A Medieval Life

Quotes

Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained
2. “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who then was a gentleman?”

Though this peasant refrain came during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, decades after Cecilia’s death, Bennett includes it in Chapter 3, “Lords, Ladies, and Peasants,” in order to illustrate that peasants did in fact question the status quo that placed them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. By alluding to Adam and Eve, the peasants responsible for the 1381 rebellion challenged the biblical justification of the social order that the clergy gave them. Their song captured the argument that just as there was no pretense of aristocracy in God’s first incarnation of man, so there should be no distinctions of class that left the many-numbered peasantry at a disadvantage to the lords and ladies in the minority. Unlike the grudging medieval peasants, Adam and Eve only for themselves, not for others. Thus, this quotation highlights the hypocrisy of a ruling class that exploited religion to keep the peasant class at bay.

This quotation also reveals that peasants were aware of the ruling class’s strategy for controlling them and thus regarded themselves at odds with their supposed social superiors. Many peasants probably believed that the social order could be crudely divided into two, rather than three, classes: the haves and the have-nots. Many peasants must have chaffed at their perpetual suppression. Given the tenor of the peasants’ disgruntlement only a few decades after Cecilia’s death, we may assume that Cecilia herself felt at least some bitterness toward the landed elite.