William Morris Archive


“Brother,” said John Ball, “how deemest thou of our adventure? I do not ask thee if thou thinkest we are right to play the play like men, but whether playing like men we shall fail like men.”

“Why dost thou ask me?” said I; “how much further than beyond this church can I see?” “Far further,” quoth he, “for I wot that thou art a scholar and hast read books; and withal, in some way that I cannot name, thou knowest more than we; as though with thee the world had lived longer than with us. Hide not, therefore, what thou hast in thine heart, for I think after this night I shall see thee no more, until we meet in the heavenly Fellowship.”

“Friend,” I said, “ask me what thou wilt; or rather ask thou the years to come to tell thee some little of their tale; and yet methinks thou thyself mayest have some deeming thereof.”

He raised himself on the elbow of the stall and looked me full in the face, and said to me: “Is it so after all that thou art no man in the flesh, but art sent to me by the Master of the Fellowship, and the King’s Son of Heaven, to tell me what shall be? If that be so tell me straight out, since I had some deeming hereof before; whereas thy speech is like ours and yet unlike, and thy face hath something in it which is not after the fashion of our day. And yet take heed, if thou art such an one, I fear thee not, nay, nor him that sent thee; nor for thy bidding, nor for his, will I turn back from London Bridge but will press on, for I do what is meet and right.”

“Nay,” said I, “did I not tell thee e’en now that I knew life but not death? I am not dead; and as to who hath sent me, I say not that I am come by my own will; for I know not; yet also I know not the will that hath sent me hither. And this I say to thee, moreover, that if I know more than thou, I do far less; therefore thou art my captain and I thy minstrel.”

He sighed as one from whom a weight had been lifted, and said: “Well, then, since thou art alive on the earth and a man like myself, tell me how deemest thou of our adventure: shall we come to London, and how shall we fare there?”

Said I, “What shall hinder you to come to London, and to fare there as ye will? For be sure that the Fellowship in Essex shall not fail you; nor shall the Londoners who hate the king’s uncles withstand you; nor hath the Court any great force to meet you in the field; ye shall cast fear and trembling into their hearts.”

“Even so, I thought,” said he; “but afterwards what shall betide?”

Said I, “It grieves my heart to say that which I think. Yet hearken; many a man’s son shall die who is now alive and happy, and if the soldiers be slain, and of them most not on the field, but by the lawyers, how shall the captains escape? Surely thou goest to thy death.”

He smiled very sweetly, yet proudly, as he said: “Yea, the road is long, but the end cometh at last. Friend, many a day have I been dying; for my sister, with whom I have played and been merry in the autumn tide about the edges of the stubble–fields; and we gathered the nuts and bramble–berries there, and started thence the missel–thrush, and wondered at his voice and thought him big; and the sparrow–hawk wheeled and turned over the hedges and the weasel ran across the path, and the sound of the sheep–bells came to us from the downs as we sat happy on the grass; and she is dead and gone from the earth, for she pined from famine after the years of the great sickness; and my brother was slain in the French wars, and none thanked him for dying save he that stripped him of his gear; and my unwedded wife with whom I dwelt in love after I had taken the tonsure, and all men said she was good and fair, and true she was and lovely; she also is dead and gone from the earth; and why should I abide save for the deeds of the flesh which must be done? Truly, friend, this is but an old tale that men must die; and I will tell thee another, to wit, that they live: and I live now and shall live. Tell me then what shall befall.”

Somehow I could not heed him as a living man as much as I had done, and the voice that came from me seemed less of me as I answered:

“These men are strong and valiant as any that have been or shall be, and good fellows also and kindly; but they are simple, and see no great way before their own noses. The victory shall they have and shall not know what to do with it; they shall fight and overcome, because of their lack of knowledge, and because of their lack of knowledge shall they be cozened and betrayed when their captains are slain, and all shall come to nought by seeming; and the king’s uncles shall prevail, that both they and the king may come to the shame that is appointed for them. And yet when the lords have vanquished, and all England lieth under them again, yet shall their victory be fruitless; for the free men that hold unfree lands shall they not bring under the collar again, and villeinage shall slip from their hands, till there be, and not long after ye are dead, but few unfree men in England; so that your lives and your deaths both shall bear fruit.”

