January 16, 2018

John Ball & William Morris

On 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:
    When Adam delved and Eve span,
    Who was then the gentleman?
The rebels apparently took up this chant as they marched on London to demand of fourteen year-old Richard II and those about him why they had the easy life while the peasants still had the digging and spinning: "They are clothed in velvet and soft leather furred with ermine, while we wear coarse cloth; they have their wines, spices and good bread, while we have the drawings of chaff, and drink water; they have handsome houses and manors, and we the pain and travail, the rain and the wind, in the fields" (from a John Ball sermon, in Froissart's Chronicles). Though defeated -- leader Wat Tyler killed in a knife-fight and John Ball hung, drawn and quartered -- Ball's poetry lived on, says one historian, as the embodiment of "a spirit fatal to the whole system of the Middle Ages."

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:
    Forsooth, brethren, fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship's sake that ye do them, and the life that is in it, that shall live on and on for ever, and each one of you part of it, while many a man's life upon the earth from the earth shall wane....
Morris's John Ball would inspire many in England, not least post-WWII Prime Minister Clement Atlee. He would often quote the above passage and say "how much more Morris meant to us than Karl Marx" -- although, as Fiona MacCarthy says in her fascinating 1994 biography of Morris and his times, Morris would have been at least skeptical of Atlee's Welfare State.

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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