Who was John Ball?
In a stolen glimpse of medieval egalitarianism stands the figure of John Ball. A fourteenth century survivor of the Black Death, rural Essex son turned priest become revolutionary leader, Ball rouses us directly through his words… words which inspired the people who would later be defamed as the ‘rustics’ of the Peasants’ Revolt.
It was Ball, son of Colchester, we are told, who questioned the world order established in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of the bubonic plague when the great reduction in labour led to the early awareness of the labouring classes of their worth - only for this to be snatched away by the 1350 Statue of Labourers.
According to this most draconian of statutes, survivors of the greatest single shock to the European economy in a millennium would not profit from their fortune and the value of their strength in a world robbed of so much.
Created by Edward III but approved of by his successor - the boy king Richard II (inventor of the handkerchief and well-schooled in the French system of autocratic kingship) the Statute of Labourers attempted to confine an idea, strong as a shire horse, of emancipated serfdom.
Once sired however, this concept, trained and broken in the East Anglian fields following the retreating tide of pestilence, could not be bridled. Ball watched it gain strength. Emboldened on the rich beer of Lollard rhetoric he smoothed its sides and tended to its needs, he slipped the lock from its stable and and let it bolt.
‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who then was the gentleman?’
In his famous statement delivered during a sermon at Blackheath to the assembled mass of the Peasants Revolt - Ball is the first person we can name in European history to have directly question the legitimacy of social and economic hierarchy.
His payment for such foresight was arrest, show trial and agonising execution in the manner of hanging, drawing and quartering.
His vanquishers were memorialised in stone and title and Ball… went underground. As the leaders and participants of the 1381 revolt were rounded up Ball’s blood was swallowed by the rich soil of England to fertilise 1000 successors to his cause.
If you would like to know more of John Ball and his radical politics follow the link below to watch Melvyn Bragg's excellent documentary about his life.
On this page you can also download a copy of a superb booklet on John Ball published in 1981 by Colchester local historian Brian Bird.