John Wycliffe and John Ball

PEASANT DISCONTENT was reaching flash point. This was hastened, unwittingly, by the teaching of John Wycliffe (c. 1325-84), an Oxford scholar who wished to reform the Church. From 1377 Wycliffe called on the Church to give up its property and live in evangelical poverty on the alms of the faithful. This is how the Chronicon Angliae summarized his teaching: “And among other unspeakable things, he denied that the Pope is able to excom­municate anyone. . . and said, moreover, that neither the King nor any secular lord could give property in perpetuity to any person or church; because if such should habitually commit sin, temporal lords might meritoriously take away from them what they had previously given—which, he said, was practised in the time of William Rufus . . . He asserted, moreover, that, if they stood in need, temporal lords might lawfully lay claim to the goods of possessioners to relieve their own want (90).”

Wycliffe sent out “Poor Priests” nicknamed “Lollards” or “babblers” to take his teaching to the people. But many of them carried his ideas further than he intended and denounced the land­owners as well as the Church. An unfriendly satirist wrote (91):

All stipends they forbid to give

And tithes whereon poor curates live.

From sinful lords their dues they take;

Bid serfs their services forsake.

Alarmed by the words of these Lollards, Wycliffe quickly denied that peasants could refuse to serve their lords: “The fiend [devil] moveth some men to say that Christian men should not be servants or thralls to heathen lords, since they would be false to God and less worthy than Christian men. Neither to Christian lords—for they be brethren in kind, and Jesus Christ bought Christian men on the Cross and made them free. But against this heresy Paul writeth in God’s law (92).

Wycliffe insisted that the preaching of the Poor Priests had been misinterpreted: “But yet, some men that ben out of charity, slander Poor Priests with this error, that servants or tenants may lawfully withhold rents or services from their lords, when lords ben openly wicked in their living (93).

At the same time, Wycliffe was not afraid to side with the serfs who demanded freedom and to show anger at their oppression by the landlords: “Strifes, contests and debates have been used in our land, for lords strive with their tenants to bring them in thraldom more than they should by reason and charity. Also, lords many times do wrongs to poor men by extortions and unreasonable amercements [fines] and unreasonable taxes, and take poor men’s goods, and pay not therefore but with sticks [tallies], and despise them and menace and sometime beat them when they ask their pay.

“And thus lords devour poor men’s goods in gluttony and waste and pride, and they perish for mischief and hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also. And if their rent be not readily paid their beasts are distressed, and they pursued without mercy, though they be never so poor and needy . . . (94)”

The chief agitator on behalf of the peasants was a priest, John Ball. He had first worked at St. Mary’s Abbey in York and then at Colchester. He became a popular preacher. The Chronicon Angliae expressed the common belief that Ball was a disciple of Wycliffe: “For twenty years and more this man had been preaching continually in different places such things as he knew were pleasing to the people, speaking ill of both ecclesiastics and secular lords, and had rather won the goodwill of the common people than merit in the sight of God.

“For he taught the people that tithes ought not to be paid unless he who should give them were richer than the rector or vicar who received them; and that tithes and offerings ought to be withheld if the parishioner were known to be a man of better life than his curate; and also that none were fit for the Kingdom of God who were not born in matrimony.

“He taught, moreover, the perverted doctrines of the perfidious John Wycliffe, and the opinions that he held, with many more that it would be tedious to recite . . . Being prohibited by the bishops from preaching in churches, he took to speaking in streets and villages and in the open fields. Nor did he lack hearers among the common people, whom he always strove to entice to his sermons by pleasing words, and slander of the prelates (95).”

Ball was condemned by his superiors in the Church, and often thrown in prison. The Register of the Archbishop of Canterbury contains this decree of 1366, about Ball’s preaching, addressed to the Dean of Bocking in Essex: “It has come to our hearing by common report that one John Ball, pretending to be a priest, is preaching manifold errors and scandals within our said jurisdiction, as well to the ruin of his own soul and the souls of his adherents as to the manifest scandal of the whole Church. Being unwilling, therefore, to tolerate this hurt, we order you tc [forbid] any to be present at the preaching of the said John, on pain of greater excommunication . . . And denouncing all who shall offend against it . . . you shall cite them to appear before us . . . You shall also cite… the said John to appear personally before us, to make answer concerning certain articles and interrogations to be put before him touching the correction and safety of his soul (96).”

