John Ball & William Morris

The Peasants’ Revolt (Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, the Great Rising of 1381) reached London on this day in 1381, some 30,000 entering the city to formally voice before King Richard II and his lords the complaints they had been making throughout England for days, or decades:

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.

The lines above are excerpted from a John Ball sermon in Froissart’s Chronicles. The peasant-rebels had recently sprung the itinerant preacher from prison, and the previous day he had spoken to them at Blackheath, delivering perhaps the most provocative rhymed couplet in history: “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the gentleman?” The protesters apparently took up this chant as they marched to London to demand of the fourteen-year-old king and his lords why they had the easy life while the peasants still had the digging and spinning. Though defeated — leader Wat Tyler killed as he argued his case to Richard, John Ball hanged, drawn, and quartered a month later — Ball’s poetry lived on, says one historian, as the embodiment of “a spirit fatal to the whole system of the Middle Ages.”

It also inspired the poet-artisan William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, which revolutionized Victorian taste. A medievalist in his aesthetic and a socialist in his politics, Morris published A Dream of John Ball (1887), a time-travel fantasy in which he promotes his vision of an idealized, compassionate society of craftsmen-artists. 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 “delved-span” couplet by Edward Burne-Jones.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.