Diane Pacciti introduces the radical vision of John Ball, the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and the Diggers and Levellers communities in the 17th century. Graphics by Sara Mark.
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”
In 1381, this question was put to 10,000 rebels on a hill outside Blackheath. It was posed by John Ball, a priest whose radical preaching had already angered the Church authorities and landed him in prison. In this catchy couplet, he affirmed the kinship which is derived from our common ancestry. John Ball saw Genesis as a deeply democratic text, since ‘from the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by unjust oppression of naughty (ie wicked) men.’ To him, equality was God-given, and social rank a false human construction. So he challenged the right of the nobles and gentry to crush the poor, not least by the imposition of an unfair poll tax. The Blackheath gathering was the start of what was later known as the Peasants’ Revolt, or the Great Revolt.
The rebels called themselves the ‘true commons’, a clear challenge to Parliament’s House of Commons which was composed of Knights of the Shire and wealthy burgesses from the towns. Like the French revolutionaries four hundred years later, they targeted the symbols of an unjust social order. When the subversive army arrived at the Temple, it demolished this complex of legal buildings and made a huge bonfire of legal books and documents. The lavish contents of Savoy Palace were burnt or destroyed, with almost nothing looted, the rebels declaring themselves to be ‘zealots for truth and justice, not thieves and robbers’.
Both the revolt and John Ball himself came to a violent end. The rebels had two meetings in London with the young king Richard 11, which were much messier than the glamorised version presented in the manuscript above. False promises were made, and the rebels dispersed thinking they had achieved their ends. The revolt continued in other parts of the country, but was crushed by force.
But that couplet was not forgotten. It was handed down to the seventeenth century revolutionaries. Click on the YouTube image below to listen to John Ball, written by Sydney Carter in 1981, to mark the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt.
When civil war swept through the British Isles in the seventeenth century, the most radical and prophetic insights did not come from the victorious general Cromwell or his parliament.
It was the small radical groups such as Levellers, Diggers and early Quakers who offered a passionate re-thinking, a ‘world turned upside down’.
When in April 1649, Gerrard Winstanley and his community of Diggers or True Levellers gathered near Cobham, he was well aware of the legacy of John Ball. Implicit in Ball’s couplet is a suggestion that no-one should be exempt from labour.
When the Diggers began to plough the common land of St. George’s Hill, which had recently been privatised by enclosure, they were affirming the right of all, and especially the poor, to work the land. Winstanley called the law ‘a club of the rich against the lowest of men.’
His words still resonate, and might today be spoken by indigenous people in Africa or Australia whose displacement or poorly paid labour has funded luxurious life-styles in London or New York:
What has this passionate plea to do with Genesis?
For a start, it is worth noting that the English revolution would probably never have happened if the Bible had not been translated into English. For the first time, laypeople could read the Biblical texts themselves, rather than having them filtered through the teaching of a priest committed to the existing social order. And what they read was political dynamite.
Winstanley’s take on Genesis is totally different from John Ball’s. He sees Adam’s sin as covetousness. Or possessiveness which, as Winstanley shows, enslaves both oneself and others.
The Spirit of Universal Love is the Word of God or creating force, out of which proceeds Fire, Water, Earth and Air.
In Eden, this Universal Love emanated from humans and ‘other creatures’. They were living in a state of innocence in which fruits and crops were freely available to all.
But the moment Adam reached out his hand to possess the apple for himself, humankind fell into division and enslavement. Winstanley sees Genesis played out in contemporary politics of power:
By claiming the earth as our Common Treasury, by initiating redistribution of the land that had been unjustly parcelled out by Norman invaders, English people could recover the state of Eden. Winstanley believed that this unfallen state would be achieved through Christ, who is the Head Leveller and the second Adam.
Let’s focus on the date when the Diggers claimed that common land in Surrey. 1st April 1649. The king had been beheaded in January. Cromwell’s army of plain men with a fervent religious faith had defeated the Royalist army of nobles and gentry. The unthinkable had happened. England had become a republic. Anything and everything suddenly seemed possible. No wonder that, in that intensely religious time, there was a strong feeling that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent.
Winstanley is scathing about those who fix their eyes on an imaginary heaven and an afterlife. The resurrection of Christ happens here, in the hearts of men and women, in the creation of a just society. Christ will rise when we re-distribute the land and live in the spirit of Eden before the fall, working and enjoying the fruits of the earth together. He realised the importance of education, since this would require a seismic shift in our world-view. But there were encouraging signs. New Digger communities were being founded in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Essex and other counties. Winstanley had no doubt that the resurrection of Christ, the second Adam, was about to happen here in England, in the mid seventeenth century. He writes confidently, ‘Christ will rise in his sons and daughters.’
It is interesting that Winstanley constantly attacks ‘the Norman yoke’: the land-grab made by William the Conqueror to reward his supporters and feed his own love of hunting. In 2019, Guy Shrubsole stated in his acclaimed book Who Owns England? that 30% of English land is still in the hands of the Norman cousinhood. Before the recent sell-off of ancestral lands to new money like hedge-funders and oligarchs, the figure might have been as high as 47%. And, of course, these recent transactions have kept the land in the hands of the wealthy and powerful.
We know that the Digger communities were dispersed by force. We also know that our present-day politics do not encourage the heady hopes that drove the bold social experiments of 1649. But perhaps we might listen to Winstanley’s assertion that we each carry within us ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. We might attend to that ‘new heaven and new earth’ and ask what it means, how it could shape the world outside ourselves.
Perhaps, when we feel disillusioned or even cynical, we might be energised by Winstanley’s belief that a transformed, just world is within our reach. Tantalisingly close, if only we overturn the assumptions which underpin our view of the world. And then dare to act.
Now listen to A Place called England by Maggie Holland. Written in 1999, it ends with a tribute to the ‘crazy diggers’: