The Quest for the Historical John Ball

Blackheath

The following excerpt on the life of John Ball is taken from James Crossley, “John Ball and the Peasants’ Revolt.” In James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (2021):

“[In the English uprising of 1381], Ball was soon associated (in memory at least) with the most recognised part of the revolt in Essex and Kent and with leaders such as Wat Tyler. On Thursday 13 June 1381—the feast of Corpus Christi—rebels from the south east arrived in London and swelled their ranks with Londoners and newly released prisoners. Though there were exceptions, it seems that the rebels were generally disciplined and deliberately selected political, economic, legal, and ecclesiastical targets. The rebels negotiated with Richard II and made demands such as the end of serfdom, the pardon of criminals, and the removal or execution of royal advisors. Some rebels even got into the Tower of London and decapitated leading figures of the realm, including Simon Sudbury [Archbishop of Canterbury]…Tyler and the Kentish rebels pushed further still, including for a radical reshaping of the legal system, aristocracy, and the church which would be overseen by the king and one bishop. In the confusion that followed, Tyler was fatally wounded, and Richard was able to pacify the rebels. In the subsequent re-establishment of authority, Ball was captured in Coventry, tried in St Albans in mid-July, and hanged, drawn and quartered with his four parts sent to four cities…

There is not much known about the details of Ball’s life prior to 1381 or when and where he was born…It was claimed by chroniclers that Ball was a follower of John Wycliffe (d. 1384) and the Lollards, but such claims were polemical, aimed at discrediting both, and reveal some awareness of the artificiality of the connection…From letters attributed to Ball around the time of the 1381 uprising…It seems that he was a priest connected to St Mary’s, York (typically thought to be St Mary’s Abbey or an associate church) who later moved or returned to Colchester. After his move to Essex, we have clear evidence for some of his notorious activities as an itinerant lower clergyman…

Ball was known for preaching in or around public markets, cemeteries, streets, and fields. Precisely what aspects of his pre-1381 preaching were deemed heretical is not clear but it was generally understood to have involved, as one hostile chronicler put it, ‘the things which he knew would please the common people, disparaging men of the Church as well as secular lords, and so won the good will of the commons rather than approval before God’ (Walsingham, Chronica maiora 544–45). Ball’s provocative preaching meant that he was regularly in trouble with church authorities, particularly Simon Sudbury who was the Archbishop of Canterbury by the time of the 1381 uprising…

By the time of the 1381 uprisings, the chroniclers give us more details of Ball’s preaching. Despite the claims in the chronicles that Ball was released from prison in Maidstone and was active at Blackheath, there is the possibility he was the same ‘John Ball’ sprung from prison in Bishop’s Stortford on 11 June and therefore not active around London and the south east at that time, as Andrew Prescott has outlined. Wherever Ball may have been at the time of the London uprising of June 1381, his teaching was said to have a significant influence on the rebels and its presentation is theologically consistent across the chronicles. Echoing the Gospels (Matthew 11:7–8; Luke 7:24–25; 16:19–31), Ball’s critiques of the social, economic, political, and religious order concerned lords in fine clothing, dwelling in luxurious houses, and consuming good food and drink. By contrast, the lower orders were in poor cloth, living off the chaff and water, and working in the fields through wind and rain which was for the benefit of the lords, helping them to ‘keep and maintain their estates’ (Froissart, Chroniques 10.96). Ball was said to have wanted a dramatic restructuring of the church in England which involved getting ‘rid of all the lords, archbishops, bishops, abbots and priors, as well as most of the monks and canons so that there should be no bishop in England except for one archbishop, namely himself’ (Anonimalle Chronicle 137)…

We can best see Ball as a theological voice of the uprisings in his most famous sermon which, it was claimed (correctly or not), was delivered at Blackheath on 12 June 1381 (Walsingham, Chronica maiora 546–47). Here Ball was said to have used the story of Adam and Eve to point to social structures at the beginning of human history in order to critique the present and anticipate and provoke an imminent replacement of the social and political order. Ball’s most famous saying (though similar sayings were known) opened the sermon: ‘When Adam dug and Even span, who was then a gentleman?’. In this presentation of Ball, Adam and Eve were active when there was no serfdom and so serfdom was understood to be a later human invention created for the service of lordly power. While this saying is regularly associated with radical egalitarianism, some qualifications should be made. The saying still worked with the assumption that Ball would fill the major ecclesiastical role in the future and there was likely a further assumption that a popular hierarchy would be put in place in order to dispense justice where the lords had been seen to fail (cf. Froissart, Chroniques 10.111).