“Said I not,” quoth John Ball, “that thou wert a sending from other times? Good is thy message, for the land shall be free. Tell on now.”

He spoke eagerly, and I went on somewhat sadly: “The times shall better, though the king and lords shall worsen, the Gilds of Craft shall wax and become mightier; more recourse shall there be of foreign merchants. There shall be plenty in the land and not famine. Where a man now earneth two pennies he shall earn three.”

“Yea,” said he, “then shall those that labour become strong and stronger, and so soon shall it come about that all men shall work and none make to work, and so shall none be robbed, and at last shall all men labour and live and be happy, and have the goods of the earth without money and without price.”

“Yea,” said I, “that shall indeed come to pass, but not yet for a while, and belike a long while.”

And I sat for long without speaking, and the church grew darker as the moon waned yet more.

Then I said: “Bethink thee that these men shall yet have masters over them, who have at hand many a law and custom for the behoof of masters, and being masters can make yet more laws in the same behoof; and they shall suffer poor people to thrive just so long as their thriving shall profit the mastership and no longer; and so shall it be in those days I tell of; for there shall be king and lords and knights and squires still, with servants to do their bidding, and make honest men afraid; and all these will make nothing and eat much as aforetime, and the more that is made in the land the more shall they crave.”

“Yea,” said he, “that wot I well, that these are of the kin of the daughters of the horse–leech; but how shall they slake their greed, seeing that as thou sayest villeinage shall be gone? Belike their men shall pay them quit–rents and do them service, as free men may, but all this according to law and not beyond it; so that though the workers shall be richer than they now be, the lords shall be no richer, and so all shall be on the road to being free and equal.”

Said I, “Look you, friend; aforetime the lords, for the most part, held the land and all that was on it, and the men that were on it worked for them as their horses worked, and after they were fed and housed all was the lords’; but in the time to come the lords shall see their men thriving on the land and shall say once more, ‘These men have more than they need, why have we not the surplus since we are their lords?’ Moreover, in those days shall betide much chaffering for wares between man and man, and country and country; and the lords shall note that if there were less corn and less men on their lands there would be more sheep, that is to say more wool for chaffer, and that thereof they should have abundantly more than aforetime; since all the land they own, and it pays them quit–rent or service, save here and there a croft or a close of a yeoman; and all this might grow wool for them to sell to the Easterlings. Then shall England see a new thing, for whereas hitherto men have lived on the land and by it, the land shall no longer need them, but many sheep and a few shepherds shall make wool grow to be sold for money to the Easterlings, and that money shall the lords pouch: for, look you, they shall set the lawyers a–work and the strong hand moreover, and the land they shall take to themselves and their sheep; and except for these lords of land few shall be the free men that shall hold a rood of land whom the word of their lord may not turn adrift straightway.”

“How mean you?” said John Ball: “shall all men be villeins again?”

“Nay,” said I, “there shall be no villeins in England.”

“Surely then,” said he, “it shall be worse, and all men save a few shall be thralls to be bought and sold at the cross.”

“Good friend,” said I, “it shall not be so; all men shall be free even as ye would have it; yet, as I say, few indeed shall have so much land as they can stand upon save by buying such a grace of their masters.”

“And now,” said he, “I wot not what thou sayest. I know a thrall, and he is his master’s every hour, and never his own; and a villein I know, and whiles he is his own and whiles his lord’s; and I know a free man, and he is his own always; but how shall he be his own if he have nought whereby to make his livelihood? Or shall he be a thief and take from others? Then is he an outlaw. Wonderful is this thou tellest of a free man with nought whereby to live!”

“Yet so it shall be,” said I, “and by such free men shall all wares be made.”

“Nay, that cannot be; thou art talking riddles,” said he; “for how shall a woodwright make a chest without the wood and the tools?”

Said I, “He must needs buy leave to labour of them that own all things except himself and such as himself.”

“Yea, but wherewith shall he buy it?” said John Ball. “What hath he except himself?”

“With himself then shall he buy it,” quoth I, “with his body and the power of labour that lieth therein; with the price of his labour shall he buy leave to labour.”

