‘John Wycliffe, John Ball, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381′ by Max Beer from Social Struggles and Socialist Forerunners by Max Beer. Translated by H.J. Stennings. International Publishers, New York. 1929.
Among the men who prepared people’s minds for the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times, John Wycliffe (b. 1320, d. 1384) occupies an eminent place. From the standpoint of religious history he was the pioneer of the Reformation and of the rebellion of national kingship against the Catholic universal domination which was closely associated with it. In economics Wycliffe was still living in the Middle Ages, and he defended communal economy against the private property which was gaining the ascendency. He studied theology at Oxford, absorbing the whole scholastic learning of his time, and being strongly influenced by the writings of Ockham.
What Ockham accomplished on the European stage, Wycliffe in the years 1360-1380 endeavoured to perform for England: to liberate England from the Papal overlordship, to justify the English monarchy, and protect communal economy. His problem was twofold: first, a national problem, that is, the liberation of the English State from the Papal domination, and the making of the centralized national power (monarchy and parliament) sovereign; secondly, to defend a communistic system, that is the village commune, against the rapacity of the nobles and the Church. His championship of evangelical poverty (of a propertyless condition of the Church) would have signified in practice the confiscation of Church property by the secular power (king, nobles, towns), and would have earned for Wycliffe the lasting friendship of these powers, had he not at the same time defended the rights of the peasant and advocated the theory of communism. The demand that the Church should be propertyless was actually understood by the secular power only in the sense that the Church ought to renounce her material possessions in favour of the Crown and the landlords. Consequently the Reformers who supported this demand, but were indifferent to communism and the peasants’ programme (like John Huss), or definitely opposed them (like Luther), were the darlings of the nobility.
It was otherwise with Wycliffe. At first he was in favour among the higher nobles, but as soon as the latter perceived whither his doctrines led, they fell away from him. The mission of Wycliffe relating to ecclesiastical reform and economic reform brought him into antagonism with the Church. Wycliffe became a heretic; he impugned important basic dogmas of the Church, such as aural confession, absolution, adoration of the saints. Several of his doctrinal tenets were then condemned by Pope Gregory XI (1377), and likewise the Synod of London (1382) declared them to be heretical. His defence of communism at length proved to be a purely theoretical matter, and in the last resort the communal rights of the peasant population were identified with a social kingship. After the Peasant War of the year 1381, Wycliffe became very cautious about his communism. His disciples, the Wycliffites, then refrained from attacking the private property of the laity, but demanded instead that the Pope and the Church should renounce all earthly possessions, and that the priests and monks should provide for their means of support through communal economy.
Wycliffe encountered great difficulties in the theoretical solution of his problems. Mediaeval theology was permeated by the traditions of natural law and of Gregory VII, according to whom the monarchy originated in sin. The Church teachers of the later Middle Ages exerted themselves to remove this blot from Church and State. We have already seen this in the case of Thomas Aquinas, as also in the case of Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. The declaration of Aquinas is conservative in character; the declarations of Marsilius and William of Oakham are democratic. According to Aquinas, the State is adapted to the sinful condition of man and to the general state of things. According to Marsilius and Ockham, monarchy is only legitimate when it arises with the consent of the people. Wycliffe was unable to embrace either of these theories. For him monarchy always reeked of sin, and it can only be purified from this stain if it embarks upon reforms of a communal character and protects the peasant communes against attack. Only in connection with communism can monarchy become legitimate in the eyes of natural law. Wycliffe regarded communism as the best and most salutary foundation of national power, and he defended Plato’s communistic ideas against the attacks of Aristotle. “Communism,” said he, “is not opposed to Christianity. The apostles held all in common. Communism is as superior to individualistic economy as universal truths are superior to particular truths. It is, of course, true that Aristotle objected to Plato’s doctrines concerning a community of goods, but his objections are only valid so far as they apply to the community of women. Communism does not weaken the State, but strengthens it, for the more the citizens are interested in property, the greater is their interest in the public welfare. Common interests promote unity, and unity is strength ” (De Civili Dominio, vol. i. chap. Xix).
Moreover, Wycliffe was of opinion that communism was not to be attained by means of insurrection or force, but solely through the moral elevation of the people. Where private property existed, it could only be justified through virtue, through the state of grace. Those who are in a state of mortal sin have no right to property. This doctrine, which moreover coincides with that of Augustine, is much more revolutionary than one might think. Peasant leaders with the gift of agitation could easily conclude from this that the unjust and sinful landlords and abbots had no right to their possessions, and that consequently their forcible expropriation would be a virtuous action. Of this opinion was John Ball, the preacher of the English peasant revolt.
A rather shadowy tradition tells us that John Ball was a disciple of Wycliffe. Contemporaries only confirm that Ball was a famous preacher, who, however, mixed “much chaff with his wheat.” The themes of his discourses were freedom and equality, democracy and communism. Glancing back on the primeval social state, he asked:
“When Adam ploughed and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?”
