A Dream of John Ball - Historical Introduction
I. Political Background, and Narrative of Events
The following narrative has been prepared to assist with the understanding of A Dream of John Ball as related by Morris, and therefore concentrates on the immediate antecedents and early course of the revolt in Kent, while dealing in less detail with events in London and elsewhere, after the insurgent host reached that city.
In 1381 English politics and society were undergoing considerable strain. Besides the social and economic stresses, especially in the agrarian sector, discussed in III. below, that had developed since the Black Death that in 1349-50 had killed up to half the population, the country was faced with the political instability of a royal minority, Richard II having succeeded his grandfather Edward Ill in 1377, aged only ten. While he was under age, the kingdom was governed in his name by a council of nobles and bishops, along with the Crown's chief ministers, the chancellor and treasurer, supervised by the young king's uncles, of whom John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, was the most prominent. Other uncles, Edmund, earl of Cambridge (later duke of York), and Thomas, earl of Buckingham (later duke of Gloucester), led mostly unsuccessful military expeditions in the latest phase of the Hundred Years' War with France, campaigning in which had resumed, after a truce expired, in mid 1377.
During Edward's last years the English had lost to a revived French monarchy most of the lands in Aquitaine (Southwest France) that had been ceded to Edward in 1360. (Morris had in the 1850s portrayed one imagined episode in that defeat in 'Sir Peter Harpdon's End'.) To pay for the fighting the propertied classes which dominated Parliament had experimented in the 1370s, instead of the customary 'tenths and fifteenths' levied on their 'moveable' wealth, with new kinds of taxes which spread the burden of paying for the war over a wider, and poorer, range of the population. The revolts of June 1381 were initially occasioned by the third imposition in four years of such poll taxes.
The first poll tax, ordered in 1377, was at the rate of 4d. (one groat) per head on all adults; the second, in 1379, was on a tariff elaborately graduated by rank and wealth; the third imposed in 1380 was set, however, at 12d. on every adult, aged over fifteen. This was met with widespread evasion: the number of taxpayers reported as liable to pay over the whole country was on average a third less than the government would have expected on the basis of the figures for the population of 1377. So in the spring of 1381 new special commissions, including royal officials and not merely the local men who usually gathered the 'fifteenth', were issued to enforce the collection of the unpaid tax, especially in many counties in Eastern England.
These commissioners met with violent resistance that May in some villages in Southern Essex, which asserted that they had already paid all the tax they owed. Their people attacked and put to flight, first the tax collectors (the 'poll-groat bailiffs' whom Morris mentions) and then the judge sent to punish that resistance. During the first week of June disturbances spread through the Thames-side parishes of Essex and across the river into Northwest Kent. Now the objectives of the rioters began to extend beyond the poll tax and its enforcers to the manorial system by which lords extracted money and labour from their unfree tenants, and there was widespread destruction of the court rolls and other records in which those tenants' obligations were written down.
The peasants' demands, as eventually laid before the king at London in mid-June, included universal release of the unfree from serfdom, the abolition of all lordship save that of the king himself, and the letting of all previously unfree holdings at a fixed rent of 4d. per acre, besides freedom of contract for wage-earners, and the virtual disendowment of the church (probably inspired by John Ball, who had been preaching such a programme for many years). There was, however, no suggestion, except by implication in the sermon ascribed to Ball by Froissart, of any communal ownership of the land or other property, nor indeed that lay landowners be deprived of their estates. Accordingly few of the feudal aristocracy, nobles or gentry, became direct victims of physical violence.
The main objects of the peasants' attacks were the persons and property of the poll tax enforcers; the lawyers and other officers, and the regular jurors, of the royal courts, involved both in upholding manorial rights, and in holding down wages as required by statute since the Black Death of 1349; and the 'traitors' held responsible for the misgovernment of the kingdom while King Richard II was under age, and in particular for ill success in the French war, for which such heavy taxes had been levied and apparently wasted. Chief among such 'traitors' were reckoned, besides John of Gaunt himself, the chancellor, Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury; and the treasurer, Robert Hales, English Prior of the Knights Hospitaller. Accordingly the residences of the duke, the archbishop, and the Hospitallers were among those singled out by the rebels for attack and destruction.
By 6 June the gathering of peasants in western Kent had reached a 'critical mass'. That day, to liberate an imprisoned serf, they attacked, and after a brief resistance captured, Rochester castle, whose constable (governor), Sir John Newton, was soon employed to bear the rebels' messages to the king at London. On 8 June they occupied Maidstone where (then or possibly on 11 June) they released from the archbishop's prison John Ball, who had been shut up there to restrain his subversive preaching. There, too, Wat Tyler of Maidstone emerged as their most prominent leader. Many, including Tyler, then marched eastward to Canterbury, which they entered on 10 June, allegedly intending to replace Sudbury with Ball as its archbishop. They then returned rapidly towards London, presumably along Watling Street. By 12 June the mass of Kentish peasants had assembled on Blackheath, the high ground above Greenwich, where according to one chronicle John Ball preached to them on tl1e text claiming complete equality in the time of Adam and Eve. From there they sent Newton to the king, by then installed with his court at the Tower of London, to invite him to come and discuss their demands.
The government was not in a position to resist them by force: the usual English method of raising an army, which combined the well-born retainers of lords and knights as 'men-at-arms' with archers levied from the communities of the shires, was impracticable, since in most of the shires around London the common people, if they had not actually joined the rebellion, might be suspected of sympathising with it, while the gentry of the area, taken by surprise and isolated, were lying low or had fled. The Crown's only organised force, commanded by the earl of Cambridge, was far away at Plymouth, about to sail to fight in Portugal, and apparently set sail thither in haste before they could be attacked or seduced by supposed rebels in the West Country. At London the government only had available the armed members of the households of the king and the few lords and knights in his company, at most a few hundred men. So the court decided to temporise and negotiate. Probably on 13 June, the king and his chief advisers rowed down the Thames towards Greenwich to meet the peasants, but did not dare to land to speak with them, for fear of the multitude gathered there by the riverside.
Thereupon the peasants marched upon London. The court had probably expected that William Walworth, then mayor of London, and his aldermen, drawn from the wealthier citizens, would be able to keep closed the city gates that opened onto London Bridge. But, whether under pressure from some of the city's poorer inhabitants, or, as was later alleged, by collusion with aldermen who favoured the rebels, those gates were opened and the men of Kent broke into the city, and were joined by many of its people.
Meanwhile the gathered rebels from Essex had assembled just east of the city walls. Later on 13 June, and the next two days, several 'traitors' were killed within the city, usually by beheading, and the Londoners who had joined the rebels massacred many Flemish immigrants (their rivals for work and wages), while Gaunt's sumptuous palace of the Savoy, off the Strand, was sacked and burnt down, and other dwellings of supposed 'traitors' were also fired. No immediate resistance was shown to them, the court not venturing on a night attack on those who had entered the city. On 14 June King Richard emerged from the Tower to meet the men of Essex at Mile End, somewhat further east, where he conciliated them by promising to give their communities charters granting freedom from bondage, along with pardon, many of which were issued over the next two days. The peasants from that county then began to move homewards.
Meanwhile, still on 14 June, some of the rebels, interpreting in their own fashion the king's permission to seize, and perhaps punish, 'traitors', had thrust their way into the Tower, where they seized the chancellor and treasurer, and executed them, with three others, on Tower Hill. A large body of rebels under Tyler, probably from Kent, still held together, and on 15 June the king with a small escort met them, apparently by arrangement, on Smithfield northwest of the city, where he sought to placate them by ostensibly granting the probably increased demands that Tyler then put forward. But the king could not thus persuade Tyler to call on his men to disperse.
An altercation followed, variously reported, in which Tyler allegedly showed insolence to the king or his entourage. Mayor Walworth then attempted to arrest Tyler and wounded him, his death blow being struck by an esquire in the royal escort, whereupon Tyler's followers began to bend their bows against the royal party. The young king bravely rode towards their ranks, trading on the respect that they still felt for his royal office by putting himself forward as their 'captain' in Tyler's place; he was soon saved from his peril by the arrival of well-armed parties of the wealthier citizens, probably already alerted to await the mayor's summons. The disheartened rebels, spared attack, were then escorted under guard back through the city towards their Kentish homes.
Following the rebels' entry into London, rumors of their success had spread throughout the Eastern counties, from Essex and Hertfordshire into Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Norfolk, leading to widespread disorder and challenges to established authority. As already in Kent, there was much score-settling, extortion, and plundering, sometimes for personal gain, by individuals and small bands; the violence involved often culminated in arson, sometimes in slaying.
There were also more collective attacks, particularly on ecclesiastical corporations, such as the university at Cambridge, and the abbeys at Bury St. Edmunds and St. Albans: such monasteries were often especially reluctant to concede freedom to their tenants, whether peasants or townsmen. At St. Albans, from 15 June, the townsmen, led by William Grindecobbe, used threats of violent intervention by Tyler to back up the demands which they made, assailing the abbey's property, for a relaxation of the abbey's control of their economic activities; the abbot, not supported by any armed force, had to negotiate and eventually yielded for a time.
The commons of Norfolk gathered under Geoffrey Litster, a Norwich dyer, on 17 June seized that city, where he humiliated captured knights by making them serve him at table. In turn news of Tyler's death and his men's submission spread through those counties, helping the government gradually to reassert control. Gentry from the Home Counties rallied round the king, enabling him, after perhaps encamping on Blackheath to threaten Kent, to march in force through Essex and Hertfordsbire; he formally cancelled the charters freeing the serfs on 2 July. A band of Essex peasants who had wanted to retain the freedom promised them was defeated and scattered by Buckingham at Billericay on 28 June, as was the main band of those in Norfolk at North Walsham about 26 June; in both cases their improvised entrenchments and barricades were apparently overcome by cavalry charges.
The repression that followed was relatively mild for the period, by comparison, for instance, with the indiscriminate slaughter and ravaging with which the knighthood of Northern France had taken revenge on their peasantry, when they rose in the Jacquerie of May-June 1358, recalled by Morris in 'Concerning Geoffray Teste Noire' (lines 96-120). Apparently some leaders, including Jack Straw, were summarily executed at London in mid June, and John Ball himself, taken in flight at Coventry, was tried and put to death at St. Albans, while the king was there, on 15 July.
Despite the suggestion in the English chronicles that the new Chief Justice, Robert Tresilian, presided over 'bloody assizes' throughout the rebel counties, the rebels' trials were handled by the normal legal procedures, so that they were indicted and tried by local juries. Only a minority even of those accused suffered death; barely 100 hangings were reported in the surviving (incomplete) legal records, and almost 300 former rebels (half Londoners) notorious enough to be excluded from the general pardon offered in the following parliament of 1381-82, were presumably then alive and probably at large. Most offenders, even those convicted of serious offences, got off with paying fines, or buying the pardon thus offered. The possessing classes had, however, been sufficiently alarmed by the rising to refrain from further attempts to extend taxation to the labouring classes, while the decline of serfdom, already in progress for economic reasons, continued.
The medieval evidence for the revolt is available in The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, ed. R.B. Dobson (1970), which contains, in translation, extensive extracts, organised by date and topic, from the medieval chronicles covering the period of the Revolt, with a selection of the documents which supplement those narratives. Morris's own principal source, Lord Berners's translation of Froissart's Chronicles, originally published 1523-25, was reprinted in the original spelling in the Tudor Translation series, ed. W.P. Ker, (6 vols. 1901-3, repr, 8 vols. 1927-28). A selection in modernised spelling, the pages from which covering the Revolt are reproduced with this edition, was edited by G. C. Macaulay (1895). Morris might also have looked at the complete translation by Thomas Johnes, orig. published by his Hafod Press, 1803-10, which used some manuscripts. (A reprint of 1839 has been consulted for this edition.) But though Morris could read medieval French, he will not have thought it necessary, since he was writing a tale, not a history, to study the 19th-century editions of the French text of Froissart based, not like Berners on the early printed versions, but on manuscripts, issued in France (ed. S. Luce others, 1869 onwards) and Belgium (ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, 1867-77), on which modern translations, such as those in Penguin Classics, are based. (Chapter numbering in such editions also varies from those in Berners and Johnes.)
The most recent study of the Revolt by itself is still The English Rising of 1381, ed. R.H. Hilton and T. H. Aston (1981). Fuller accounts of the course of the Revolt can be found in M. McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399 (1959), pp. 406-23; G. Harris, Shaping the Nation 1360-1461 (2005), pp. 229-34, 447-49; and N. Saul, Richard II (1997), pp. 56-82. The French War is related in detail by J. Sumption, The Hundred Years' War, II, Trial by Fire (1999), incl. chap. vii, pp. 327-36, covering the Jacquerie, and chaps. vii, x, and xi, on the Free Companies, also discussed in Sumption, Divided Houses (2009), vol. 3, chap. xiv; chaps. ix and x treat the English revolt and contemporary risings in Flanders and France. The king's most prominent uncle's career is described in A. Goodman, John of Gaunt (1995), and English fighting practises of the 14th century in M. Prestwich, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience (1996).
II. Comparison of Morris's Narrative with Events as Now Understood by Historians
In writing A Dream of John Ball Morris was not engaged, as a historian would be, in producing an accurate reconstruction of the events of June 1381, using all available sources for that purpose. Rather he was creating a political fable to instruct and inspire Socialists, enfolded in a lively narrative, based on one particular source, Froissart's chronicle, that he had known and loved since the 1850s, and supplementing it from his wider general knowledge, gathered over thirty years, of medieval society, to make his tale plausible. Nevertheless the discrepancies, first carefully noted by Margaret Grennan in 1945 [[WMMR pp. 98 and following]], between his narrative and that established by later research cast interesting light on his interpretation of the Revolt, and his adjusting the story to fit his political agenda of the 1880s. This discussion treats both of the events actually reported in A Dream, and of the future developments suggested in Jack Straw's 'plan of campaign' for the peasants [[JB pp. 234-35]] or prophesied by the Dreamer to the priest in the church [[JB p. 247 and following]], along with Morris's narratives of 1884 and 1888 in "The Lord Mayor's Show" and Watt Tyler" [WMH pp. 132-36, 141-42] of events at London, which he presumably had in mind when writing his tale.
1. The Causes of the Revolt.
In using Froissart as his principal source Morris was better enabled to present the rising as chiefly caused through class conflict as understood in Marxist theory, provoked by the oppression of the peasantry by their feudal lords, standing in for Victorian capitalists. Froissart treats the exaction of labour services from tenants by such lords as the main ground for their susceptibility to Ball's egalitarian preaching. His supposition that there were legally more of such serfs 'in England than in any other realm' may have been justified by his own experience: over much of western Europe, including Northern France and Western Germany, the direct exploitation of the peasantry through working on their lords' demesnes had been gradually superseded from the 12th century by payment of rents, coupled with tenants, though personally free, being required to use, and pay for using, communal facilities such as mills and bakeries in their lords' possession, a system of exactions that in France survived to be resented and abolished as 'feudal' at the French Revolution. Froissart thought, wrongly, that personal serfdom was as common in Kent as elsewhere in England [[see note to JB p. 218]], which lets Morris show his Kentish villagers, though he admits they are more prosperous than those north of the Thames, still sharing a common cause in the struggle for freedom from serfdom.
Also Froissart says nothing (and Walsingham very little) of the poll tax as the immediate occasion of the revolt, nor much about the popular resentment of the recent, wasted heavy taxation. At most he reports the rebels as seeking an account from the archbishop-chancellor of the 'riches' thus levied from them. So Morris too can avoid mentioning those taxes, apart from passing references [[e.g. JB p. 205]] to the 'poll-groat bailiffs', one of whom the 'valiant tiler of Dartford' has slain for 'mishandling' his daughter. (Reports were already current in 1381 of such tax-collectors threatening to molest girls, presumably on the pretext of checking their sexual maturity, (Dobson PR p. 135), but the legend of the Dartford tiler, whom Morris only in 1888 definitely identified with Wat Tyler (WMH p. 141) was only put into circulation by John Stow shortly before 1600: Dobson PR p. 395 n. (Morris might reasonably have argued that by mid June, the time that he was portraying, it was freedom from lordship that was the focus of interest for such villagers as he was describing, even in Kent, and certainly elsewhere.) However, Froissart does make clear the peasants' hatred of, and attacks on, men of the law, giving Morris good ground [[JB pp. 46, 58]] for putting lawyers and their hangers-on among their enemies in the battle outside the village.
2. The Course of the Revolt in Kent.
Having no detailed information from chronicles or documents about the development of the rising in early June in Kent or Essex, Morris follows Froissart in beginning his narrative of the peasants' movements with their occupation of Canterbury on 10 June, ignoring what had already happened in west Kent. He naturally supposed that the archbishop's prison where Ball was confined was at his ostensible headquarters at that city, not, as Knighton indicates (Dobson PR p. 136), at Maidstone, a west Kent town under the archbishop's lordship. Morris was probably encouraged in placing Ball at Canterbury by Froissart's suggestion that the archbishop was being sought there at Ball's suggestion. (The archbishop did have a palace at Canterbury, close to the cathedral, which Froissart reports as being plundered (Dobson PR p. 140) and Morris supposes to have been fired [[JB p. 27]], but his more important base was then, as now, at Lambeth.) Morris correctly guesses that there was some plundering of Canterbury's town hall (cf. Dobson PR p. 146), a possible source for the shining armor stripped from its magistrates, the two bailiffs, to be worn by two men stationed with the peasants' banner. [[JB p. 44]]
As Margaret Grennan also notes [[WMMR p. 100]], Morris, like Froissart, puts the rebel attack on Rochester castle, and their capture of Sir John Newton, to whose mission to the king, foreseen for Morris by Jack Straw [[JB p. 70]], the chronicler devotes so much space, on their march westward from Canterbury, the only one that Morris knows of, not on its actual date of 6 June. Thus for Morris's villagers Newton and his presumed garrison are still on that Wednesday a potential danger. [[JB p. 44]]. (Actually most English castles at that time would have contained few fighting men, their occupants serving usually as gaolers or virtual caretakers, rather than providing a viable military force for action outside.) So Morris is able to place the village where his tale is set a little east of the Medway and on the near side of Rochester; and he shows fresh numbers of insurgents still coming in on the evening after the battle, and expecting to march with the villagers on the morrow for Blackheath and London, following the 'pilgrimage road', the main one between London and Canterbury, along which not long after Chaucer sent his imagined pilgrims riding. [[JB pp. 70-72]] (This is not to be confused with the 'Pilgrims' Way, a route from Hampshire to Canterbury along the ridge of the North Downs.)
Morris's most striking, and deliberate, divergence from the recorded course of the revolt, as Margaret Grennan notices, [[WMMR pp. 98-9]] is in inventing the substantial fight 'at the town's end', for which even Froissart provides no support. There is no record of any attempt to organise armed resistance to the banded peasants anywhere in southern England before Tyler's killing. Even thereafter the first effective attacks on them outside London were those led by the bishop of Norwich, who was able to levy a small force west of the Fens beyond the areas affected by the Revolt. Morris allows indeed his John Ball to admit [[JB p. 42]] that there is 'little force between Canterbury and Kingston' (on Thames, south-west of London), though suggesting that the court was concentrating its troops to face the Essex rebels. Morris has conjured out of thin air a force of 300 to provide his peasants with a victory vividly and satisfactorily exemplifying the successful violence sometimes needed in revolutionary struggles. (For his probable sources for the course of the fighting, see [[note VII on Battle]]). Even the leadership of the opposing force, the sheriff who is killed and the two knights, is largely fictitious.
One surprising element of Morris's narrative is his almost complete omission, (cf. Grennan WMMR p. 99), of the Kentish peasants' most famous leader Wat Tyler, whom Froissart regularly names as the first of a threefold leadership, with Jack Straw and John Ball, of the rising in that county, and at London: eg Dobson PR pp. 138-39, 188, 191-93. Morris only mentions him in the Dream, [[JB p. 42]] with no support from any record, as heading rebels in Essex, though in his articles in Commonweal he does full justice to Tyler's prominence in the closing days of the Revolt. As for Morris's suggestion that 'Jack Straw' was an assumed name for the peasant leader of his story, there is some slight evidence for the separate existence of an actual individual of that name (cf. Dobson, PR pp. 147, 171, 206, 308, 366), even though few distinct actions are ascribed to him. (But for a proposal that 'Jack Straw' was indeed a 'masonic' name of a member or dependent of a minor Kent gentry family, see M. V. Clarke, Fourteenth Century Studies (1937), pp. 95-97.)
