The War of the Poor

The War of the Poor is Eric Vuillard’s fifth novel, and his third to be translated into English (by Mark Polizzotti who also translated The Order of the Day). All deal with historical events and are under 200 pages long, with The War of the Poor the shortest yet at only 66 pages, and the furthest removed from the present, ranging from the 14th to the 16th century. This suggests that Vuillard is not so much interested in world building in the way that, for example, Hilary Mantel is, but instead on focussing sharply on a particular moment or idea. Here the idea is that the peasant rebellions which occurred with the rise of Protestantism were as much about poverty as religion, a response to Martin Luthor’s statement that ‘It is not the peasants who arose against you masters, but God himself!’

“But it wasn’t God. It was indeed the peasants rising up. Unless you want to define God as hunger, disease, humiliation, rags. It wasn’t God rising up, it was taxes, tithes, land rights, ground rents, tariffs, travel dues, hay harvests, droit de seigneur, cutting of noses, gouging of eyes, pinching with burning tongs, bodies broken on the wheel.”

Vuillard’s particular focus is Thomas Muntzer but he begins in England with John Wycliffe and his proposal that “there exists a direct relationship between men and God.” This was, of course, seen as an attack on the clergy as such a relationship would logically make their intercession redundant, but it was feared by all men of rank as behind it lay:

“…his most terrifying idea of all, he preached the equality of all human beings.”

Wycliffe’s ideas are expressed in a more down to earth way by John Ball and feed directly into the Peasants’ Revolt against the 1380 poll tax, but if Ball’s ideas had their origin in theology, Wat Tyler’s originated in a more personal grievance, the rape of his fifteen-year-old daughter by a tax collector. And so Vuillard demonstrates that the real danger to those in power is the combination of radical religious ideas and genuine political grievances.

Almost 150 years later Thomas Muntzer is a leading figure in the Peasants’ War in what is now Germany in the 1520s. Originally a follower of Luthor, he is by this time a much more radical preacher:

“Something terrible inhabits him. He is enraged. He wants the rulers’ skins, he wants to sweep away the Church, he wants to gut all those bastards.”

Muntzer’s rebellion, as we know from the example of John Ball and Wat Tyler before him, is a failure. His 300 men are cut off from further support and face an army of professional soldiers with both artillery and cavalry. He, too, will die.

With such dramatic content crammed into so few pages, The War of the Poor does not lack for incident or pace. Vuillard has not the time to develop character but instead seeks out the essence of Muntzer, which he finds in his anger. Indeed, one reason that the novel is more than a sketch of history is the way in which that passion spills into the narrative – a quite different tone from The Order of the Day. Vuillard also brings his story to life with a keen turn of phrase. Take, for example, his description of the invention of printing:

“Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed, flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal.”

Vuillard (and Polizzotti) perfectly convey the sense of threat presented by type, and its unstoppable nature. Here the description is extended, but Vuillard can also be to the point, injecting humour with his depiction of Munzter’s preaching:

“He quoted the Gospels and added exclamation marks.”

At other times colloquial language is interjected into the narrative to power it forward, as, for example, when he tells us that Wycliffe repudiated transubstantiation “to really piss people off.” At the same time, there is no sense that Vuillard is being playful with history; the novel is deeply felt despite its distance and ends with a coda that could well be contemporary:

“Martyrdom is a trap for the oppressed. Only victory is desirable.”

The War of the Poor is an impressive short novel. It fully deserves its long listing for the International Booker Prize, but its brevity is such that progressing to the short list may prove more difficult.

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4 Responses to “The War of the Poor”

  1. lauratfrey Says:

    I loved The Order of the Day, I still think of it when I see brand names like Siemen and ThyssenKrupp and remembe what those companies were up to… this sounds good, the only review so far that made it sound appealing. I’ve seen a few that found this a disappointment after The Order of the Day.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think because The Order of the Day is more recent history it has a more immediate appeal – as you say, it still resonates with the modern world.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I was just about to make a similar comment to Laura’s last point as I too have seen one or two lukewarm reviews. That said, you’ve made a strong case for it here in spite of the brevity.

    As a slight aside, I think Pedro Almodovar must be a fan of Vuillard’s work as I seem to remember seeing a copy of The Order of the Day in his most recent film, Pain and Glory. (Well, that what I think I saw, unless it was some weird anxiety-induced fever dream from the days of lockdown one!)

    • 1streading Says:

      I’d be interested in a film version of The Order of the Day! I suspect enjoyment of Vuillard’s work depends a little on your intertest in the historical period he’s writing about as it’s a very fact based fiction.

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