October 24, 2017
John Ball & William MorrisOn this day in 1381 preacher John Ball spoke at Blackheath to those assembled for the Peasants' Revolt, inciting them with perhaps the most provocative rhymed couplet in history:
Who was then the gentleman?
One of the most interesting and influential reiterations of Ball's couplet -- though not his alone, as the lines have been traced back to the 1340s -- came 500 years later, through William Morris. Lucky the medieval lord who might have had Morris about the manor, for his industry as well as talent: architecture, textiles, stained glass, wall paper, furniture, and of course books. His Arts and Crafts Movement would revolutionize Victorian taste, but in his politics he was literally a rebel, working tirelessly for the Socialist League, and marching in the 1887 "Bloody Sunday" demonstration beside George Bernard Shaw. That year too, he published A Dream of John Ball, a socialist, time-travel fantasy in which Morris promotes his vision of an idealized world of craftsmen and compassion, built upon the exhortations of his preacher:
When Morris started his famous Kelmscott Press several years later, one of his first books was his own edition of A Dream of John Ball, with a frontispiece illustration of the delve-span couplet by Edward Burne-Jones. Perhaps in this book, at least, Morris realized his composite ideal of medievalism, socialism and craft-as-art. A first edition now costs $3,000 -- not the $75,000 needed for the Kelmscott Chaucer, described as a "pocket cathedral" and said to be the most beautiful book ever printed, but not chaff and water either.
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