Medieval drawing of John Ball giving hope to Wat Tyler's rebels
|Died||15 July 1381 (aged 42/43)
|Known for||Peasants' Revolt|
He was born and lived in St Albans, Hertfordshire (Dobson has no reference to Ball's birthplace, noting that "remarkably little is known about his career". Ball referred to himself, if Walsingham can be believed, as "Seynte Marie prest of York"), later moving to Norwich and then to Colchester during the plague years of the Black Death. The country was exhausted by death on a massive scale and crippling taxes; the Black Death was followed by years of war, which had to be paid for. The population was nearly halved by disease and overworked, and onerous flat-rate poll taxes were imposed.
Ball was imprisoned in Maidstone, Kent, at the time of the 1381 Revolt. What is recorded of his adult life comes from hostile sources emanating from the established religious and political social order. He is said to have gained considerable fame as a roving preacher without a parish or any link to the established order by expounding the doctrines of John Wycliffe, and especially by his insistence on social equality. He delivered radical sermons in many places, including: Ashen, Billericay, Bocking, Braintree, Cressing Temple, Dedham, Coggeshall, Fobbing, Goldhanger, Great Baddow, Little Henny, Stisted and Waltham.
His utterances brought him into conflict with Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was thrown in prison on several occasions. He also appears to have been excommunicated; owing to which, in 1366 it was forbidden for anyone to hear him preach. These measures, however, did not moderate his opinions, nor diminish his popularity. He took to speaking to parishioners in churchyards after the official services: in English, the "common tongue", not the Latin of the clergy, a radical political move. Ball was "using the bible against the church", very threatening to the status quo.
Shortly after the Peasants' Revolt began, Ball was released by the Kentish rebels from his prison. He preached to them at Blackheath (the revolting peasants' rendezvous to the south of Greenwich) in an open-air sermon that included the following:
When Adam delved and Eve span,[a] Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
When the rebels had dispersed, Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at St Albans in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381. His head was displayed stuck on a pike on London Bridge, and the quarters of his body were displayed at four different towns. Ball, who was called by Froissart "the mad priest of Kent," seems to have possessed the gift of rhyme. He voiced the feelings of a section of the discontented lower orders of society at that time, who chafed at villeinage and the lords' rights of unpaid labour, or corvée.
Ball and perhaps many of the rebels who followed him found some resonance between their ideas and goals and those of Piers Plowman, a key figure in a contemporary poem putatively by one William Langland. Ball put Piers and other characters from Langland's poem into his cryptically allegorical writings which may be prophecies, motivating messages, and/or coded instructions to his cohorts. This may have enhanced Langland's real or perceived radical and Lollard affinities as well as Ball's.
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Ball was the preacher, the prophet and teacher, inspired by a spirit of hell,
And every fool advanced in his school, to be taught as the devil thought well.:44
Ball appears as a character in the anonymous play The Life and Death of Jack Straw, published in London in 1593, which deals with the events of the Peasants' Revolt.
William Morris wrote a short story called "Two extracts from a dream of John Ball", which was serialised in the Commonweal between November 1886 and February 1887. It was published in book form in 1888.
English songwriter Sydney Carter wrote an eponymously titled song about Ball that has been recorded by a number of artists. 'Sing John Ball' is regularly performed in the UK by folk musicians including The Young' Uns, The Melrose Quartet, and in 2015 the group Sweet Liberties performed the song in the Houses of Parliament.
There is a steep hill on the A5199 in Leicestershire, between Shearsby and Husbands Bosworth, that is colloquially called "John Ball Hill".
A tower chapel at the parish church of Thaxted in Essex was dedicated to John Ball under the Anglo-Catholic socialist vicar, Conrad Noel (1910–1942).
The Bedfordshire on Sunday, a free local newspaper based in Bedford, runs a weekly column by a fictional journalist called "John Ball's Diary", which features behind-the-scenes life in the office of the newspaper. The column is written by all the members of the editorial staff.
Ball made a star appearance in the Newbery Medal-winning 2002 novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead. He was a priest, as he usually is, and was assisting a character by the name of Bear in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
John Ball is referenced several times in T. H. White's The Once and Future King, most prominently in the fourth book, The Candle in the Wind. In the final chapter (14), King Arthur muses on his failure to unite England. King Arthur tries to understand what forces are at work that make mankind fight wars and references the "communism" of John Ball as a precursor to Mordred's Thrashers.
John Ball's line, "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?" serves as the epigraph to Zadie Smith's 2012 novel NW, which follows characters who grew up on a council estate in northwest London.
In Act V Scene 1 of Hamlet, Shakespeare has the Gravedigger (First Clown) discuss the line "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?" with a bit of a reversed sense: in Adam's time there were none but gentlemen.
First Clown: ... Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam's profession.
Second Clown: Was he a gentleman?
First Clown: He was the first that ever bore arms.
Second Clown: Why, he had none.
First Clown: What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture? The
Scripture says 'Adam digged:' could he dig without arms?
When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gentilman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord" and Ball ended by recommending "uprooting the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future."
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