He preached upon the state of nature in accordance with the theological doctrines of natural law. In the beginning men were born equal; the relations of master and servant came about through efforts of unworthy men to repress their fellows, against the will of God. The time had now come to break the yoke of slavery; if the masses of the people were really in earnest, they could now free themselves. The state of society was like a cultivated field; the wise husbandmen pulled up the weeds, freed the ground and the good seed from all harmful growths; the landlords, the lawyers, and the judges were the weeds which sucked at the life of society, and must therefore be removed. Only then would the country folk be able to enjoy the fruits of their fields and delight in life. In this way all men would become noble.
The French chronicler of that time, Froissart, a courtier and enemy to the peasants, who also described and calumniated the Jacquerie, has transmitted a speech of John Ball’s. Froissart also stayed in England a long time and observed — from his standpoint — English conditions. He makes John Ball preach:
“My Good People, — things cannot go well in England, nor ever will until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall all be equal. For what reason have they, whom we call lords, got the best of us ? How did they deserve it? Why do they keep us in bondage? If we all descended from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve, how can they assert or prove that they are more masters than ourselves? Except perhaps that they make us work and produce for them to spend! They are clothed in velvets and in coats garnished with ermine and fur, while we wear coarse linen. They have wine, spices, and good bread, while we get ryebread, offal, straw, and water. They have residences, handsome manors, and we the trouble and the work, and must brave the rain and the wind in the fields. And it is from us and our labour that they get the means to support their pomp; yet we are called serfs and are promptly beaten if we fail to do their bidding ” (Froissart, Collection des Chroniques, vol. viii. chap. cvi.).
Responding to the national needs of the time, Ball is reputed to have lamented the absence of a strong central power, which would have been willing and able to take the part of the peasants. Edward died in 1377 after a fifty years’ reign; his successor was his grandson Richard II. (1377-1399) who ascended the throne when he was only eleven years old. Ball opined: “ Woe to the country whose king is a child,” although he ought to have remembered that it was Edward III who had sanctioned the Statute of Labourers.
While Wycliffe held aloof from all popular agitation, Ball placed himself in the midst of the people, and as by virtue of his priesthood he was subject to the archiepiscopal jurisdiction, he was condemned to several months’ imprisonment for his “heretical speeches.” According to Froissart, who considered the Lollards to be the spiritual authors of the peasants’ revolt, Ball also was a Lollard.
The English Peasants’ Revolt
In June 1381 the first peasant insurrection broke out. It must not be supposed that the revolting peasant population was guided by purely communistic ends. All they asked was protection for their village communal rights against nobles and abbots, and for the rest, the peasants and land-workers wanted their labour power to be at their own disposal, without being compelled, either through servitude or royal enactment, to render service to the feudal lords.
As in the Flemish and French peasant wars, a large section of the poorer industrial classes of the towns of southern England was in sympathy with the peasants’ movement, while the patricians were on the side of the nobles. In addition to their hatred of the rich, the London workers and the poorer guildsmen loathed the foreign merchants and money dealers (Lombards) against whom native capital had for long waged a competitive struggle, as well as against the Flemish weavers in London, who excluded English workers from their guilds and work places. On the other hand, we are told by the chronicles of that time that Flemish weavers also took part in the insurrection on the side of the peasants.
In the second week of June 1381, the revolt broke out, and soon the whole of south-east England was involved in a class war, in which the working class had at first the upper hand. The struggle revealed a certain degree of organization, for the countryfolk from the counties north and south of London gathered almost simultaneously around their leaders, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, John Ball, John Littlewood, Richard Wallingford, and marched on London. On the way the castles of the nobility and the abbeys were plundered, the archives and legal records were burnt, and the peasant host was supplied with provisions. But the organization was neither unified nor comprehensive; every district had its particular leader; a central direction, a supreme command was lacking. The equipment was likewise defective; perhaps ten out of a hundred were armed with bows and arrows or old swords. Yet from the numerical standpoint the insurrection was imposing. And it was reinforced by the poorer sections of the towns.
In London the apprentices cut off their masters’ heads, the labouring masses plundered the houses of the Lombards, and took possession of the City gates, in order to open them to the on marching peasants. On the nth June the rebels reached Black heath, where John Ball preached and prepared the masses for the days to come. At this point a section of the peasants was obliged to break away, owing to the lack of provisions. On the following day the rebels entered the environs of London. The young king, many nobles, and the archbishop took refuge in the Tower, as they were not yet ready to offer military opposition to the peasants. Henceforth the rebels were masters of the town and avenged themselves on their oppressors: the high nobility, the ministers, the lawyers, the officials, and the Lombards. In the Strand they broke into the Savoy Palace of the Duke of Lancaster, and found there a quantity of gold and silver vessels and other valuables. The chronicles of that time all agree that individual acts of robbery were punished with death. Whenever a peasant was caught stealing, he was immediately thrown to the flames. “We are the defenders of truth and justice,” declared the rebels, “and not thieves and robbers.” Thereupon they proceeded to the Temple, which was near at hand, and burned the legal records and documents. Then they paid a visit to the palace of the Lord Treasurer in Clerkenwell, and destroyed it. The houses of other dignitaries met with a similar fate, and a number of officials were slain. On the 14th June the peasants proceeded to the Tower, and informed the King that they required a personal interview with him, and that for this purpose he should meet them at Mile End. The King responded to the appeal. Scarcely had the door of the Tower opened than the peasants swarmed within, cudgelling the royal councillors and slaying Archbishop Sudbury and the Lord Treasurer.