Morris may initially have been uncertain about the actual timing of the rising within 1381. In Froissart he will have seen events only set out as occurring from a Monday to a Saturday around the feast of Corpus Christi. Morris did not, like present-day historians, have the handbooks which help them rapidly to convert from the customary medieval dating by weekdays related to holy days to the modem system using days of the month. Moreover Corpus Christi is the latest in the series of holy feasts moveable with the date of Easter; it was fixed for the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday (the second after Whitsun), by Pope Urban IV only in 1264, and can fall on any date from 21 May to 24 June. Being devoted to the corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament, it was excluded from the Anglican version of that cycle of feasts (it was not included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer), and although some Anglo-Catholics, heirs of the Oxford Movement, may have honoured it in the late 19th century, Morris, brought up in a zealously Protestant household, would not have internalised, when young, its likely dating even to a particular month, as he might have done for Easter or Whitsun. So it is not snrprising that, in his first version of A Dream, in Commonweal, 1886-87, he placed the Revolt in late summer, and had to alter references to flowers then in season to ones appearing in June when revising his text for publication in book form. Also Morris did not look carefully enough at Walsingham to notice the calendar dates in June/July there recorded for documents issued by the royal chancery, according to its normal practice.
As to the internal chronology of Morris's tale, its details begin implicitly with the liberation of John Ball from his prison at Canterbury which Morris, following Froissart's accurate dating for the rebels' arrival there, will have assumed to be on a Monday, and which is twice stated [[JB pp. 27, 31]] to have been 'three days agone' at the time of his speech to the villagers. Ball also sets that speech [[JB p. 36]] on 'this fair eve of holiday', which presumably is to be taken as the day before the Thursday of Corpus Christi, the three days since his release being taken as inclusive. So Morris only allows three more days for the whole tumultuous series of events in Kent and at London, culminating in Tyler's killing at Smithfield, which Morris knew in 1884 [[WMH p. 135]] was on the following Saturday. Margaret Grennan, [[WMMR p. 100]], wisely notes the difference of timing: on that Wednesday, historically 12 June, Ball should have been preaching to the massed peasants at Blackheath, or on the way thither, not speaking at the cross of a single Kentish village. She also sees [[cf. JB pp. 13-14]] that the narrator could hardly have then been aware of the impending risings at St. Albans and Norwich, which only broke out after the rebels entered London on the Thursday.
4. Further developments in the Revolt
Morris's Jack Straw expects the peasants to have little difficulty in penetrating across London Bridge. Froissart will have shown him that the commoners within the city forced the gates onto it to be opened for them, [[cf. JB p. 95]] though Morris does not follow that author in suggesting that the peasants' march on London was actively incited by any Londoners: Dobson, PR pp. 137-39. Froissart may have supposed this from his experience of the domination of the Flemish countryside by the great commercial cities there. Morris shows also [[JB pp. 59-60, 70-71]] his awareness of the rebels' prime object being a direct appeal to the king for a remedy for their oppression by intermediate authorities, combined with repeated affirmations of loyalty to him, sufficiently shown in Froissart, as in other chronicles. The tale's Jack Straw is, rightly, rather more sceptical of the sincerity of any concessions ('soft words') that might be offered to the people, and almost foreseeing of the defeat that they were to suffer from trusting in the promises made to them by or for the king. The Dreamer too tells John Ball that it will be through 'lack of knowledge' that after an apparent victory they will be 'cozened and betrayed when their captains are slain' and their project defeated. [[JB pp. 98-99]]
In his actual narratives of the sequel in 1884 and 1888 Morris is clearly scornful of the 'immaterial guarantees', and the 'lies and empty promises' with which the peasants were beguiled, [[WMH pp. 134, 136]] and claims that Tyler was treacherously assassinated. He is not entirely correct about the circumstances of Tyler's killing, apparently following Thorold Rogers's (mis)understanding (cf. Six Centuries, pp. 256-62) of Froissart's text (that the royal party was riding 'without London') to assume that the king was trying to quit the city when he accidentally encountered Tyler's men at Smithfield [[WMH p. 142]]. But it is clear that the government did not intend to keep whatever carefully qualified promises it had made to induce the peasants to disperse, and proposed, having persuaded them to leave London, to arrest and execute their leaders, even though Tyler's actual killingmay not have been plotted in advance. Morris might have known from Green that in the subsequent parliament the king's council acquiesced in the lords' insistence that the king was not entitled without their consent to set free men who were their property.
