John Balle was neither unique, nor even particularly unusual, in his beliefs and his methods of disseminating them. Where he is without parallel for this period is that as many as six of his letters have survived, copied by Walsingham and Knighton into their chronicles as examples of Balle’s revolutionary rhetoric which caused the revolt. Unlike the spurious confessions attributed to Balle and Straw, these seem to be authentic. Walsingham has only preserved one, which he says was found in the tunic of a man who was to be hanged for his part in the revolt, adding that Balle, who was tried, convicted and executed in Walsingham’s home town of St Albans, ‘confessed that he had written this letter and sent it to the commons; and he admitted that he had written many others’. One might take this with a pinch of salt were it not for the fact that Knighton, writing independently at Leicester, transcribes five further examples. He does not explain how or why they came into his hands but they share not only the same images and vocabulary as Walsingham’s, but the same turn of phrase. Knighton only identifies two of his as Balle’s letters; the rest he puts into the mouths of Jakke Mylner [Miller], Jakke Carter and Jakke Trewman as speeches addressed to the assembled rebels at Smithfield.1 His reason for doing so, even though textually they all appear to be letters and each one begins in similar fashion with the sender’s name, can be attributed to his treatment of them as real people, not pseudonyms, and his assumption that, as labourers, they were illiterate – unlike the priest John Balle.2
Whether or not Balle was personally responsible for composing each of the letters, they were circulating at the time of the revolt and were in the vernacular which ought to give them extraordinary significance as an insight into their author and the rebel mentality. Their survival is not a matter for uncontained joy, however, as the ‘letters’, though written in English, are so obscurely phrased as to be impenetrable. Even Walsingham, while commenting that the letter to the men of Essex urged them ‘to finish what they had begun’, admitted that it was ‘aenigmatibus plenam’, which might best be translated as ‘full of enigmas’ or ‘full of riddles’. For once he was telling the unvarnished truth. Walsingham’s letter, which he titled in Latin, ‘A letter of John Balle. Sent to the commons of Essex’, is worth quoting in full to get a flavour of the sort of riddles we are dealing with.
Johon schep some time seynte marie prest of ork. and now of colchestre. Greteth well johan nameless and johan the miller and johon carter and biddeth them that they be wary of guile in borough and standeth [together] in God’s name. and biddeth Piers Plowman. go to his work. and chastise well hobbe the robber. and taketh with you johan trewman and all his fellows and no more. and look shape you to one hewed [‘on heued’] and no more.
Johan the miller hath ground small small small
the king’s son of heaven shall pay for all.
be ware or ye be woe
knoweth your friend from your foe.
haveth enough. And saith ‘Ho!’
and do well and better and fleeth sin.
and seeketh peace and you therein.
and so biddeth johan trewaman and all his fellows.3
Many scholars have tried to unpick the allusions, identifying Hobbe the Robber as Robert Hales, the treasurer, for instance, and Piers Plowman as the eponymous hero of William Langland’s great English poem. While the latter, in particular, is tempting, it is surely a step too far to argue that the poem – which only circulated in manuscript copies – ‘was talked about enough for the name of … Piers Plowman to be taken up by the insurgents as a rallying cry’.4 He is actually only mentioned in two of the six letters, and even then as one among several names representing particular trades, so his was hardly a name to inspire rebellion. It might rather be argued that the significance of the ploughman is that, like the carter and the miller, he is involved in the production of bread from grain, sowing the seed from which the harvest will grow, be reaped and carted to the mill where it will be ground into the flour from which bread, the staff of life, will be made. Such images were familiar not just from agricultural practice but because they abound in the New Testament as symbols of the true Christian. The idea that Christ himself was spiritual food, grain milled for the salvation of mankind, had been represented visually in the windows and carvings of churches since the twelfth century, but it had acquired new significance with the inauguration in 1264 of the feast of Corpus Christi, a day for venerating the Eucharistic host, which the Church taught was the body of Christ miraculously present in the bread after it had been consecrated.5 The first two lines of the rhyme quoted in Balle’s letter would appear to reference this idea:
Johan the miller hath ground small small small
the king’s son of heaven shall pay for all.
Though the link is tenuous, it may be significant that the rebels from Essex and Kent chose to converge on London on the eve of the feast of Corpus Christi, which in 1381 fell on 13 June, and entered the city on the day of the feast itself.6 Contemporary commentators certainly made the connection, though given that barely a week went by in medieval times without some feast day or saint’s day being celebrated, the rebels might have been hard put to find a day which had no sacred relevance.
