Spectres of John Ball
For centuries, the priest John Ball was one of the most famous — or infamous — figures in the history of English rebels. Ball was one of the central figures of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and was soon vilified, receiving a hostile press for 400 years as an archetypal enemy of the state and a religious zealot. His reputation was rescued at the end of the eighteenth century, and, for over one hundred years, he rivalled Robin Hood and Wat Tyler as a great English folk hero. But his 640-year reception involves much more.
Spectres of John Ball explains how we get from an apocalyptic priest and advocate for violent retribution to someone who promoted democracy and vague notions of love and tolerance. This book also explains why he has gone out of fashion — and whether he can make another comeback.
Published: Mar 10, 2022
James Crossley’s signature studies of the use of Bible and religion in British politics are well known, and deservedly so. With his new book, he has taken this approach to new heights. Crossley takes the now relatively little known John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 peasant revolt and, starting from a historical reconstruction of his life, traces his reception up to our own time. However, this is more than a reception history of Ball as an individual. Crossley uses the memories of Ball to write a comprehensive social and political history of the radical strands in English society through more than 600 years. Crossley’s extensive readings of sources, archives and secondary literature is nothing but impressive. He includes sources way beyond what is common in political studies: art, literature, operas, pageants are important for Crossley’s reconstruction of English society viewed from below. Particularly instructive is Crossley’s discussion of the novel A Dream of John Ball by the pre-Raphaelite socialist William Morris, which played a key role in the late 19th century. Throughout Crossley’s discussion of religion in English politics draws on his unique combination of expertise in Biblical studies and ideological criticism. With this great book Crossley has successfully brought his explorations of the interrelations of religion and politics from late modernity to cover much of English history. Spectres of John Ball is simply a masterwork!
Halvor Moxnes, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo
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
With enchanting and absorbing detail, James Crossley restores John Ball and his legacy to the boiler-room of English radical history. In Crossley’s hands, Ball comes into his own, a chameleon-like figure inspiring revolutionaries and reactionaries, cast both as the 'reverend patriarch of sedition' and as the 'hero of English history'. These changing conceptions of Ball are carefully correlated with cultural and political conditions in England subsisting since the upheavals of 1381.
Deane Galbraith, Lecturer in Religion, University of Otago
Crossley’s work is a masterpiece of reception history that brings order to the chaos of its radical subject, and finally gives John Ball, one of the enduring and protean figures of the English revolutionary tradition, the sustained attention he deserves. A fascinating and exhilarating read that deftly explores the contours of the afterlives of Ball, and his transformations throughout six centuries, Crossley’s study will inspire readers to think again about an enigmatic figure that has so often been at the heart of revolutionary — and reactionary — narratives of Englishness.
Justin Meggitt, University Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion, University of Cambridge
In a compelling and authoritative manner, [Crossley] thoroughly examines how subsequent prevailing economic, cultural and social structures and the challenges to those structures determined how Ball was referenced...Spectres of John Ball is an immensely, impressively propulsive read, undergirded by rigorous but not elitist scholarship into a figure who may still help to explain and inspire a new mass movement to itself and to others.