It is commonly argued that assumptions about an idealised new order may explain the timing of the rebels’ arrival in London on the feast of Corpus Christi (Thursday 13 June 1381). This feast was the celebration of the Eucharist and the body of Christ which in turn had implications for understanding the cohesion (or otherwise) of the social body. As Margaret Aston showed, such celebrations would have involved ideas about liberation and the exodus from Egypt which were understood to foreshadow the crucifixion and Christian freedom for all (Aston 1994, 19–21). While we might speculate about what Ball could have said in a Corpus Christi sermon or how ideas of sacrifice, community, and freedom may have chimed with the material and ideological interests of the rebels, such eucharistic ideas seem to be present in a cryptic letter attributed to Ball which combined ideas of breadmaking and Christ’s death (Walsingham, Chronica maiora 548–49)…

The presentation of the Blackheath sermon attributed to Ball provides an indication of the violent actions this moment [of dramatic change] would entail:

He therefore urged them to be men of courage, and out of love for their virtuous fathers who had tilled their land, and pulled up and cut down the noxious weeds which usually choke the crops, to make haste themselves at that present time to do the same. They must do this first, by killing the most powerful lords of the realm, then by slaying the lawyers, justiciars, and jurors of the land, and finally, by weeding out from their land any that they knew would in the future be harmful to the commonwealth. Thus they would in the end gain peace for themselves and security for the future, if after removing the magnates, there was equal freedom between them, and they each enjoyed the same nobility, equal dignity, and similar power. (Walsingham, Chronica maiora 546–47)

There is a likely allusion here to the parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43, a text regularly used to understand notions of heresy…The parable in Matthew’s Gospel talks about an enemy sowing weeds among the good seed and sorting and destroying the good weeds from the bad. The explanation in the gospel is that the Son of Man sows the good seed and the good seed represents the children of the kingdom. Similarly, the devil sows the bad and the weeds are the children of the devil. Fittingly, the parable has an eschatological conclusion whereby the harvesting is the end of age and the angels will remove causes of sin and the evildoers. Ball’s application of this parable to justify the violent transformation of England is clear enough…

Ball looked to a future of communally shared possessions and distribution according to need, probably based on the example of the early church (Acts of the Apostles 2:44–45; 4:32–35). He was said to have preached that things were ‘not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common.’ This would be a time when there would be no serfdom, no greater lords, and no exploitation of peasant labour because ‘all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve’ (Froissart, Chroniques 10.96; cf. Anonimalle Chronicle 137)…for Ball, this hope for a new England was most obviously connected with the calls for liberty from serfdom and greater access to the resources of the land…It is probably to be connected with rebel demands presented in one account of the meeting of Tyler and Richard II, namely that ‘all game, whether in waters or in parks and woods should become common to all, so that everywhere in the realm, in rivers and fishponds, and woods and forests, they might take the wild beasts, and hunt the hare in the fields, and do many other such things without restraint’ (Knighton, Chronicle 218–19).”

For those with subscription or institutional access, see also Andrew Prescott, “Ball, John (d. 1381),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (24 May 2008).

Resources

The main narrative about John Ball comes from the earliest (hostile) chronicles, notably those associated with Thomas Walsingham, Henry Knighton, and Jean Froissart, as well as the Anonimalle Chronicle and the Westminster Chronicle.

Critical editions include:

  • Peter Ainsworth and Godfried Croenen (ed.), The Online Froissart: Version 1.5 (Sheffield: HRIOnline, 2013)
  • L. C. Hector and Barbara F. Harvey (eds.), The Westminster Chronicle, 1381-1394 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982)
  • G. H. Martin (ed.), Knighton’s Chronicle 1337-1396 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)
  • John Taylor, Wendy R. Childs, and Leslie Watkiss (eds.), The St Albans Chronicle: The Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham: Volume I 1376-1394 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • V. H. Galbraith (ed.), The Anonimalle Chronicle, 1333 to 1381 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970 [1927])

The classic collection of the primary sources in translation is:

  • R.B. Dobson (ed.), The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (second edition; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1983). The introduction to the first and second editions are available here.

Older versions of the chronicles are freely available online:

There are some references to a ‘John Ball’ in records from the Colchester area, but it is not clear whether they are to the John Ball. There is, however, some good evidence from records prior to the revolt, such as the letters patent from Edward III (25 February 1364), available in the Calendar of the Patent Rolls: Edward III, Vol. XII, 1361-1364 (London: Hereford Times Limited, 1912). The king had once given the chaplain John Ball special protection but had now ‘learned that John is not prosecuting any business but wanders from country to country preaching articles contrary to the faith of the church to the peril of his soul and the souls of others, especially of laymen, and he has therefore thought fit to revoke such protection.’

Prior to 1381, the references to the reason why Ball was understood to be a problem and the reasons for his excommunication are categorised generally in terms of heresy, though his popularity seems clear and his itinerancy is also noted as it is in the chronicles. See, e.g.,

There is further evidence of Ball’s popularity. The ‘vagabond’ John Shirle of Nottinghamshire was accused of publicly endorsing Ball in a Bridge Street tavern, Cambridge, on the day after his execution. Shirle was alleged to have said,

that the stewards of the lord the king as well as the justices and many other officers and ministers of the king were more deserving to be drawn and hanged and to suffer other lawful pains and torments than John Balle, chaplain, a traitor and felon lawfully convicted. For Shirle said that he [Ball] had been condemned to death falsely, unjustly and for envy by the said ministers with the kings’ assent, because he was a true and worthy man, prophesying things useful to the commons of the kingdom and telling of wrongs and oppressions done to the people by the king and aforesaid ministers; and Ball’s death would not go unpunished but within a short space of time he would well reward the king and his said ministers and officers. (JUST 1/103 m, translation in Dobson (ed.), Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, xxviii-xxix)

Shirle was hanged and whatever lingering popularity Ball had was now overshadowed by the overwhelmingly hostile accounts over the next 400 years. See John Ball in English History.

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