The song of John Ball


I’ve been listening to Chris Wood’s version on his Trespassers CD of the song ‘John Ball’, written in 1981 by Sydney Carter (who also wrote ‘The Lord of the Dance’) to mark the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt in England. Ball was a radical Lollard priest who had been expelled from the priesthood and jailed for asking questions about equality in the eyes of God, and he gave the sermon to the peasant army as it was camped on Blackheath, overlooking the City of London.

His sermon started with these words:

“When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

This sentiment would have chilled the beneficiaries of England’s hierarchical and feudal society. After the revolt had been put down – its leader, Wat Tyler, tricked into negotiations – Ball was arrested and hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor.

But the phrase, and the radical idea embedded within it, has echoed down the centuries, to the Diggers, to Tom Paine, to the Chartists, to William Morris, even, it seems, to the Occupy Movement. We still remember him, more than 600 years on, and have long forgotten those who had him killed.

The picture at the top shows John Ball addressing the rebel Peasants on Blackheath. It is published by Wikimedia Commons and is used here with thanks.


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