The peasants are revolting! That may be a very old double entendre but it was very often true in later medieval Europe. A steadily growing population produced more wealth for the landowners, creating a widening gap between the rich and poor. However the catastrophic famines and plagues of the 14th century (particularly the Black Death of 1347-50) caused a sharp drop in the number of peasants, who therefore became a scarce resource and gained some economic power. Various attempts by the landed classes to restore their former revenues by taxing the remaining peasantry more heavily and reimposing feudal dues inevitably resulted in many rebellions, from minor local disturbances to major outbreaks. Increasingly some had wider social goals too, such as the revolt of Hans Böhm in 1476, but whatever the cause the history of medieval Europe is littered with peasants taking up arms.
While peasants might often be dissatisfied with their lot in life, it usually took a charismatic local leader to stir up a true revolt. When that happened the peasants made the best of what they had as they descended on their intended victims. Naturally they wore their ordinary clothes, which would have been a shirt covered with a tunic, and hose on the legs. The head might be covered by a hat but the very practical hood was a popular alternative, while an arming-cap was also commonly seen, and of course some might go bare-headed. This is exactly what we find on these figures, with most having the classic appearance of the common man of the time. We should however point out that this set is rather confused in terms of dates, because while the front of the box claims the 13th and 14th centuries are covered, the back says it covers the 13th to 15th centuries, while the insert mentions Thomas Müntzer, whose revolt occurred in the 16th century!
An exception to this classic look is the slinger in the second row. He would seem to be anticipating very warm weather as he is stripped to the waist and seems to wear nothing but his braies (an early form of pants). This was fairly common wear when working hard in warm weather, so presumably equally likely when conducting an armed insurrection. The middle figure in the bottom row is similarly dressed, although he still wears his shirt, but neither have any hose. The rather dramatic final figure in the bottom row, which we must assume is intended as a 'leader' figure, is certainly the best dressed. He sports a splendid hat decorated with feathers, and has acquired a full cuirass - the only piece of armour in the set. The fact that he also has a sword and a shield further marks him out from the average peasantry, but leaders of peasants revolts were not always peasants themselves, and in any case this individual seems perfectly plausible.
Lucky indeed was the peasant who could acquire a sword when trouble started, and naturally most had no natural weapon beyond the ordinary knife that all medieval men wore. The gap was usually filled by simply taking a suitable agricultural tool, and so it is here. We find men carrying an array of items including forks and flails - all normal agricultural tools that would have been readily available. Others have resorted to the common practice of mounting any old blade on a pole, making one of a variety of polearms. Those with a hook on the end were often called bills, and those with single-blades sometimes glaives, but these weapons were immensely varied and went by many names. The important thing is that all here look entirely authentic. The archer is a good inclusion (archery was encouraged in some countries like England, yet banned in others for fear of uprisings), but the slinger is more unusual. Indeed slingers were occasionally used in military operations during part of the medieval period, but more importantly the sling remained a popular weapon for shepherds and the like, so again when the need arose some would be more deadly with a sling than with any blade. The first figure in the bottom row has the distinction of holding a falchion, which would have been extremely rare in the hands of a peasant. He also holds a lighted torch, which makes sense as the destruction of some hated lord or tax-collector's property was a common goal of rebellions.
As might be guessed Zvezda have done their usual trick of supplying some of the figures with separate parts to build a better pose, and in this case that means the six poses with polearms, all of which have the weapon and one arm separate. This is the only way to realistically portray such weapons, and the resulting poses are great and very natural. Most of the rest of the poses are also perfectly OK and very well realised. The fly in the ointment, at least in our view, is the first man in the second row. This figure is apparently running and brandishing a cudgel, and the pose would have been OK were it not for the fact that he is looking down and to the side rather than where he is going. The awkwardly raised left arm does not help matters either, but this is the only turkey in an otherwise good selection.
You would expect nothing less than excellence from Zvezda sculpting and that is what you get here. Detail is clear and beautifully done while clothing looks natural and proportions are spot on. The separate arms fit the figures very tightly, making assembly occasionally hard work, but nothing needs to be glued, although there is a noticeable gap between body and arm in some cases. Some figures that are side-on to the mould have small areas of extra plastic where the mould could not reach, but this is pretty minimal. As a rule we don’t approve of moulded flames, for example emanating from a flame-thrower, but while such flames are found here on the torch we found ourselves agreeing that it did look better that way.
The array of fearsome weapons and the good active poses of all these men make this a particularly well turned out set. The head stuck on a pole might seem gruesome yet this was the fate of many landlords, clergy or tax-collectors who failed to escape in time. For years the closest the hobby has come to this kind of subject is the old Airfix Robin Hood set. Now at last we have something more to put fear in the hearts of repressive lords everywhere.