Please enable JavaScript for this site to run correctly.
  • Home
  • People and places
    Posted 2022-05-11 10:34:11 by James Crossley

    •  New Book on the Reception of John Ball
    •   Ball's Fluctuating Reputation since 1381
    •  How Ball Became an Icon of Homegrown Socialism

    James Crossley is Research Professor in Bible, Society, and Politics at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society, Academic Director of the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (CenSAMM), and Professor of Bible and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. He has recently published Spectres of John Ball: the Peasants' Revolt in English Political History (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2022) which is a monumental study of the reputation of John Ball during the 640 years since the Peasants' Revolt. Professor Crossley has kindly contributed this guest profile describing the fluctuating memory of Ball and providing a taster of the story told in his fascinating book. 

    John Ball was a priest associated with St Mary’s, York, and then Colchester, and who became known for his version of the couplet, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?’ Though it is difficult to reconstruct details of Ball’s life with certainty, we know that he was active in the South East in the years preceding 1381 where he was constantly in trouble with church authorities, imprisoned, and excommunicated. The first chroniclers of the of the uprising presented him in a hostile manner as the ideological driving force behind the revolt, both through his charismatic preaching and cryptic letters. They also presented Ball as heretic while chroniclers such as Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton influentially associated him with Wycliffe’s teachings in order to discredit both.
    At the turn of the fifteenth century, the idea of Ball as a seditious threat was intensified as he was seen as a devilish instigator (e.g. John Gower’s Visio Anglie 793-94) and a dedicated Lollard heretic (e.g. Fasciculi Zizaniorum). However, in the fifteenth century, Ball was soon omitted from the major accounts of the uprising, partly because his presence was seen to undermine broader arguments about the mismanagement of the realm. Ball returned to retellings of 1381 during the English Reformation where he was typically seen as exemplar of sedition and a warning against extreme Protestantism, though there is some evidence that he was also seen as a proto-Protestant martyr (e.g. by John Bale) and there was, perhaps, some ambiguity in his presentation in plays (e.g.The Life and Death of Jack Straw [1593/94]). In the seventeenth century, Ball continued to be seen as a warning against sedition, popular uprisings, and challenges to royal power, particularly in the aftermath of the English civil wars. This period produced arguably the most polemical treatment of 1381 ever written: The Idol of the Clownes, or, Insurrection of Wat the Tyler, with His Priests Baal and Straw (1654), attributed to the anti-puritan satirist John Cleveland.
    The threat of Ball was further updated by historians writing in the late seventeenth century and much of the eighteenth century in light of the new political realities brought about by the 1688 revolution, the end of the Stuart line, and the accession of the Hanoverians in 1714. While there were competing positions in Whig and Tory debates about absolutism, mixed monarchy, an English constitution, property rights, rightful and wrongful resistance, and allegations about religion (from Catholic tyranny to radical Protestant sedition), Ball was consistently presented as the negative example of rebellion, invasion, and a threat to the order of things. With London’s population growing rapidly, Ball (or a Ball-like figure) was also closely associated with the threat of ‘the mob’ and with an implicit or explicit appeal to Londoners to protect the city as they (apparently) did in 1381. In addition to the standard histories, such presentations are found in popular formats, including the anonymous chapbook, The History of Wat Tyler & Jack Straw (c. 1720 and republished regularly), and the droll, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, Or the Mob Reformers performed in 1730.
    As serfdom was increasingly recognised as a long-outdated practice, it became difficult for historians and thinkers like David Hume to condemn fully some of Ball’s ideas, even if they did not approve of the rebels’ violence (see, e.g., Hume, History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Accession of Henry VII, Part II [1762, 1778]). Support for the American and French Revolutions further helped the popular rehabilitation of Ball who became a near saintly hero of English radicalism from the 1790s onwards. The most influential treatment of Ball came from the radical Robert Southey in his initially unpublished dramatic poem,Wat Tyler (1794). Southey later became Poet Laureate (1813), renounced his youthful beliefs, and became a target for radicals who sensationally published pirated copies of Wat Tyler from 1817 onwards.
    Southey’s presentation would dominate much of the nineteenth century as Ball was used as a supporter of, e.g. constitutional reform, universal suffrage, improvement of working conditions, Chartism, and abolitionism. Southey’s influence began to wane with the emergence of Marxism and socialist movements and radical liberalism, as well with the professionalisation of History. Replacing Southey as the most influential interpreter of Ball was William Morris in A Dream of John Ball (1886–1887). In this dream vision, Morris placed the failed uprising in a Marxist historical schema of a series of victories and defeats involved in the transformation from feudalism to capitalism and how Ball’s example was now needed to help the transition from capitalism to socialism. 
    Morris dominated leftist readings for decades, though he also influenced a growing tradition of fictional portrayals of 1381 from different political perspectives. Women become more prominent interpreters of Ball through the medium of the novel (e.g. Harriette Burch, Charlotte Mary Yonge, Mary Bramston) while Ball was also seen as an obvious example of a supporter of suffragettism. Morris’ reading of Ball was further influential in the construction of an English radical tradition where Ball was regularly seen as the founding figure of a homegrown socialism. While leftist understandings of Ball differed according to affiliation (e.g. Labour, Communist Party, anarchist), he was still seen as a unifying figure among socialists and liberals in the popular front case against fascism in the 1930s.
    While leftist interest continued after WWII, popular interest in Ball declined rapidly. There would be a resurgence during the six-hundredth anniversary of the revolt (1981), a year in which Sydney Carter wrote his popular folk song ‘Sing John Ball’. Today, Carter’s song complements common presentations of Ball close to the parliamentary Left, i.e. as a promoter of vague concepts of tolerance, love, and democracy, typically without the violent menace of earlier presentations. Nevertheless, Ball as an advocate of violent transformation continues to thrive in areas of culture (e.g., popular history, novels) where the blood and gore of history are not to be downplayed but are rather expected.