RIP John Ball

Things cannot go well in England

Nor ever will

Until every thing shall be held in common

Those are the words of John Ball, who on this day in 1381 was hanged for his leadership of the Peasants Revolt.

The Peasants Revolt, unlike almost everything else in the 14th century, feels comprehensible. There is one side who are obviously in the right, and there is the dreamy interest of wondering what might have happened had they not been so thoroughly obliterated.

Paul Foot captures some of that, in a speech from the 600th anniversary of the revolt. It’s appropriately biased and passionate. If he turns the peasants into proto-socialists that’s because, well, they came out with such tantalising rhetoric that the teleology is all but unavoidable.

And the situation does demand a certain degree of righteous indignation:

The fifth member of the gang, the monopolist who joined them, was a man called Richard Lyons. He had discovered (mathematics was very in vogue at the time) that if he paid for the king’s wars, he could get the monopoly over the buying and selling of wool, and that there would be a big profit in it. I’ll explain it, because these things are complicated, He bought the wool for six pounds by order of the king, and he sold it for fourteen pounds by order of the king, and therefore made a profit. Only a few people in society could understand that sort of subtlety, but Lyons made himself extremely rich by this process.

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