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John Ball Was Right!

January 12, 2014

[Watch a great video about this: "The Brutal Peasants' Revolt of 1381"]

John Ball was a leader of the English Peasant Rebellion of 1381, also known as Wat Tyler's Rebellion from the name of another of its leaders. Ball was a priest at a time when the feudal society consisted largely of "villeins" and "gentlefolk." Villeins were a kind of serf and "gentlefolk" were the aristocratic "lords" who lived in relative luxury by making the villeins labor for them and pay them taxes and and host of fees.

John Ball preached that:

"things cannot go right in England...until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we are all one and the same." [1]

John Ball was indeed right. Things did not go right in England precisely because social and economic inequality was not abolished. The failure to abolish this inequality was not for lack of trying.

"...there is no doubt that the aims of the mainstream of rebellion included the abolition of villeinage. The demand was put forward in the rebels' negotiations and dramatized by the destruction of manorial records 'from Norfolk to Kent,' not to mention the number of lawyers killed. The Continental revolts showed the same revolutionary tendencies." [2]

How did things go wrong? As a result of the still intact social and economic inequality, the emergence of a world market for British wool and the technological advances in wool textile manufacture had the well known consequence of gentlefolk "enclosing" the land to raise sheep, and driving the peasants off the land into the "Satanic mills" of the industrial revolution. Had the revolution succeeded in creating a society in which "there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we are all one and the same," then the English people may still have decided to raise sheep and produce woolen textiles for a world market with new technology, but in a very different manner, one that people as equals would have worked out to their mutual benefit, not the way it actually happened with a few people making huge fortunes on the extreme misery and impoverisation of the many.

The story of what happened as a result of the failure of the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 illustrates a lesson that bears on an important question we face today. What changes do we need to make to our society in order to prevent the re-emergence of what is clearly unacceptable (such as our extreme economic inequality in a world dominated by the likes of Goldman Sachs)? Do we need merely to make some reforms that would reign in the excessive behavior of capitalists while continuing to accept the legitimacy of capitalism itself, with its competition and private ownership of productive land and mines and factories and offices, leading to winners and losers and rich and poor? Or do we need to make a fundamental egalitarian revolution as John Ball said, so there are no more rich and poor, but we are all one and the same?

The history of England from the time of its failed Peasant Rebellion suggests that John Ball was right. At the time of the Peasant Rebellion, there was a mutual aid and an individualistic aspect of village life. Here is how Frances and Joseph Gies, the authors of Life in a Medieval Village from which I learned about John Ball, describe these aspects of village life. Regarding mutual aid, they write that the villagers

"knew each other thoroughly and depended on each other, to help with the plowing and harvesting, to act as pledges, to bear witness, to respond when danger threatened. The most arresting characteristic of the medieval open field villages certainly is its system of cooperation: cultivation in concert of individually held land, and pasturing in common of individually owned animals." [3]

Individualism, in the sense of selfishness at the expense of others (not simply looking out for one's personal needs and desires) was primarily evident in the fact that the lord exploited the villagers. The Gieses write:

"...the medieval village is unthinkable without its lord. So much of its endless round of toil went to cultivate his crops, while its rents, court fines, and all the other charges with the curious archaic names went to supply his personal wants and the needs of his monastic or baronial household." [4]

The reason things did not "go right" in England is that individualism, i.e., the principle that selfishness at the expense of others (and the economic inequality this leads to) is legitimate, was not defeated. It was not defeated by the opposite principle that we should "all be one and the same." As a result of its legitimacy not being rejected, the individualism of medieval village lords was able to develop into the individualism of capitalists claiming to personally own the "Satanic mills" of the industrial revolution. As the historian Christopher Dyer put it:

"The undermining of the common fields, the declining effectiveness of the villages's internal government, and the development of a distinct group of wealthy tenants [spelled the] triumph of individualism over the interests of the community." [5]

Who Were the Rebels Following John Ball?

Although the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 occurred at a time of increased tax levies and related "burdens and afflictions," it is interesting to note that the rebels following John Ball were not the poorest and most oppressed peasants. The Geises write:

"A feature especially noted by modern historians is the participation, even domination, by the better-off peasants. 'Peasant revolts...were wont to spring up, not in the regions where the serf was in deepest oppression, but in those in which he was comparatively well off, where he was strong enough to aspire to greater liberty and to dream of getting it by force,' says Sir Charles Oman." [6]

What enables people to "dream of getting it by force" is not their oppression, but their hopefulness that they can make things much better. What gives people such hope? One crucial factor is knowing that one is not alone in thinking that things are not right and ought to be changed. In the United States today, an egalitarian revolution will be made by Americans who know that things are not right and ought to be changed and who know they are not alone in feeling this way. The last part--knowing they are not alone in feeling this way--is the chief obstacle today to egalitarian revolution: most Americans think they are indeed alone in having revolutionary aspirations. To turn this around is the purpose of the Ring the Bells of Revolution campaign discussed at .


1.Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies, p. 198

2. ibid, p. 199

3. ibid, p. 206

4. ibid, p.205

5. quoted in ibid, p.203

6. ibid, p. 199

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