“Riddles again!” said he; “how can he sell his labour for aught else but his daily bread? He must win by his labour meat and drink and clothing and housing! Can he sell his labour twice over?”

“Not so,” said I, “but this shall he do belike; he shall sell himself, that is the labour that is in him, to the master that suffers him to work, and that master shall give to him from out of the wares he maketh enough to keep him alive, and to beget children and nourish them till they be old enough to be sold like himself, and the residue shall the rich man keep to himself.”

John Ball laughed aloud, and said: “Well, I perceive we are not yet out of the land of riddles. The man may well do what thou sayest and live, but he may not do it and live a free man.”

“Thou sayest sooth,” said I.

Continue to Chapter 11
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Notes on Chapter 10 by Peter Wright

p. 248 para. 4 the king's uncles

Richard II had three surviving uncles, John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley, and Thomas of Woodstock. For their actions about 1381, see also [[ Historical Introduction, I. Political Narrative, paragraphs 1 and 4 ]] The two younger, Edmund, earl of Cambridge, and Thomas, earl of Buckingham, created in 1385 respectively dukes of York and Gloucester, were not necessarily unpopular. Thomas was the only royal uncle to end with 'shame' [[see p. 249, paragraph 3]]. In 1386-88 he led the noble opposition, styled the Lords Appellant, to Richard's system of personal rule, and had several of the king's closest friends executed or exiled. In revenge Richard eventually had him arrested and put to death in 1397: he was smothered while imprisoned at Calais. His two elder brothers, however, died 'full of years and honour' in 1399 and 1402.

The eldest, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, was certainly unpopular in 1381. In 1376-77 he had supported the clique of courtiers and merchants accused of mismanaging the by then senile Edward III's affairs, while helping themselves out of his revenues. He was especially unpopular with the Londoners, having tried in those years to interfere with their powers of civic self-government, and also having supported John Wycliffe when the bishop of London attempted to put him on trial for heresy. In June 1381 the rebels destroyed his luxurious London palace of the Savoy and attacked several of his dependents: a friar captured in the Tower was beheaded just for being Lancaster's physician: Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, p. 162. The duke was luckily for himself away on the Scots border negotiating a truce. (He briefly took refuge among the Scots on hearing, wrongly, that the king had accepted the peasants' demand for his death.)

King Richard himself was deposed in 1399 by his cousin, Gaunt's son, Henry of Lancaster (later Henry IV), and probably done to death in his prison early in 1400, after a plot to restore him had failed.

Para. 6 slain ... by the lawyers

Morris would have read in Froissart of 1,500 executions after the revolt. Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, p. 316, and other chroniclers also suggest a judicial 'reign of terror' with many deaths; Dobson, pp. 312-14. For a much lower estimate of deaths, based on surviving (incomplete) records of trials, Dobson, p. 319; cf. [[ Historical Introduction, I. Political Narrative, paragraph 7. ]]

Thou goest to thy death

The historical John Ball was captured at Coventry and taken to St. Albans for execution in mid July 1381: Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, p. 314.

Para. 7 famine after the great sickness

If Morris looked at Rogers's annual summary of his statistics for corn prices, he would have found (History of Agriculture and Prices, vol. 1, pp. 208-209) that they rose sharply, indicating poor harvests, in the years, 1350-52, just after the Black Death: see also table (based on Rogers) in C. Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (1989), pp. 262-63. But this dramatic invention may be just a fortunate guess.

p.249 para. 1 my unwedded wife . .. the tonsure

Strictly in church law, clerks who, having taken their 'first tonsure', had received the four lower ecclesiastical orders (below subdeacon), were allowed to marry, but not permitted to hold church benefices. Morris clearly means that Ball had taken or kept his wife after he was ordained priest.

Para. 3 when their captains are slain

Morris believed that Wat Tyler's killing resulted from deliberate treachery (William Morris on History, p. 142), and several modern historians think that it was planned in advance.

