Biography of John Ball
John Ball (c. 1338 – 15 July 1381) was an English Lollard priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. In that year, Ball gave a sermon in which he asked the rhetorical question, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?".
He was born and lived in St. Albans, Hertfordshire and later moved to Colchester during the Black Death. He also lived in Kent at the time of the 1381 rebellion. What is recorded of his adult life comes from hostile sources liable to exaggerate his political and Christian radicalism. He is said to have gained considerable fame as a roving preacher — a "hedge priest" without a parish or any cure linking him to the established order — by expounding the doctrines of John Wycliffe, and especially by his insistence on social equality.
His utterances brought him into conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was thrown in prison on several occasions. He also appears to have been excommunicated; owing to which, in 1366 it was forbidden for anyone to hear him preach. These measures, however, did not moderate his opinions, nor diminish his popularity; his words had a considerable effect in fomenting a riot which broke out in June 1381. The chroniclers were convinced of widespread conspiracy implanted before the spontaneous uprising occurred, with the watchword "John the Miller grinds small, small, small" and the response "The King's son of heaven shall pay for all."
At the time that the uprising began, Ball was imprisoned at the Archbishop's Palace in Maidstone, Kent. He was released by the Kentish rebels. He preached to them at Blackheath (the insurgents' gathering place near Greenwich) in an open-air sermon that included the following:
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
Some sources, unsympathetic to Ball, assert that he urged his audience to kill the principal lords of the kingdom and the lawyers, and that he was afterwards among those who rushed into the Tower of London to seize Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury. But Ball does not appear in most accounts after his speech at Blackheath. When the rebels had dispersed, Ball was taken prisoner at Coventry, given a trial in which, unlike most, he was permitted to speak, and hanged, drawn and quartered in the presence of King Richard II on 15 July 1381, his head subsequently stuck on a pike on London Bridge. Ball, who was called by Froissart "the mad priest of Kent," seems to have possessed the gift of rhyme. He voiced the feelings of a section of the discontented lower orders of society at that time, who chafed at villeinage and the lords' rights of unpaid labour, or corvée.
Ball and perhaps many of the rebels who followed him found some resonance between their ideas and goals and those of Piers Plowman, a key figure in a contemporary poem putatively by one William Langland. Ball put Piers and other characters from Langland's poem into his cryptically allegorical writings which may be prophecies, motivating messages, and/or coded instructions to his cohorts. This may have enhanced Langland's real or perceived radical and Lollard affinities as well as Ball's.