In fear and trembling the young King appeared at Mile End. But the whole of the peasant leaders were not present at the interview, owing to the absence of unified direction. The deputation laid the grievances of the people before the King and demanded freedom and legal equality for the peasant folk, as well as an amnesty for all who had taken part in the insurrection.
After consultation with his councillors, the King deemed it best to bow to superior force, and to concede the demands of the deputation, although he stipulated that the greater part of the peasants should leave the city and return to their haymaking and harvesting, only an armed troop remaining behind until the freedom proclamation was put into force. The deputation expressed its satisfaction, and the peasants, mostly from the districts north of London, in their simple trust in the royal promise, turned their backs on the capital and went home “victorious.”
Scarcely had a large section of the peasants withdrawn than the upper classes regained courage and resolved to decide the conflict by force of arms. Even the young King forgot his qualms; his advisers instructed and prepared him for the part which he had to play in the last scene which was enacted on the 17th June 1381 at Smithfield Market. The detachment of peasants was headed by Wat Tyler. The King came with his knights and city patricians. The peasant leader then rode round the King and urged him to carry out his promise. Instead of a proclamation, Wat Tyler received a blow from a knight, which threw him off his saddle. The other cavaliers immediately hastened to the spot and killed Tyler as he lay on the ground. The peasants ran to their leader’s assistance, but their superstitious faith in the King was their undoing. Richard told them that he himself would be their leader, and solemnly confirmed the liberties he had granted them. Satisfied with this promise, the peasants abandoned the struggle. Then the lords had a free hand. They abolished the liberties of the peasants and arrested the peasant leaders and condemned them to death. Jack Straw, John Ball, and the other leaders finished their careers either on the gallows or on the executioner’s block. Terrible punishment was meted out to all who had taken part in the revolt. The lords were the judges. And the King declared to the peasants: “ Villeins you were and villeins you are. In bondage you shall abide, and that not your old bondage but a worse.”
The King’s threat and the rapacity of the nobles found, however, a limit in the needs of the economic development. The breaking up of the village communes proceeded apace, but serfdom was gradually abolished, as, with the growth of the towns and the progress of commerce and industry, the migration of the country population to the towns began. And where the nobles were particularly harsh in the country, or where the penal laws against the working classes pressed too severely, revolts broke out, as in Kent in the year 1450, when the peasants marched to London under the leadership of Jack Cade and came to a bloody reckoning with the royal advisers; then in Cornwall in the year 1500 ; finally over a large area of England in the year 1549, these risings fell short in extent and vigour of the revolt of 1381.
Social Struggles and Socialist Forerunners by Max Beer. Translated by H.J. Stennings. International Publishers, New York. 1929.
Max Beer’s classic history of utopian socialisms, here produced by International Publishers, the Communist party’s printing house devoted to translated and presenting tracts of the international Communist movement, in 1929. The third volume in his Social Struggles series.
Contents: I) The Close of the Middle Ages, Dissolution of Papal and Imperial Power, Social Antagonisms, II) The Peasant Revolts, Flanders, France: The Jacquerie, III) National and Heretical Social Struggles, Introductory Remarks Concerning the Chief Tendencies and the Leading Personalities, England: Economic and Social Condition, Revolutionary Agitation, John Wycliffe, John Ball, The English Peasants’ Revolt, William Shakespeare and Communism, Bohemia: Political and Social Development, John Huss and his Precursors, The Hussite Wars, Tabor’s Communism and End, IV) Germany’s Social Upheaval 1516-1535, The First German Revolution, Economics and Politics, Social Consequences, Precursors of the Peasants’ War, Communistic and Social-Reformist Tendencies in Humanism expiring Scholasticism, and the Anabaptist Movement, Sebastian Franck and Thomas Munzer, The Peasants’ War and the Twelve Articles, Suppression of the Anabaptists: Final Episode of the Revolution, Epilogue, V) The Age of Utopias Nominalism Renaissance and Humanism, Moral Philosophy Materialism, and Natural Law, VI) English Utopians, Sir Thomas Moore Utopia, Social Criticism, Reform or Revolution, The Structure and Institutions of Utopia , Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Laws of Freedom, Chamberlen and Bellers as Social Reformers, Middle-Class Social Theories: Social Contract Hobbes Locke Smith and Paley, VII) The Italian Utopia, Thomas Campanella , The Sun State, Objections against Communism, VIII) French Utopias and Social Criticism, Economics and Politics, Social Critics: Messier Morelly Mably, Middle-Class Critics: Rousseau Linguet Necker Brissot, Utopian Description by Vairasse d’Allais, Imitations of the Great Utopians, Appendix: American Religious-Communist Settlements., Index. 232 pages.
International Publishers was formed in 1923 for the purpose of translating and disseminating international Marxist texts and headed by Alexander Trachtenberg. It quickly outgrew that mission to be the main book publisher, while Workers Library continued to be the pamphlet publisher of the Communist Party.
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