5. John Ball's message: history into myth?
How far is Morris's presentation of his priest as a prophet of social and economic equality, and even of a communist society, potentially accurate? The early accounts of Ball, that give any detail of his teaching (Dobson PR pp. 128, 374) emphasise his hostility to the higher, propertied clergy and desire to abolish their ranks, leaving only one bishop for the whole kingdom, who, his enemies claimed, was to be Ball himself, and to have their property divided among the people, allowing the surviving priests and monks a bare subsistence while they lived: cf. Dobson PR pp. 164-5. Ball also apparently said that people need only pay tithes to their priests if they were both poorer than, and morally superior to, the tithe-payers. Such emphasis on apostolic poverty and moral goodness as required qualifications for the clergy had been developed by the 'Spiritual' party among the Franciscan friars since the late 13th century, and was to be vigorously taken up, along with programmes to disendow the church, by the Lollards from the 1390s. Ball's opponents did not hesitate to brand him, probably wrongly, as a follower of the Lollards' 'founder' John Wycliffe: Dobson PRpp. 374-78. But advocacy by Ball of equality among the whole people, including the laity, and even of community of property is reported only by Walsingham in his account of Ball's Blackheath sermon (Dobson, PR p. 375), and by Froissart in the account, in whose wording Morris so much delighted, of Ball's supposed preaching to the people before the Revolt broke out.
The idea that there had been no individual ownership in Paradise before the Fall, and presumably just after it when the first man and woman were delving and spinning for themselves, was a commonplace of Christian doctrine, and had been since the early church: private property, sharing out unequally what would naturally otherwise have been available in common for the whole of humanity, along with actual slavery, was considered a result of, and a remedy for, sin, preventing the disputes that might arise among self-regarding men. But those with possessions were required to be generous in their giving those without. Any attempt to restore, in the actual condition of humanity since the Fall, such a theoretical equality would have been thought undesirable, even heretical. William Langland, indeed, in Piers Plowman, (B text, passus B, lines 270-72; probably written in the late 1370s) alleges that some friars in his time were putting forward, on the basis of fragments of classical philosophy, the doctrine (which he rejected) 'that all things under heaven ought to be in common' (spelling modernised), so the idea ascribed to John Ball that 'everything be common' was clearly in circulation at that time.
Ball's main emphasis in both chroniclers' reports, however, is on the abolition of the artificial inequality between lords and serfs, men 'created equal by nature'. His affecting contrast, as described by Froissart, between the luxury of the rich and the miseries of the enserfed poor, was indeed also a commonplace of the pulpit at that time (See Owst, Literature and Pulpit, pp. 287-307), when the most orthodox preachers rebuked the rich for their unfeeling enjoyment of a life supported through oppressing or neglecting poor folk equally descended from Adam, the rich not being the product of a separate creation. [[cf JB p. 36]]. Morris would also have found in Chaucer's Parson's Tale, if he read that poet's prose as well his verse, an assertion, (linked to rebukes, that Chaucer apparently added to his source, of lords who exploited their 'bondmen'), that lords and 'churls' came from the same 'seed': Chaucer, Works, ed. F.N. Robinson (1957), p. 252. (The preachers cited by Owst are English; but Froissart could probably have heard similar sermons in the churches of France or Flanders, enabling him to flesh out in biting words whatever reports he had heard of Ball's preaching.) The difference between John Ball and such conventional preachers is that they expected the heavy retribution that would befall the unjust rich men to happen in the next life, or at the Last Judgement, whereas Ball, if correctly reported, envisaged it as capable of being achieved in the present life by an actual equalisation of social conditions. Possibly he was led on by enthusiasm in the face of the apparent collapse of seigniorial authority in Southern England in June 1381 to extend his previous ambition for levelling in the church to the whole of society.
It should he noted too that some narrative accounts of the Revolt, composed by men panicked at a sudden breakdown of the order in which they were dominant, and including a confession fathered on Jack Straw [Dobson PR pp. 364-6], ascribe to the rebels a project, not confirmed by their reported demands or actual recorded actions, for the violent annihilation of all their social superiors both lay and clerical: e.g. Dobson PR pp. 131, 136, 177, 375. Froissart too (Dobson PR p. 141), comparing the English revolt with the contemporaneous urban ones in Flanders and France, supposes that it would have resulted in the destruction of the noble class whom he admired. It would not therefore be unreasonable for Morris to present the peasants under Ball's influence as aiming at a state of substantial social equality, with no ranks or wealth above those of peasant and craftsman, though not at such a condition of actual communal possession, as Ball's final words [[JB p. 40]] might imply.
III. Medieval English 'Feudalism' and its Fate.