Para. 5 the Gilds of Craft shall wax

Morris may have exaggerated the effect of such gilds in promoting social or political equality. Although they did give their full members greater power over their working lives, they were seldom involved in creating greater participation in government even within towns,* still less outside them. If Morris read Green's widow Alice's Town Life in the 15th Century (published 1894), he would have found gilds stigmatised as combinations to advance the interests of the masters against both their customers and their employees, and as being as much controlled by their wealthier members as the town governments. He himself realised (William Morris on History, pp. 123, 151, 158) that by this period many trained craftsmen could not become masters and had to work for life as journeymen hired for wages.

It is not clear what Morris means by king and lords 'worsening': given the implied antithesis this should signify losing power rather than becoming more oppressive, but although the power of the Crown did weaken briefly during the dynastic struggles of the mid 15th century, even he should have admitted that it grew again under the Tudors.

*Apparently it was only in London, c. 1376-84, and in York, in the 15th century, that the 'common councils' set up in the later Middle Ages to counterbalance the oligarchic powers of mayor and aldermen were organised through gilds. Elsewhere such new councils were set up through a wider movement among the less wealthy burgesses: cf. Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. 1, 600-1540, ed. D. M. Palliser (2000), pp. 404-66; D. M. Palliser, Tudor York (1979), pp. 67-68.

p. 249 para. 5 where a man now earns ...

By the late 15th century, owing to a combination of falling prices, especially for food, and rising wages, the ordinary labourer was more prosperous than he was to be for many centuries afterwards. Rogers described that period as the 'golden age of the labourer'. See C. Dyer, Standards of Living,chap. 8, esp. table on pp. 215, 217, and p. 216 for quote from Rogers. (The lower prices were less advantageous for small farmers, who had to pay from selling their corn for goods that they could not grow themselves.)

p. 250 para. 5 daughters of the horseleech

Cf. Proverbs, chap. 30, v. 15.

p. 250 para. 6 to p. 251 para. 1

less corn ... more sheep ... more wool ... a few shepherds ... wool .. to be sold to the Easterlings

Here Morris is mistaken in detail, but not in the general thrust of his argument. He would have learnt, perhaps originally from More's Utopia, book I, (cf. William Morris on History, p. 124) how landowners, presumably during the 15th century, were expelling cultivators of corn to make room for increased sheep flocks yielding profitable wool, so that sheep became 'eaters of men'. Actually exports of wool declined sharply between the mid 14th century and the late 15th to barely a third of the earlier amount, and the increased production of wool went largely to the growing English cloth industry, in the export of whose products the Hanse merchants had about a fifth share, whereas they had exported little or no wool since the early 1300s. (In the 15th century the export of wool, except to Italy, had become a monopoly of the merchants of the Staple at Calais.) See T. H. Lloyd, English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages (1977), esp. chaps. 7-8, and England and the German Hanse(1991).

The result of this demand for wool was that many villages, particularly in the Midlands (usually those already weakened through lack of wealth and population), were depopulated by their lords about 1450-90 to make way for sheep pastures. The classic study is Maurice Beresford, Lost Villages of England (1954/63), esp. chaps. 5-7; for a more recent discussion, E. B. Fryde, Peasants and Landlords in Later Medieval England (1996), chap. 12). Attempts to restrain such activities by legislation, arising less from compassion for the expelled villagers than for fear of losing corn production and potential fighting men, were made only from about 1490 after the main wave of destruction had passed. (In his comments in his historical essays, e.g. William Morris on History, pp. 88, 124-25, Morris exaggerates the extent of expropriation of small farmers and expulsion of labourers to the towns in the 16th century.)

p. 251 para, 1 the free men ... the word of their lord

Strictly the potential victims of such expulsion were not free men as such, but the tenants, usually by then personally free, occupying as 'copyhold' land possessed in villeinage by their unfree predecessors; their title was not at that period protected by the common law like that of freeholders, so that lords of manors could more easily find legal pretexts to drive them out. A few cases were reported where a whole community was thus expelled. Cf. Fryde, Peasants and Landlords, chaps. 15-16.

Para. 5 an outlaw

In medieval English law a man convicted (usually in absence) of crimes punishable by death (which included robbery), or who failed, after due (and prolonged) summonses to appear in court to answer such charges, could be outlawed, deprived of the protection of the law. Originally he could be killed by anyone who encountered him, and until the early 13th century would be summarily executed when captured. Morris is here probably thinking primarily of the exclusion from society involved.