Ball, John

(bef. 1335–1381)
   John Ball was an English priest and one of the leaders of the PEASANTS’ REVOLT of 1381, during which Ball, known as the “mad priest” of Kent, advocated a radical equality and the elimination of church property. Through his letters and sermons, he helped incite tens of thousands of rebels to storm London.When the rebellion was put down, Ball escaped but was captured at Coventry, brought before the boy-king Richard II, and executed for his role in the revolt.
   Virtually nothing is known of Ball’s early life. He was ordained a priest probably in York, where he served at the Abbey of St. Mary. From here, he seems to have moved to Colchester, where in 1366 he was first arrested for heretical preaching. Forbidden to preach by the archbishop of Canterbury, Ball seems to have taken little notice of the reprimand and continued his radical sermons, in which he condemned the wealth of the church and advocated equality between social classes. In 1376, he was arrested again by the new archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury. Again he had been preaching heresy, declaring that one need not pay tithes to an unworthy priest and that property should be shared in common among all people. Ball was in jail again at the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt in June of 1381. He was not forgotten by his supporters, however, and when Wat Tyler’s men began their march on London, they freed Ball from the archbishop’s prison at Maidstone in Kent. As the throng swelled and threatened the city, Ball gave an inspirational sermon at Blackheath on the text “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”—a text emphasizing the essential equality of all people under God. Eager to bring down the lords of church and state who oppressed them, the rebels stormed the city. At one point they assailed the Tower, where they captured and murdered Ball’s old enemy, Archbishop Sudbury. The appearance of 10-year-old Richard II at Smithfield ultimately quelled the revolt. Ball fled London and went into hiding, but was captured at Coventry. On July 15, he appeared before Richard II at St. Albans, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered before the nobility he had sought to overthrow.
   Ball’s significance for literary scholars comes chiefly from two extant letters written to inspire his followers and exhort them to stand together against the established powers. Russell Peck (1992) has noted that Ball’s letters deliberately employ certain characteristics of St. Paul’s epistles, including typically Pauline greetings and an evangelistic tone suggesting the simple equality of the early church. The fact that Ball, like Paul, was writing from prison was exploited as well.Most important, however, is Ball’s use of the figure of PIERS PLOWMAN in one of his letters: The Plowman symbol of LANGLAND’s great poem was clearly familiar to Ball, who tells the rebels to stand firm and let Piers Plowman do his work—apparently the work of reforming society. He alludes to other characters in the poem as well, including Dowel and Dobet. Ball’s reference to Langland’s poem was seen by some chroniclers as an indictment of the poem itself, and many scholars believe that the C-text of Piers Plowman was a later revision by Langland that consciously attempted to remove any possibility of radical interpretation of the poem. Ball himself was linked by his accusers and by early chroniclers with the heretical views of John WYCLIFFE and his LOLLARD followers. But Ball does not appear to have been a disciple of Wycliffe, and the attempt to link the rebellion to the Lollards seems to have been born of the chroniclers’ desire to make all dissidents part of a single movement. Modern scholars believe that Wycliffe’s connection with Ball, and probably Ball’s influence on the leaders of the rebellion, have both been somewhat exaggerated by early historians.
   ■ Bowers, John M. “Piers Plowman and the Police: Notes Toward a History of the Wycliffite Legend,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 6 (1992), 1–50.
   ■ Dean, James, ed. Medieval English Political Writings. Kalamazoo: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications,Western Michigan University, 1996.
   ■ Green, Richard Firth. “John Ball’s Letters: Literary History and Historical Literature.” In Chaucer’s England: Literature in Historical Context, edited by Barbara Hanawalt, 176–200. Medieval Studies at Minnesota 4. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
   ■ Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics 27. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
   ■ Peck, Russell A. “Social Conscience and the Poets.” In Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Francis X. Newman, 113–148. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1986.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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