Thursday, August 19, 2010

"When Adam Delved And Eve Span, Who Was Then The Gentleman?"

I had associated the title of this post with the 17th century and the period of the English Civil War. I think it occurs somewhere in Christoper Hill's The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Hill's book is an account of Anabaptists, Diggers, Levellers, Muggletonians, the New Model Army, Ranters, and Quakers - a very heady and confusing mix.

So I was startled yesterday to read the phrase in Crispin: The Cross of Lead. This is a Newberry-prize winning children's book, by Avi. It is set in England in the 14th century. I think it conveys a good idea of the drudgery and isolation of village life at the time; the seemingly unchangable hierarchy; and the bustle, confusion, and filth of a city before modern plumbing. I also like that Christianity is presented as a form of life, a language that all we see cannot but help using.

So is Avi's use of the phrase an anachronism? Hill may reference it, but, if so, the people of his time were harking back to a previous one. Apparently, the phrase is associated with John Ball, the leader of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. I know nothing about the Peasants’ Revolt, although Hill does refer to it in one line. But John Ball does appear in Avi’s book. Crispin, our thirteen-year old hero, overhears him conspiring. John Ball says:
"...that no man, or woman either, shall be enslaved, but stand free and equal to one another. That all fees, obligations, and manorial rights be abolished immediately. That land must be given freely to all with a rent of no more than four pennies per acre per year. Unfair taxes must be abolished. Instead of petty tyrants, all laws shall be made by consent of a general commons of all true and righteous men.

Above all persons, our lawful king shall truly reign, but no privileged or corrupt parliaments or councilors.

The church, as it exists, should be allowed to wither. Corrupt priests and bishops must be expelled from our churches.. In their place will stand true and holy priests who shall have no wealth or rights above the common man..."

Update: I've learned a new vocabulary word: A Jacquerie is a peasants' revolt, named after the French peasants' revolt of 1358.

1 comment:

Tribune said...

At the time of the Peasants' Revolt, the phrase was used in a sermon by the priest John Ball (c.1338-1381):
"When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty."

Around the time of the English Civil War, this tradition was revived by the True Levelers ("Diggers") such as Gerrard Winstanley.