John Ball, however, was not to be deterred. Froissart wrote: “A mad priest in the county of Kent, John Ball by name, had for some time been encouraging these notions, and had several times been confined in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prison for his absurd speeches. For it was his habit on Sundays after mass, when everyone was coming out of church, to collect a crowd round him in the market place and address them more or less as follows:

“‘My friends, the state of England cannot be right until everything is held communally, and until there is no distinction between nobleman and serf, and we are all as one. Why are those whom we call lords masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better lords than us, except in making us toil and earn for them to spend? They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye, and straw that has been thrown away, and water to drink. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our tasks. We have no sovereign to appeal to, or to listen to us and give us justice. Let us go to the King. He is young, and we will show him our miserable slavery, we will tell him it must be changed, or else we will provide the remedy ourselves. When the King sees us, either he will listen to us, or we will help ourselves’ (97).”

By 1381 Ball had gathered many supporters around him. That summer he sent messengers to the towns and villages of southern England, calling on everyone to prepare for a march on London: “With these and similar words John Ball harangued the people as they came out of mass on Sundays, and a number of ill-disposed people agreed with his theme. On being informed, the Archbishop of Canterbury again had John Ball imprisoned for two or three months, but it would have been better had he locked him up for the rest of his life, or even had him executed. But the Archbishop could not in all conscience put him to death, and so he was released, and at once went back to his former errors.

“A number of the meaner sort in London came to hear of his words and deeds, and in their envy of the rich began to murmur to each other that the country was badly governed, and that all the silver and gold was in the possession of the nobles. These people began to rebel and to send word round the neighbouring counties encouraging those of the same opinion to come at once to London, and they would all press the King so hard that there would not be a slave left in England (98).”

The missives conveyed by these messengers contained codewords which would only be understood by Ball’s followers. This one wassent out to the villages of Kent and Essex (99):

John Ball

Greet eth you all,

And doth you to understand

He hath rung your bell.

Now with right and might,

Will and skill,

God speed every dell!

This is another: “John Ball, St. Mary’s priest, greeteth well all manner of men and biddeth them in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, stand manlike together in truth, and help truth, and truth shall help you (100):

Now reigneth price in price,

Covetise is holden wise,

Lechery without shame,

Gluttony without blame,

Envy reigneth with reason

And sloth is taken in great season.

God do bote [amend] for now is time.”

And this message, written under a false name and address to the men of Essex, was found in the pocket of a rioter who was con­demned to be hanged. “John Schep, sometime Saint Mary’s priest of York, and now of Colchester, greets well John Nameless and John the Miller and John Carter and bids them that they beware of guile in the town, and stand together in God’s name. . . And take with you John Trueman and all his fellows and more, and look sharp you to your own head and no more (101):

John the Miller hath ground small, small, small.

The King’s Son of Heaven shall pay for all.

Beware or you will be in woe

Know your true friend from your foe.

Have enough and say ‘Hello!’

And do well and better and flee from sin,

And seek true peace and hold therein.

And so bids John Trueman and all his fellows.”

The peasants, as Froissart recognized, were now on the brink of rebellion: “The wretched peasantry of these counties now began to rebel, saying that the servitude in which they were kept was excessive, and that at the beginning of the world no man was a slave; nor ought anyone to be treated as such, unless he had committed some treason against his master, as Lucifer did against God. But they themselves had done no such thing, and were not angels or spirits, but men of the same stuff as their masters, who treated them like beasts. This they would no longer endure: if they were to work for their masters then they must be paid (102).”

Mindful of the revolts of the peasants or Jacques which had occurred in France in 1358, Froissart saw the danger. But he was surprised at the event which actually sparked off the rising: “Great commotions and disturbances arose in England among the poorer people, and the country came near to complete ruin. Indeed, never was any country in such danger; for a rebellion was fostered similar to that stirred up in France by the Jacquerie, which did such damage to the country. It is strange how insignificant was its origin, which I will describe from the best of my information, as a warning to mankind (103).” This was the poll tax.