Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Later Transition English > John Ball
  Songs of the Soil The Black Death  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XVII. Later Transition English.

§ 12. John Ball.


It is a far cry from the speech of the land slave to John Ball, Jack Straw, and Wat Tyler, and the intervening years show but fragments of the literature of revolt, but the rude rimes sent across the country by John Ball should no more be forgotten in a history of English literature than the rude beginnings of its prosody, for they contain the beginnings of the literature of political controversy, the first recognisable steps on the road of political and religious liberty that was later to be trodden by Milton and Shelley and Cobbett. In the Song of the Husbandman, one of the notable poems of the alliterative revival, which may be dated towards the close of the thirteenth century, in octaves and quatrains rimed alternately on two rimes with linked ending and beginning lines—a complicated measure handled with great skill—the tiller of the soil complains that he is robbed and picked “ful clene”; that, because of the green wax, he is hunted “ase hound doth the hare.” And the insolence of the grooms and stable boys, the lackeys and servants, of the great towards the peasantry is told in the rude, coarse lines of A Song against the Retinues of the Great People, preserved in the same MS. 25 
       
The luthernesse 26  of the ladde,
The prude 27  of the page,
are the subject of as keen invective as are the deeds of the consistory courts, 28  where the peasants are treated as dogs.
  20
  When Edward I died, the writer of an elegy on his death expressed the pious hope that “Edward of Carnarvon” might
       
ner be worse man
Then is fader, ne lasse of myht
To holden is pore-men to ryht
& understonde good consail.
It remained an unrealised hope; and the condition of things in the times of Edward II is reflected in the fugitive literature of his reign. The curiously constructed lines in Anglo-Norman and English On the King’s Breaking his Confirmation of Magna Charta, preserved in the Auchinleck MS., Edinburgh, and the Song on the Times, in lines made up of Latin, English and Anglo-Norman phrases, tell the same tale of ruin and corruption. Before the end of the reign, Bannockburn had been fought and won, fought and lost; Scottish girls could sing of the mourning of their southern sisters for “lemmans loste”; and, in place of an elegy on the death of a king who “ber the prys” “of Christendome,” 29  we have a poem in the Auchinleck MS. on The Evil Times of Edward II, which, in some 470 lines pitilessly describes the misery of the state and the evil of the church. It is a sermon on the old text, “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon,” “no man may wel serve tweie lordes to queme,” and every line bites in, as with the acid of an etcher, some fresh detail of current manners. As soon as the young priest can afford it, he has a concubine; if those in high places protest, “he may wid a litel silver stoppen his mouth”; the doctor is the doctor of the comedies of Moliére, a pompous charlatan, ready enough to take silver for his advice, “thouh he wite no more than a gos wheither” the patient “wole live or die”; “the knights of old” no longer go forth on brave, if Quixotic, quests: they are “liouns in halle, and hares in the field,” and any beardless boy can be dubbed of their company; everywhere are the poor of the land oppressed
       
Ac if the king hit wiste, I trowe he wolde be wroth,
Hou the pore beth i-piled, and hu the silver goth;
Hit is so deskatered bothe hider and thidere,
That halvendel shal ben stole ar hit come togidere,
and acounted;
An if a pore man speke a word, he shal be foule
afrounted.
  21

Note 25. Harl. 2253, ed. Wright. [ back ]
Note 26. Malicious ill-temper. [ back ]
Note 27. Conceit. [ back ]
Note 28Political Songs of England, 1839. [ back ]
Note 29Elegy on Edward I, before cited. [ back ]

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  Songs of the Soil The Black Death  
 
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