Spectres of John Ball
For centuries, the priest John Ball was one of the most infamous or famous figures in the history of English rebels, best known for his saying 'When Adam delved and Eve Span, Who was then the gentleman'. But over the past hundred years his memory has faded dramatically. Along with Wat Tyler, Ball was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a historically remarkable event in that leading figures of the realm were beheaded by the rebels. For a few days in June 1381, the rebels dominated London but soon met their demise, with Ball executed. Ball provided the theological justification for the uprising which he saw in apocalyptic terms. After the revolt, he was soon vilified and received an overwhelmingly hostile press for 400 years as an archetypal enemy of the state and a religious zealot. His reputation was rescued from the end of the eighteenth century onward and for over one hundred years he rivalled Robin Hood and Wat Tyler as a great English folk (and even abolitionist) hero. But his 640-year reception involves much more, of course, and is tied up with the story of what England is or could be.
Overall, the book explains how we get from an apocalyptic priest who promoted a theocracy favouring the lower orders and the decapitation of the leading church and secular authorities to someone who promoted democracy and vague notions about love and tolerance. The book also explains why he has gone out of fashion and whether he can make another comeback.
Published: Feb 1, 2022
An important and carefully crafted insight into the production of English political history, and thus has much to offer on many levels (historical detail, shaping of academic, clerical, and popular traditions, English history). It is very well written and carefully argued and through a wealth of information gathers an impressive momentum throughout. In other words, what James Crossley does not know about Ball is not worth knowing. Spectres of John Ball: The "Peasants’ Revolt" in English Political History, 1381-2020 gives a view of English political history from an unexpected angle and maintains an excellent balance between historical detail and overall perspective.
Christina Petterson, Gerda Henkel Research Fellow, The Australian National University, and author of The Missionary, the Catechist, and the Hunter: Foucault, Protestantism, and Colonialism and Acts of Empire: The Acts of the Apostles and Imperial Ideology