In June 1381, thousands of Englishmen suddenly went mad. Spontaneous insanity is one explanation that the contemporary poet John Gower offered for rebels' participation in the English Rising of 1381, which he described in lurid detail in the Vox clamantis. In June 1381, a chain of local upheavals raged throughout England. These upheavals included a week-long siege of London, where thousands of commoners from the city and from outlying areas joined forces. Non-ruling groups, from peasants through middle-rank guild members, stormed prisons, persecuted lawyers, razed John of Gaunt's palace, and beheaded such notables as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chancellor of England. The spring and summer of 1381 witnessed the most geographically widespread series of rebellions in England during the Middle Ages, involving the largest number of insurgents in medieval English history, a number not equaled until the English civil war nearly three centuries later.
John Gower 1330-1408), second only to Chaucer in the canon of great medieval English poets, has been dubbed "the poet of that Great Revolt." (1) Shortly after the rebellion, Gower dedicated the first book of the Vox clamantis, nearly twenty-two hundred lines of poetry, to describing the event. Not surprisingly, Gower--a wealthy landowner, a wool-trade investor, and possibly a lawyer (2)--depicted himself in the Vox being terrorized by rebels. Claiming to be a criminal who had committed no crime, Gower, the fictional narrator, hides in the forest for days, while insurgents, who have literally transformed into wild beasts, rule the streets of London and wreak havoc on the city and its inhabitants. Around 1390, the poet wrote the Confessio amantis, in which the memory of the English Rising of 1381 persists. In the Confessio's Prologue, at the beginning of his discussion of English commoners, Gower denounces popular insurrection as purposeless, random destruction (Prol., 499-584). (3)