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Spectres of John Ball

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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

Section Chapter Authors
Chapter 1
Introduction: 1381 James Crossley
Chapter 2
The Quest for the Historical John Ball James Crossley
Chapter 3
Exit Ball: Late Medieval Receptions James Crossley
Chapter 4
Ball and the English Reformation James Crossley
Chapter 5
Ghosts of 1381: Uneasy Heresies, Radicalisms, and Discontents in Late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean England James Crossley
Chapter 6
The Priest of Baal in Revolutionary England James Crossley
Chapter 7
Perverted Liberty and the End of Stuart England: Ball among Whigs, Tories, Jacobites, and Other Mobs  James Crossley
Chapter 8
Georgian John: From Mob Rule to Reasonable Demands  James Crossley
Chapter 9
Revolution, Once Again: A Freeborn Englishman in the Late Eighteenth Century James Crossley
Chapter 10
The Second Coming of John Ball: John Baxter, Robert Southey and Radicalism of the 1790s  James Crossley
Chapter 11
After Waterloo: The Poet Laureate’s John Ball James Crossley
Chapter 12
‘Peaceably If We May, Forcibly If We Must’: Ball among the Chartists James Crossley
Chapter 13
Haranguing after Chartism: The Making of the Victorian Ball  James Crossley
Chapter 14
Class Struggle among the Historians James Crossley
Chapter 15
William Morris: Delaying Ball’s New World James Crossley
Chapter 16
Still Dreaming of John Ball  James Crossley
Chapter 17
Red John? Ball after the Great War  James Crossley
Chapter 18
Bolshevik Ball James Crossley
Chapter 19
Cold War Ball James Crossley
Chapter 20
Rodney Hilton: Ball at the End of Historical Materialism?  James Crossley
Chapter 21
Ball after 1968 James Crossley
Chapter 22
1381/1981 James Crossley
Chapter 23
Twenty-First Century Ball James Crossley
Chapter 24
Epilogue James Crossley
End Matter
Bibliography James Crossley
Subject Index James Crossley
Person Index James Crossley


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.
Morning Star