented by German mercenaries and Hainault adventurers, they gathered in groups of twenty to fifty around a captain, and lived off the land by burning and plundering. As the century progressed, they were joined by leftover forces from every quarter. Indeed companies of this kind had existed already since the 12th century, notably in Italy; most damagingly, wherever they existed in the absence of organized armies they filled a need and became accepted. A fruitful modern equivalent might be the warlords of Afghanistan, or of China at the end of Qing dynasty.

The French provinces believed that royal power was their last resource for defense against the companies, and did not want the monarchy enfeebled. The Daupjhin, emboldened, notified Marcel and the Council of Thirty-Six that he intended to govern without their interference. Marcel, thereby driven to extremism, accepted an ally utterly incompatible with his purposes: undoubtedly by his arrangement or influence, Charles of Navarre escaped or was released from his prison near Cambrai in Picardy, to be used as an “alternative King” against the Valois, and soon entered Paris to press his claim. The Dauphin in response was compelled to return to Paris, to recall the Estates, and to assemble some 2,000 men-at-arms in the fortress of the Louvre.

To Marcel’s great frustration, the Dauphin gained great popular support, in his frustration resorted to an act of violence that echoed the style of Charles of Navarre. Having instigated an act of street violence and murder as something of a pretext, he went to the Dauphin’s chamber where, while making a show of protecting the prince, his men slew his two Marshals in front of him and dragged their corpses into the courtyard of the palace for everybody to see.

The act of intimidation worked in the short term, as the Dauphin paid lip service to cooperation with the people of Paris. In reality, however, it hardened the will beneath his deceptively feeble exterior. More important, it cost Marcel what support he had amongst the nobles for reform, convincing them that their interests lay with the crown. The political struggle evolved to open strife, with a decisive shift in the balance of forces.

Against this background, an act of the Dauphin precipitated the uprising of the peasantry called the Jacquerie. Intending to undercut Marcel by blockading Paris, the Regent ordered the nobles along the valleys of waterborne commerce to fortify and provision their castles. One version suggests that they seized the goods of their peasants for this purpose, provoking the uprising. According to another, the Jacques rose at the instigation of Marcel, who stirred them up to believe that the order was directed against them as a prelude to new oppressions and confiscations. Undoubtedly, however, they had reason enough of their own.

Froissart reports:

Not long after the King of Navarre had been set free, there were very strange and terrible happenings in several parts of the kingdom of France. They occurred in the region of Beauvais, in Brie and on the Marne, in Valois, in Laonnais, in the fief of Coucy and round Soissons. They began when some of the men from the country towns came together in the Beauvais region. They had no leaders and at first they numbered scarcely a hundred. One of them got up and said that the nobility of France, knights and squires, were disgracing and betraying the realm, and that it would be a good thing if they were all destroyed. At this they all shouted: 'He's right! He's right! Shame on any man who saves the gentry from being wiped out!'

They banded together and went off, without further deliberation and unarmed except for pikes and knives, to the house of a knight who lived near by. They broke in and killed the knight, with his lady and his children, big and small, and set fire to the house. Next they went to another castle and did much worse; for, having seized the knight and bound him securely to a post, several of them violated his wife and daughter before his eyes. Then they killed the wife, who was pregnant, and the daughter and all the other children, and finally put the knight to death with great cruelty and burned and razed the castle.

They did similar things in a number of castles and big houses, and their ranks swelled until there were a good six thousand of them. Wherever they went their numbers grew, for all the men of the same sort joined them. The knights and squires fled before them with their families. They took their wives and daughters many miles away to put them in safety, leaving their houses open with their possessions inside. And those evil men, who had come together without leaders or arms, pillaged and burned everything and violated and killed all the ladies and girls without mercy, like mad dogs. Their barbarous acts were worse than anything that ever took place between Christians and Saracens. Never did men commit such vile deeds. They were such that no living creature ought to see, or even imagine or think of, and the men who committed the most were admired and had the highest places among them. I could never bring myself to write down the horrible and shameful things which they did to the ladies. But, among other brutal excesses, they killed a knight, put him on a spit, and turned him at the fire and roasted him before the lady and her children. After about a dozen of them had violated the lady, they tried to force her and the children to cat the knight's flesh before putting them cruelly to death.

They had chosen a king from among them who came, it was said, from Clermont in Beauvaisis; and they elected the worst of the bad. This king was called Jack Goodman. Those evil men burned more than sixty big houses and castles in the Beauvais region round Corbie and Amiens and Montdidier. If God had not set things right by His grace, the mischief would have spread until every community had been destroyed and Holy Church afterwards and all wealthy people throughout the land, for men of the same kind committed similar acts in Brie and in Pertois. All the ladies of the region, with their daughters, and the knights and squires, were forced to flee one after another to Meaux in Brie as best they could, in no more than their tunics. This happened to the Duchess of Normandy and the Duchess of Orléans and to a number of other great ladies, like the humbler ones, as their only alternative to being violated and then murdered.

