Following the devastating effects of the Black Death in the mid 14th Century Europe saw a loss of almost half of the population. Partnered with this the hundred year war between France and England was far from over. There was a severe labour shortage in England, necessities became increasingly rare and expensive but despite this, wages were capped and migration from towns and villages to London for a better wage was punishable by prison sentences and heavy fines. The 1300’s in England was an era of increasing economic, social and political discontent which saw a great depravity of the common folk, starvation, squalid living standards in which inequality was commonplace. In 1377 a new poll tax was introduced by Richard II which meant that the poorest of the country had to pay the same amount of tax as the rich, this was coupled by violent and abusive tax collectors that ravaged townsfolk was the final oppressive weight that caused the people to fight for change. 30th May 1381 John Ball stood as the religious leader of the peasants revolt as the march to London began.
John Ball studied and practised as a Priest in York for many years before being excommunicated for his sermons preaching for a classless society, in a Pre-Marxist fashion. No longer with home or being allowed to preach in the Church, John Ball took to the streets, gathering large crowds in open-market places to spread his ideas and the teachings of Christ. Ball continually opposed the Church’s teaching which lead him to being imprisoned on multiple occasions for his controversial ideologies. John Ball believed that the bible should be translated into English to ensure that it was more accessible to the people in a time in which the vast majority of people were not able to read its Latin contents. Ball believed in an equal share of knowledge and an all accessible Bible for the masses, and for a heavily religious people, this made him extremely popular with the general population, but hated by the Church. Ball was critical of how the Church taxed people and urged the lower classes not to pay. Ball discussed how it was unfair that the lower classes worked intense labour in awful conditions to allow for the rich to live in luxury, he famously spoke out about the inequality of the age: “We are formed in Christ's likeness, and they treat us like animals... They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. 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 task."
John Ball objected to a law that disallowed peasants from sending their children to school as well as disallowing them to become priests. Ball noted that there was a severe injustice across multiple fields and preached of an available educational system for all of society, equal male and female rights, the unfairness of the taxing system as well as fighting for improved workers rights and a classless, equal society. John Ball was a true visionary with ideologies that would not be introduced into society until long after his death.
The height of the Peasants Revolt saw King Richard II agree to take on board the lower class needs and make the direct changes that they asked for. However things quickly changed. Richard II had deceived the people and the leaders of the Revolt were hunted down and executed. John Ball was tried for his crimes during the Revolt and when asked to repent he denied any wrong doing remaining strong towards his ideologies: “things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vessel nor lord and all distinctions levelled.” John Ball was found guilty and was hung, drawn and quartered.
John Ball represents the empathetic morality of an intellectual mind combined with the strength and courage to stand and fight for a fair and equal society. Ball reminds us of the importance of understanding inequality and combating it with proactivity. Morality, liberty and equality were at the heart of John Balls philosophies and the ripples of his voice still resonate with us nearly 700 years later.