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Book Review Will the real John Ball please stand up

PAUL SIMON recommends is an immensely propulsive read, undergirded by rigorous but not elitist scholarship

Spectres of John Ball: The Peasants’ Revolt in English Political History, 1381-2020
by James G Crossley
Equinox Publishing Ltd £25.51

“WHEN Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” There are likely to be few readers of this paper who aren’t aware of this robustly resonant phrase attributed to John Ball, that has blasted its way through the years since 1381 like a mighty siege weapon.

I say attributed since, as Spectres of John Ball postulates, the phrase may well have been constructed by one of the many Establishment chroniclers keen to demonise the itinerant priest and to stifle his future influence.

Professor James Crossley, who is a director at the gloriously named Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, devotes his opening chapter to narrowing down the few unambiguous facts about John Ball and the context of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt, or Uprising as the author prefers.

He was a preacher, associated geographically with both York and Colchester and theologically with the radicalism of John Wycliffe.

Responding to the ongoing ecclesstical abuses and economic oppression, including the statute of Labourers Act and the poll tax, not just of peasants but others within the feudal system, he articulated an end-of-days theology that urged the removal, by violence if needs be, of corrupt elements within civil and church society.

Ball, as with virtually all of the principal leaders, was judicially murdered in a pretty gruesome manner.

But the hunt for the historical Ball is of a secondary focus for Crossley.

In a compelling and authoritative manner, he thoroughly examines how subsequent prevailing economic, cultural and social structures and the challenges to those structures determined how Ball was referenced.

By and large, for the first 400 years following his death and even during the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, Ball’s life was expropriated by the powerful as a cautionary tale by the Establishment to suppress dissent and illustrate the perceived terrors of mob, and more generally unconstitutional, rule.

But this practical heritage began to be more vigorously contested from the early 19th century onwards, as an English, but not necessarily British, radical patriotism gained a purchase through popular working-class movements, including Chartism.

Spurred on by the writings of William Morris and later creative workers such as William Chandler, the overwhelming definition of Ball from the early years of the 20th century was firmly set within the co-ordinates of historical materialism.

Ball was perceived in the arts and in political writings as an agent of economic change, a revolutionary at the beginning of the collapse of feudalism and its replacement by a nascent capitalism.

Ball was an inspiration at all levels of the labour movement, from its leadership, including the likes of Clement Attlee, to its grassroots. There was even a John Ball rambling club in Kent.

Unsurprisingly this view of Ball as an economic class actor was most effectively championed by the Communist Party and by this paper, both as the Daily Worker and the Morning Star.

Crossley recounts, almost wistfully, that the post-cold war period saw the diminishment of Ball into the current rather sanitised, filtered and frankly unthreatening Everyman.

Ball’s radicalism has been carefully incorporated by popular culture into something vague and easy to consume — an interesting footnote to the wider growth of the heritage business.

The author demonstrates how even Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner connived in this process, downplaying in their interpretations the very thing that made Ball so feared by earlier Establishments — the use of violence and physical resistance, beyond parliamentary processes, to achieve political goals.

Spectres of John Ball is an immensely, impressively propulsive read, undergirded by rigorous but not elitist scholarship into a figure who may still help to explain and inspire a new mass movement to itself and to others.

More broadly, Crossley has provided a most useful service to socialist readers beyond a detailed consideration of the various interpretations of his eponymous subject.

He has reminded us of the importance of reclaiming historical figures as part of the contemporary class struggle.

The present culture war of position tells us that we must never cede control of our radical forebears to the prevailing anti-socialist narrative.

As Crossley concludes, we must still have an answer to that crucial 1381 question: what should England be?

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