Other wicked men behaved in just the same way between Paris and Noyon, and between Paris and Soissons and Ham in Vermandois, and throughout the district of Coucy. That was where the worst violators and evil-doers were. In that region they pillaged and destroyed more than a hundred castles and houses belonging to knights and squires, killing and robbing wherever they went. But God by His grace provided a remedy—for which He is devoutly to be thanked —in the manner of which you shall now hear.

When the gentry of the Beauvaisis and of the other districts where those wicked men assembled and committed their barbarous deeds saw their houses destroyed and their friend killed, they sent to their friends in Flanders, Hainault, Brabant and Hesbaye to ask for help. Soon they arrived in considerable numbers from all sides. The foreign noblemen joined forces with those of the country who guided and led them, and they began to kill those evil men and to cut them to pieces without mercy. Sometimes they hanged them on the trees under which they found them. Similarly the King of Navarre put an end to more than three thousand of them in one day, not far from Clermont in Beauvaisis. But by then they had increased so fast that, all taken together, they easily amounted to a hundred thousand men. When they were asked why they did these things, they replied that they did not know; it was because they saw others doing them and they copied them. They thought that by such means they could destroy all the nobles and gentry in the world, so that there would be no more of them....

At the time when these evil men were plaguing the country, the Count of Foix and his cousin the Captal de Buch came back from Prussia. On the road, when they were about to enter France, they heard of the dreadful calamities which had overtaken the nobility, and were filled with horror. They rode on so fast that they reached Châlons in Champagne in a single day. Here there were no troubles from the villeins, for they were kept out from there. They learnt in that city that the Duchess of Normandy and the Duchess of Orléans and at least three hundred other ladies and their daughters, as well as the Duke of Orléans, were waiting at Meaux in a state of great anxiety because of the Jacquerie. The two gallant knights decided to visit the ladies and take them whatever support they could, although the Captal de Buch was English. But at that time there was a truce between the Kingdoms of France and of England, so that the Captal was free to go wherever he wished. Also he wanted to give proof of his knightly qualities, in company with the Count of Foix. Their force was made up of about forty lances and no more, for they were on their way back from a journey abroad, as I said.

They rode on until they came to Meaux in Brie. There they went to pay their respects to the Duchess of Normandy an the ladies, who were overjoyed to see them arrive, for they were in constant danger from the jacks and villeins of Brie, and no less from the inhabitants of the town, as it soon became plain. When those evil people heard that there were a large number of ladies and children of noble birth in the town, they came together and advanced on Meaux, and were joined by others from the County of Valois. In addition, those of Paris, hearing of this assembly, set out one day in flocks and herds and added their numbers to the others. There were fully nine thousand of them altogether, all filled with the most evil intentions. They were constantly reinforced by men from other places who joined them along the various roads which converged on Meaux. When they reached that town, the wicked people inside did not prevent them from entering, but opened the gates and let them in. Such multitudes passed through that all the streets were filled with them as far as the market-place.

Now let me tell you of the great mercy which God showed to the ladies, for they would certainly have been violated and massacred, great ladies though they were, but for the knights who were in the town, and especially the Count of Foix and the Captal de Buch. It was these two who made the plan by which the villeins were put to flight and destroyed.

When these noble ladies, who were lodged in the marketplace - which is quite strong, provided it is properly defended, for the River Marne runs round it - saw such vast crowds thronging towards them, they were distracted with fear. But the Count of Foix and the Captal de Buch and their men, who were ready armed, formed up in the market-place and then moved to the gates of the market and flung them open. There they faced the villeins, small and dark and very poorly armed, confronting them with the banners of the Count of Foix and the Duke of Orléans and the pennon of the Captal de Buch, and holding lances and swords in their hands, fully prepared to defend themselves and to protect the market-place.

When those evil men saw them drawn up in this warlike order - although their numbers were comparatively small - they became less resolute than before. The foremost began to fall back and the noblemen to come after them, striking at them with their lances and swords and beating them down. Those who felt the blows, or feared to feel them, turned back in such panic that they fell over each other. Then men-at-arms of every kind burst out of the gates and ran into the square to attack those evil men. They mowed them down in heaps and slaughtered them like cattle; and they drove all the rest out of the town, for none of the villeins attempted to take up any sort of fighting order. They went on killing until they were stiff and weary and they flung many into the River Marne.

In all, they exterminated more than seven thousand jacks on that day. Not one would have escaped if they had not grown tired of pursuing them. When the noblemen returned, they set fire to the mutinous town of Meaux and burnt it to ashes, together with all the villeins of the town whom they could pen up inside.

After that rout at Meaux, there were no more assemblies of the jacks, for the young Lord de Coucy, whose name was Sir Enguerrand, placed himself at the head of a large company of knights and squires who wiped them out wherever they found them, without pity or mercy.

See also: The Peasants' Revolt in England (1381)

IID: The Ars Nova in France | IIID: The Netherlanders to Ockeghem