THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
John Ball’s Letters
Little is known about John Ball, an itinerant priest, and one of the main sources of information comes from contemporary chronicles, which were generally biased in favor of those in power. According to Knighton, Ball was “a powerful enemy of the church’s unity, a fomenter of discord between the clergy and the laity, a tireless disseminator of illicit beliefs, and a disturber of the church of Christians” (277). While this may be bombastic, it is clear from Ball’s works that he had unorthodox views regarding the church and social equality, as expressed in the oft-quoted theme of his sermon probably preached to the rebels at Blackheath: “When Adam dug and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” followed by the reasoning that if God had intended some men to be in bond and some to be free from the beginning, he would have appointed them.1
It is now commonly recognized that sermons and complaint literature have a relationship; many criticisms of society came from the pulpit. But John Ball’s were apparently exceptionally inflammatory, as he may have been excommunicated and certainly was imprisoned. As the rebels took Canterbury, they released Ball from prison, and disposed of the archbishop and replaced him with Ball, thus placing him in a leadership position with Wat Tyler. His sermons are credited by historians with energizing the revolt, though few survive and little is heard of him after Blackheath until he was captured, tried, and then drawn and quartered on 15 July 1381.
There is scholarly debate over the genre of complaint literature such as Ball’s, “whether it should be seen as expressing a potentially explosive reaction to genuine injustice or as conventional and essentially conservative moralization” (Green 180). Some of Ball’s sources may have been conventional and proverbial homiletic commonplaces, but like all appropriators he shaped his material to suit his purposes and intent, the incendiary nature of which can hardly be doubted in the context. His reputation for rousing sermons prior to the Rising has earned him the modern epithet “fiery hedgerow priest.” Regardless of his sources, the voice of Ball has come down to us as the voice of the Rising.
A number of pieces attributed to Ball, purportedly written during the Rising and transmitted orally, are preserved in chronicles of the time. Only one is presented here, the least cryptic and perhaps most straightforward of his message.
John Ball’s Letters, I
John Ball, Saint Mary’s Priest, greets well all manner of men and bids them in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to stand together bravely in truth, and help truth, and truth shall help you.
Now pride reigns as prize,
covetousness is held wise
lechery without shame,
gluttony without blame,
envy reigns with treason
and sloth is in high season.
God bring remedy, for now is time
Compare to the rationale for class division offered by the author of Alexander and the Gymnosophists
: “If God gave every man on earth equal worldly wisdom and wits, none would be better than the other; the poor might appear to share with the rich. Then the world would be like a field full of beasts, when every man on earth lived equally well” (37-42).
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