We are, however, in the realms of speculation. Though it remains a minority view, it does seem more likely that both Langland and Balle drew on a common heritage, oral and written, of what is known as complaint literature. Piers Plowman shares with Balle and the rebels of 1381 a conviction that power was wielded only by ‘wikked men’ and that all men, regardless of social rank, are of one blood; he even advocates, with them, the removal of traitors and looks to the king to amend all that is wrong. But as one critic has shrewdly observed, the poem ‘represents nothing more nor less than the quintessence of English medieval preaching gathered up into a single metrical piece of unusual charm and vivacity’.7 The same (except for the charm and vivacity) is true of Balle’s letters. Take the ‘Jakke Trewman’ letter, for example:
Jakke Trewman doth you to understand that falseness and guile have reigned too long and truth hath been set under a lock and falseness reigneth in every flock. No man may come to truth but he sing ‘si dedero’. Speak, spend and speed quoth Jon of Bathon and therefore sin fareth as wild flood. True love is away that was so good and clerks for wealth work them woe. God give remedy for now is time.8
The impetus of the letter and the wording of the last sentence might be interpreted as a call to arms but the whole composition, like the letter copied by Walsingham, is in fact a cobbling together of the sort of popular adages beloved by medieval preachers and the friars in particular. The phrase ‘To sing si dedero’ (the Latin translates as ‘if I will have given’) was in widespread usage from morality plays to the works of Gower and Lydgate and, together with ‘speak, spend and speed’, alludes to judicial corruption and the common belief that bribery was the only way to secure a favourable judgment.9
The phrase ‘now is time’ occurs in three letters, two of which Knighton attributes to Balle himself. These two are the ones which most lend themselves to being read as an incitement to rebellion. The first, described as an ‘exemplar’ or transcript, is the least obscure in its phraseology of all the letters.
Jon Balle greeteth you all well and doth you to understand he hath rung your bell. Now right and might, will and skill. God speed every idle person [‘dele’/‘ydele’]. Now is time lady help to Jesu thy son, and thy son to his father, to make a good end, in the name of the Trinity of that is begun. Amen amen for charity’s sake amen.10
Taken out of the context of the revolt, this could just as easily be the sort of vernacular prayer or devotional rhyme popular among the laity, with its threefold repetition of amen to replicate the Trinity and its appeal for a good death.11 On the other hand, it is equally open to interpretation as Balle’s general summons to arms in order to finish what the rebels had begun. The ‘first letter of John Balle’, transcribed by Knighton, begins in similarly promising fashion but then falls back into the familiar pattern of moralistic aphorisms:
John Balle Saint Mary priest greeteth well all manner of men and bids them in the name of the Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost. Stand bravely [literally ‘like men’] together in truth and help truth and truth shall help you. Now reigneth pride in highest regard [‘in pris’], and covetousness is held wise and lechery without shame and gluttony without blame. Envy reigneth with treason and sloth is everywhere [‘in grete sesone’]. God give remedy. For now is time amen.12
Even if we assume that recipients of any of these letters were sufficiently literate or knowledgeable to decipher their message, it seems unlikely that they would leap instantly into action. If the letters are genuinely by Balle – and even that is not beyond question – then it is surprising that they are not less allusive and more overtly political or more obviously focused on issues which were at the heart of the rebels’ demands. Had Walsingham and Knighton not specifically stated that the letters surfaced at the time of the revolt, we could have been forgiven for thinking that they could have been written at any time in the fourteenth century, or even earlier, and that it is only because of their associations with the revolt, and with one of the rebel leaders in particular, that the letters lend themselves to a more sinister interpretation.
It is ironic that in the absence of so many records that might have fleshed out and breathed life into the bare biographical bones of the rebel captains, this extraordinarily rare survival of vernacular medieval letters, purportedly written by John Balle, adds so little to our knowledge of the man. If we accept that he was their author, we can see that he shared the medieval scholarly predilection for cryptograms, mnemonics and riddles, and that he was well versed in proverbs, type-figures and allegory. Perhaps more important than any of this, even more important than any overt or covert radical message he intended to convey, is that he chose to write, as he preached, in English: the language of the people. That in itself was sufficient to condemn him in the eyes of the authorities of Church and state as an agent provocateur.