John Ball in English History

The early chronicles already provided the framework for the negative presentation of Ball. He was presented as a the evil and heretical heart of the revolt with a malign influence on the people. Other writers would join in and build on this presentation, emphasising Ball’s rebelliousness, wickedness, devilishness, and alleged associations with Wycliffe. The most sustained example is from the late fourteenth/early fifteenth-century Carmelite collection, Fasciculi Zizaniorum. Here, allegations about Ball’s association with sedition and Wycliffe were developed further, including the claim that Ball named his select Wycliffite clique (Nicholas Hereford, John Aston, and Lawrence Bedenam) and preached against transubstantiation. The Latin text is available online: Walter Waddington Shirley (ed.), Fasciculi Zizaniorum magistri Johannis Wyclif cum Tritico (Rolls Series; London: Longman et al, 1858), 272-74

For various reasons, there is relatively little interest in Ball in fifteenth-century chronicles, which some sixteenth-century writers felt the need to explain, such as Polydore Vergil. Vergil’s Historia Anglica (first edition 1534; second edition 1546; third edition 1555) downplayed the significance of Ball but Vergil’s account played its own role in the ongoing reception of Ball by popularising what would become a common alternative spelling of Ball’s name: John Wall (Ioannem Vallaeum). Vergil’s text is available online in Latin and English: Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia (1555 version): A hypertext critical edition by Dana F. Sutton (Birmingham: The Philological Museum, 2010).

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

There is evidence that Ball was remembered as a proto-Protestant martyr during the English Reformation, though John Foxe knew how dangerous Ball’s memory could be (available online here). By far the more common reading of Ball during the English Reformation was that he was emphatically not a martyr, that he was a seditious threat to order, and if his religious affiliations were mentioned (whether Catholic or Church of England polemics) they would be associated with the radical Reformation . These ideas are found in theological tracts and in the historians of the sixteenth century.  As we might expect, Ball and the 1381 uprising turns up in the famous work of Raphael Holinshed, or rather the work that appeared under his name: Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (first edition 1577; second posthumously in 1587 under the direction of Abraham Fleming). The parallel texts of the 1577 and 1587 editions are available online at Ian W. Archer, Felicity Heal, Paulina Kewes, and Henry Summerson (eds.), Holinshed Project. Fears about the radical reformation and seditious threats like Ball also turn up in verse, such as in ‘The Life and Death of Iohn Leyden’ in Samuel Rowlands’ Hell’s Broke Loose (1605), and were also being played out on the stage (see John Ball in Literature and Drama).

The polemics against Ball were taken up in the English civil wars/revolution of the seventeenth century. There isn’t much evidence to suggest Ball’s memory was used in the more radical circles of the seventeenth century, even if similar ideas were. Ball instead continued to be used polemically by royalists, seen a precursor to revolutionary action. He was even occasionally by opponents of the royalists to make a similar point—you are the ones more in line with chaos and disorder. Probably the most polemical treatment of Ball and 1381 in the entire 640-year history of reception is The Idol of the Clownes, or, Insurrection of Wat the Tyler, with His Priests Baal and Straw (1654, available here), attributed to the anti-puritan royalist John Cleveland (later editions were under the title, The Rustick Rampant, or Rural Anarchy affronting Monarchy). The following gives some indication of this:

One Baal the most sottish and most unworthy, but most factious of the Clergy is stirred up by the Devill…the Devill (who, if rebellion be as the sinne of Witchcraft, is the Father of both) to be the Antichrist of this Reign, to blaspheme and cry down God and Cesar his anoynted, the Rights of God and Cesar…Of these imaginations…was a foolish Priest in the County of Kent called John Wall (for Baal) and to make it plain that he was the Father of the uproar…[continues].

Following the Restoration and new political realities brought about by the 1688 revolution, ideological uses of the threat of Ball were updated in debates about absolutism, mixed monarchy, foreign threats to security, and a national constitution. In addition to the standard histories, we also get this story repeated in popular forms—including in the anonymous chapbook, The History of Wat Tyler & Jack Straw (c. 1720 and republished regularly)—as Ball also become closely associated with eighteenth-century anxieties about ‘the mob’ and various riots (see also John Ball in Literature and Drama).

