Wherever a society developed into feudalism it soon experienced peasant revolts. Like other mass movements peasant revolts arise when the living conditions of the ordinary people become unbearable, but they never led to the overthrow of the social order.
To replace a society by a new social order requires that a new element of higher productivity arises from its midst. When this new element cannot realize its full potential it changes the social order by force, a process usually called revolution.
The sequence of social organization through human history is a transition from lower to higher productivity:
Different as the various stages of human society are, they all share two characteristic traits: Each stage of development is able to overcome the limitation of the previous stage and in the process creates its own limitation. All stages also lead to growing inequality of wealth and as a consequence to periodic mass revolt against oppresive exploitation.
The peasantry never represents a new, more productive element of society. It always stands for an economic system of the past. Peasant revolts* are directed against feudal exploitation, but they do not aim to replace feudalism by a more productive economic system; they want to restore the old village economy. The old village economy, however, cannot sustain the economic level of the advanced urban civlization created by feudalism, and any peasant revolt is therefore condemned to failure.
In China, the civilization in which feudalism reigned for over one millennium, major peasant revolts occurred every 100 - 200 years. The most important ones were in
In Europe major peasant revolts occurred
Anderle et al. (1966) Weltgeschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.
* Some authors, particularly those associated with the left of the political spectrum, prefer the term "uprising" over the term "revolt" on the argument that the choice of terms expresses a moral attitude: The peasants call their action against oppression by the aristocracy uprising, the aristocracy calls it a revolt.
We use the term "revolt" strictly as a scientific term as defined above, without considereation whether such use may be politically correct or not. Our position with regard to the exploitation of common people should be obvious from the lecture material itself.
A nice anecdote that supports the moral loading of the term "revolt" is reported from the French king Louis XVI:
The difference between revolt and revolution is discussed in Lecture 21.