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The Letter of John Ball (Royal MS)


1 The Son of heaven's King shall redeem everything


1 Johon Schep, or "John the Shepherd," is Ball's pseudonym. Because of other references to Piers Plowman in the letter, Ball here may allude to the opening lines of Langland's poem: "In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne, / I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were" (Schmidt ed. of B text). Walsingham characterizes Ball as a "lapsed priest," and Ball himself may refer to his status in the phrase "som tyme Seynte Marie prest of York." Johan Nameles is another pseudonym but perhaps without a specific referent. "John Nameless," that is, may simply refer to others who share Ball's political sympathies. In line 2, "John the Mullere," or Miller, and "Johon Cartere," or Carter, may be types, since John is a most common name, as in the carpenter from Chaucer's Miller's Tale. The military leader of the rebellion Wat Tyler was, according to Froissart, a roof tiler by trade.

4 Peres Ploughman. Ball appropriates the figure of Piers as symbol of the political cause, representing the commons as industrious and faithful while characterizing their enemies, symbolized by Hobbe the Robbere (lines 4-5), as parasites. Johan Trewman (line 5) is another pseudonym, this one for a morally righteous Christian such as Chaucer's Plowman, who is "a trewe swynkere [worker] and a good" (I 531). John A. Alford says: "Again and again [late fourteenth-century] writers . . . extol truth as the political virtue par excellence" (A Companion to Piers Plowman, p. 33). See also Peck, pp. 113-16, on the truth trope in Ball's letters, and Alford, Glossary, s.v. Treuthe, and Addresses note to lines 15 and 17. Two "names" in this Letter also appear in the Addresses to the Commons: Jakke Mylner = Johan the Mullere; Jakke Trewman = Johan Trewman.

4-5 Hobbe the Robbere. Hobbe the Robbere also may derive from Piers Plowman since Langland mentions a "Roberd the Robbere" in B passus 5.463. Some have identified this "Hobbe" (a nickname of Robin/Robert [MED s.v. Hobbe]) as Robert Hales, the hated Treasurer of England just before and during the Rising, whom the mob executed on Friday, 14 June 1381.

6 loke schappe you to on heved. "Obey only one leader (or head)." Ball cautions his troops to observe discipline in the ranks, since there may be spies or infiltrators in their midst. He reinforces the warning in the poem (lines 9-10). Riley transcribes schappe as scharpe (Historia Anglicana, 2:34, and note 3 continued from p. 33); Thompson loke e shape you (Chronicon Angliae, p. 322).

7 Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde. This cryptic line, in form so like a political prophecy, seems to refer to hard times, the cause for rebellion. Green cites a well-known Latin proverb: "Though its earliest English appearance seems to be in George Herbert's Jacula Prudentum (1640), this proverb was certainly known in the Middle Ages: 'Sera deum mola sed tenues molit undique partes.' Walther, Proverbia 4:805 (no. 28057); compare 4:815 (no. 28109) and 5:551-52 (nos. 32568a/b)" (p. 198, note 52).

9 Be war or ye be wo. Proverbial, according to Whiting, Proverbs, p. 626 (§ W45). First citation = Ball's Letter; numerous refs. including sententious poems. ye. So Riley and Green (e); MS and RHR þe. Thompson e. According to Fasciculi Zizaniorum, a collection of anti-Wycliffite and pro-mendicant tracts (probably Carmelite) compiled in the late fourteenth century but assembled in the 1430s: "there was a certain company of the sect and doctrines of Wycliffe which conspired like a secret fraternity and arranged to travel around the whole of England preaching the beliefs taught by Wycliffe" (as quoted in Dobson, The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, p. 378). For information on the Fasciculi Zizaniorum, see James Crompton, "Fasciculi Zizaniorum," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 12 (196), 35-45, 155-66. The chroniclers stressed a connection between heresy and the Rising, but modern historians have been unable to confirm it.

10 Knoweth your freend. The Anonimalle Chronicle says that the commons had among themselves a "wache worde": "With whom haldes yow?" (i.e., whose side are you on?). The reply to this was supposed to be: "Wyth kynge Richarde and wyth the trew communes." On this watchword, see Strohm, Hochon's Arrow, pp. 41-42.

11 Haveth ynow, and seith "Hoo!" This line seems to urge restraint among the insurgents. See also the cautionary note about Hobbe the Robbere in Ball's Letter (line 4) and Addresses of the Commons (line 17). The Westminster chronicler and Walsingham both emphasize that when the rebels sacked Gaunt's Savoy palace they refrained from looting. Knighton testifies when one rebel tried to carry off a "fine piece of silver," his colleagues threw him and the silver into the fire, saying (in reported speech) that they were "zelatores veritatis et justitiae, non fures aut latrones" (lovers of truth and justice, not robbers or thieves). See Chronicon Henrici Knighton, p. 135; Strohm, Hochon's Arrow, p. 44; Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 144.

12 do wel and bettre. An allusion to Piers Plowman's famous Vita de Dowel, Dobet & Dobest. Ball equates "do well" with seeking political justice. As in Piers Plowman solutions to political grievances appear to reside as much in heaven (Christ's sacrifice, line 7; fleeing sin, line 11) as in earthly deeds. Peck points out that this is the earliest specific reference to Langland's poem.

(British Library, Royal MS 13.E.ix fol. 287r)


Littera Johannis Balle missa communibus Essexiae
Johon Schep, som tyme Seynte Marie prest of York, and now of Colchestre,
greteth wel Johan Nameles, and Johan the Mullere, and Johon Cartere, and
biddeth hem that thei bee war of gyle in borugh, and stondeth togidre in Godes
name, and biddeth Peres Ploughman go to his werk, and chastise wel Hobbe the
Robbere, and taketh with yow Johan Trewman and alle hiis felawes, and no mo,
and loke schappe you to on heved, and no mo.
Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal;
The Kynges sone of hevene schal paye for al. 1
Be war or ye be wo;
Knoweth your freend fro your foo.
Haveth ynow, and seith "Hoo!"
And do wel and bettre, and fleth synne,
And seketh pees, and hold you therinne.                      
(see note)
Be wary before; sorry; (see note)
foe; (see note)
Be content; Stop; (see note)
avoid sin; (see note)
stick to it

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