But the eighteenth century also marked a turning point in the history of the reception of Ball. Serfdom was increasingly seen as outdated as the century progressed and it thus became increasingly difficult for thinkers and historians to condemn all of Ball’s ideas and the demands of the rebels. The most prominent example is David Hume in his History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Accession of Henry VII, Part II (1762, 1778) who condemned the violence but gave a backhanded compliment to Ball’s sentiments.  

David Hume

The American and French revolutions changed public perceptions of Ball dramatically. Ball was still used as figure of terror by opponents of revolution (e.g., Edmund Burke) but this was partly because of the changing perceptions about Ball. From the 1790s onwards, Ball was more likely to be cast in heroic and even saintly terms by radicals, later socialists, and some liberals. John Baxter—silversmith, one-time chair of the London Corresponding Society, and founder member of the Friends of Liberty—wrote A New and Impartial History of England, from the Most Early Period of Genuine Historical Evidence to the Present Important and Alarming Crisis (1796) which was dependent on those that came before him but changed the value judgments on Ball and the rebels. Ball was no longer the seditious priest but a champion of ancient English rights and preached against the ‘tyranny of artificial distinctions.’

The most influential work from the 1790s was originally unpublished: Robert Southey’s dramatic poem, Wat Tyler (1794). As with Baxter’s history, the world of the treason trials and 1790s radicalism influenced Southey’s retelling of 1381, with Ball taking centre stage as a martyr for the cause, preacher of equality, and opponent of the exploitative structures of society. The influence of Wat Tyler would not be felt until after Southey had become Poet Laureate in 1813 and renounced the radicalism of his youth. Radicals accused him of hypocrisy and Wat Tyler was controversially pirated, published and republished from 1817 onward. Unfortunately for Southey, Wat Tyler became the standard presentation of Ball among radicals and social and political reformers throughout much of the nineteenth century, from Chartists through to the early socialists (see John Ball and English Radicalism).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Southey’s influence was on the wane. One reason was the involvement of prominent academics (or those writing in a familiar academic style) looking closely at Ball and the events of 1381 and the emergence of Marxism and socialism. Indeed, the language of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ was soon added to the descriptions of Ball’s ideas, alongside language familiar from the French revolution (e.g., ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’), by historians from across the political spectrum. Probably the most influential historical work of the late nineteenth century, including among liberals and socialists, was John Richard Green’s hugely popular (and 800 page) A Short History of the English People (1874). Green tried to provide what we would now call a ‘history from below,’ and perhaps connected to this was his popularising of what was starting to become a standard label to describe the 1381 uprising: ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ (or, in Green’s case, ‘Peasant Revolt’).

William Morris, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Arguably the most influential interpretation came from William Morris in A Dream of John Ball (1886–1887). Morris’ reading developed Marxist readings of history and saw Ball’s place in a tradition of victories and defeats involved in the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. For Morris, Ball’s relevance for the present was an example of the will needed to push the transition from capitalism to socialism. Morris’ influence dominated socialist and liberal understandings of Ball in politics for decades (see John Ball and English Radicalism), though his influence in fiction and drama was just as significant (see also John Ball in Literature and Drama). One of the most celebrated historians of 1381, Rodney Hilton, would emerge from this tradition and provided a sustained Marxist reading of medieval feudal society and Ball’s place within in it.

While academic and popular history of the revolt would continue to thrive, popular receptions of Ball went into decline after the Second World War, at least if newspaper references are anything to go by. Nevertheless, there would be occasional revivals and memorials (e.g., the 600th anniversary in 1981) and socialist traditions would keep his memory alive, even if Ball did not feature as much as he did at the turn of the twentieth century (see John Ball and Memorials of 1381). Nevertheless, Ball turns up in certain subcultures, notably folk music and particularly through Sydney Carter’s popular and often covered song ‘Sing John Ball’ (see John Ball in Music).

A short sketch obviously cannot do justice to the enormous reception history of Ball. For much more detail, see James Crossley, Spectres of John Ball: The “Peasants’ Revolt” in English Political History, 1381-2020.

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