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Book Review: Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 by I.M.W. Harvey

August 3, 2017

Jack Cade's Rebellion of 1450Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 by I. M. W. Harvey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Originally published on Goodreads, Apr 24, 2013.]

It seems history has been unkind to Jack Cade. Harvey’s book, while a corrective reading vs. William Shakespeare’s
King Henry VI, Part Two
, has a lot to do with the economic and political conditions of the time, but the juicy stuff–the revolt and who participated in it, and the details of what occurred (beyond a general outline of events), is sort of lost to history, although we have names on pardon rolls that Harvey does not reproduce, although she refers to them numerous times. As an Occupy and homeless activist, I was very interested in learning more for dramatic purposes, but it seems like a lot would have to be made up, or else do it in the style of 1920s Eisenstein using the “group protagonist” concept.

Harvey’s writing is not good. It is dry and informative, but it’s a challenge to read for the wrong reasons and reveals how different I, as an English major, am from a history major. Often, I would have to read one of Harvey’s sentences multiple times because she punctuates so poorly that one has trouble finding the subject of the sentence. She very frequently starts of a sentence with a prepositional phrase, but neglects to set it off with a comma. Throw in a few adjectives (some that could be nouns in other contexts) before the subject noun, and we have a mess that needs unraveling. Apparently, she is of the school that commas slow the reader down and make things boring, when the reality is that commas guide the reader from place to place so that they don’t have to reread your sentence 3 to 4 times to understand how you mean it because you didn’t give it the appropriate structure.

As far as the material, we learn that there was a great depression in the cloth industry, and people who were once making good money manufacturing cloth were losing jobs and money to trading fine cloth to Italy for cheap trinkets.

There is not enough in the historical record to really learn who Cade was. He left the country in December 1448 and returned in December 1449. Rumor has it that he murdered a pregnant woman, but it seems strange, given all the surviving legal papers of that time that make up the primary sources for this book, that such an explanation has any truth. Another claim is that Cade was a doctor who dressed in scarlet. It is known that John Cade was a vassal of Thomas Dacre and that he was forced off the land and out of the country, but there are no records as to why. The scene in Shakespeare in which Cade declares himself Lord Mortimer on London bridge is not part of Harvey’s history, although she does record that Cade was pardoned when authorities believed that his name was John Mortimer, and the pardon was redacted when they learned that it was John Cade. The most interesting chapter is the penultimate one, which deals with Cade’s undercaptains and how they led smaller rebellions in the following years. Many of them shared the same fate as Cade–hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Harvey never mentions Shakespeare’s play, nor does she ever make a direct comparison to what happens in the play vs. reality. James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, is portrayed as an innocent by Shakespeare, but he and his cronies (including one confusingly named John Say–the book deals with a startlingly high number of people named Thomas), are clearly in the historical record as bona fide extortionists. Richard, Duke of York, is presented as a reformer, and although the rebels despised Henry VI’s coterie, they thought pious Henry was well-intentioned and needed to be dethroned for not governing well but not killed, unlike William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk, the Duke of Somerset, and various others. In addition, the literacy issue in the play is an element of the Wat Tyler rebellion of 1381, and has nothing to do with the set of demands that is reproduced in the original Middle English in the appendix–indeed, Harvey notes that Cade and the rebel leaders were clearly literate men with legitimate demands, even if they were quashed by lords drunk with power. Harvey’s selected reading notes that Katharine de la Pole, an abbess and sister of William, was on the pardon list, but believes that she was not involved in the rebellion, although it would be interesting to learn more about why she may have been on the list beyond the safeguard Harvey hypothesizes. The problem is that we just can’t know.

The copy of this book that I received through interlibrary loan belongs to General Theological Seminary of New York City. Oddly, the book was bound upside down. In one of the Arden Shakespeare 2 Henry VI footnotes dealing with the literacy issue that Shakespeare conflated from the Wat Tyler rebellion, it is mentioned that a man tried to get a clerical pardon by memorizing the Vulgate of Psalm 51:1. The judge knew that the man could not read at all, let alone Latin (a major issue is made in the book that it was illegal to have the scriptures in English, an element of the Lollard rebellion), and presented the book to him upside down. When he noted nothing amiss, he was tried as a commoner and executed for his crime. Having not seen another copy of this book, I don’t know if it happened to a significant portion of the print run, but the irony that it would happen to this particular book is uncanny.

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