A Dream of John Ball - Chapter 7
MORE WORDS AT THE CROSS
I got into my old place again on the steps of the cross, Will Green beside me, and above me John Ball and Jack Straw again. The moon was half–way up the heavens now, and the short summer night had begun, calm and fragrant, with just so much noise outside our quiet circle as made one feel the world alive and happy.
We waited silently until we had heard John Ball and the story of what was to do; and presently he began to speak.
“Good people, it is begun, but not ended. Which of you is hardy enough to wend the road to London to–morrow?”
“All! All!” they shouted.
“Yea,” said he, “even so I deemed of you. Yet forsooth hearken! London is a great and grievous city; and mayhappen when ye come thither it shall seem to you overgreat to deal with, when ye remember the little townships and the cots ye came from.
“Moreover, when ye dwell here in Kent ye think forsooth of your brethren in Essex or Suffolk, and there belike an end. But from London ye may have an inkling of all the world, and over–burdensome maybe shall that seem to you, a few and a feeble people.
“Nevertheless I say to you, remember the Fellowship, in the hope of which ye have this day conquered; and when ye come to London be wise and wary; and that is as much as to say, be bold and hardy; for in these days are ye building a house which shall not be overthrown, and the world shall not be too great or too little to hold it: for indeed it shall be the world itself, set free from evil–doers for friends to dwell in.”
He ceased awhile, but they hearkened still, as if something more was coming. Then he said:
“To–morrow we shall take the road for Rochester; and most like it were well to see what Sir John Newton in the castle may say to us: for the man is no ill man, and hath a tongue well–shapen for words; and it were well that we had him out of the castle and away with us, and that we put a word in his mouth to say to the King. And wot ye well, good fellows, that by then we come to Rochester we shall be a goodly company, and ere we come to Blackheath a very great company; and at London Bridge who shall stay our host?
“Therefore there is nought that can undo us except our own selves and our hearkening to soft words from those who would slay us. They shall bid us go home and abide peacefully with our wives and children while they, the lords and councillors and lawyers, imagine counsel and remedy for us; and even so shall our own folly bid us; and if we hearken thereto we are undone indeed; for they shall fall upon our peace with war, and our wives and children they shall take from us, and some of us they shall hang, and some they shall scourge, and the others shall be their yoke–beasts—yea, and worse, for they shall lack meat more.
“To fools hearken not, whether they be yourselves or your foemen, for either shall lead you astray.
“With the lords parley not, for ye know already what they would say to you, and that is, ‘Churl, let me bridle thee and saddle thee, and eat thy livelihood that thou winnest, and call thee hard names because I eat thee up; and for thee, speak not and do not, save as I bid thee.’
“All that is the end of their parleying.
“Therefore be ye bold, and again bold, and thrice bold! Grip the bow, handle the staff, draw the sword, and set on in the name of the Fellowship!”
He ended amid loud shouts; but straight–way answering shouts were heard, and a great noise of the winding of horns, and I misdoubted a new onslaught; and some of those in the throng began to string their bows and handle their bills; but Will Green pulled me by the sleeve and said:
“Friends are these by the winding of their horns; thou art quit for this night, old lad.” And then Jack Straw cried out from the cross: “Fair and softly, my masters! These be men of our Fellowship, and are for your guests this night; they are from the bents this side of Medway, and are with us here because of the pilgrimage road, and that is the best in these parts, and so the shortest to Rochester. And doubt ye nothing of our being taken unawares this night; for I have bidden and sent out watchers of the ways, and neither a man’s son nor a mare’s son may come in on us without espial. Now make we our friends welcome. Forsooth, I looked for them an hour later; and had they come an hour earlier yet, some heads would now lie on the cold grass which shall lie on a feather bed to–night. But let be, since all is well!
“Now get we home to our houses, and eat and drink and slumber this night, if never once again, amid the multitude of friends and fellows; and yet soberly and without riot, since so much work is to hand. Moreover the priest saith, bear ye the dead men, both friends and foes, into the chancel of the church, and there this night he will wake them: but after to–morrow let the dead abide to bury their dead!”
Therewith he leapt down from the cross, and Will and I bestirred ourselves and mingled with the new–comers. They were some three hundred strong, clad and armed in all ways like the people of our township, except some half–dozen whose armour shone cold like ice under the moonbeams. Will Green soon had a dozen of them by the sleeve to come home with him to board and bed, and then I lost him for some minutes, and turning about saw John Ball standing behind me, looking pensively on all the stir and merry humours of the joyous uplanders.
“Brother from Essex,” said he, “shall I see thee again to–night? I were fain of speech with thee; for thou seemest like one that has seen more than most.”
“Yea,” said I, “if ye come to Will Green’s house, for thither am I bidden.”
“Thither shall I come,” said he, smiling kindly, “or no man I know in field. Lo you, Will Green looking for something, and that is me. But in his house will be song and the talk of many friends; and forsooth I have words in me that crave to come out in a quiet place where they may have each one his own answer. If thou art not afraid of dead men who were alive and wicked this morning, come thou to the church when supper is done, and there we may talk all we will.”
Will Green was standing beside us before he had done, with his hand laid on the priest’s shoulder, waiting till he had spoken out; and as I nodded Yea to John Ball he said:
“Now, master priest, thou hast spoken enough this two or three hours, and this my new brother must tell and talk in my house; and there my maid will hear his wisdom which lay still under the hedge e’en now when the bolts were abroad. So come ye, and ye good fellows, come!”
So we turned away together into the little street. But while John Ball had been speaking to me I felt strangely, as though I had more things to say than the words I knew could make clear: as if I wanted to get from other people a new set of words. Moreover, as we passed up the street again I was once again smitten with the great beauty of the scene; the houses, the church with its new chancel and tower, snow–white in the moonbeams now; the dresses and arms of the people, men and women (for the latter were now mixed up with the men); their grave sonorous language, and the quaint and measured forms of speech, were again become a wonder to me and affected me almost to tears.
Notes on Chapter 7 by Peter Wright
p, 235 para. 3 Sir John Newton. . . Rochester . . . London Bridge
For Newton's role as an envoy to the king, see Grennan, William Morris: Medievalist and Revolutionary, p. 100; Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, pp. 142-44. Morris, following Froissart, assumes that the peasants only came to Rochester once, on their march from Canterbury to London, ignoring their capture of its castle on 6 June. It is not clear whether they initially intended to assail London across its bridge, or only chose to do so after their attempt to negotiate with the king at their encampment on Blackheath had failed. The bridge was of course guarded, and they could not necessarily have expected to have its gates opened to them by supporters among the poorer Londoners inside, as actually happened. Cf. Dobson, pp. 156, 168-69.
Para. 4 soft words
Ball here correctly anticipates the pretences at concession made by the government trying to persuade the rebels to disperse, before revoking the promises that they had made under pressure. Cf. [[ p. 249 paragraph 3 ]].
p. 236 para. 2 the pilgrimage road
presumably the main London-Canterbury road through Rochester followed by Chaucer and his imagined fellowship.