Category Archives: William Morris

Is John Ball a dream?

It’s a tough one, this. William Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball paints a heroic picture of one of the most complicated and contested episodes in English history: the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The main character, dreaming his way back to the 14th century from Morris’s dirty, depressed and over-populated London to a clean and well-kept Kentish village, discovers he has arrived at exactly the moment when John Ball, the excommunicate priest recently sprung from Maidstone jail by a growing body of rebels, arrives to preach and incite the locals to take up their weapons and march on London. The villagers are decent, happy to share what they have with the stranger, and all too glad to follow John Ball to bring down the feudal system and reinstate the primordial communism known by the first men and women, when there were no gentlemen. But was it like that?

I’ve been homing in on the Great Rising from two different directions. Firstly, this blog, and my all interest in Morris and his political messages, and secondly, from the book of Suffolk ghost tales I’m researching and writing at the moment. Suffolk was the original home of the hated Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and the county exploded into rebellion as Kent and Essex rebels were marching on London. These are dark tales. There’s no surprise that there are ghost stories associated with the rising. The rebellion in Suffolk, especially around Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Lakenheath, was brutal, full of revenge, petty and great.

And that’s one of the problems, for me. This communist uprising with its noble aims of distributing the wealth to one and all was no such thing. Did John Ball even write his letters? The famous phrase, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ was in the common parlance. Did Wat Tyler taste power and have it go to his head? Did Jack Straw even exist? What then was going on?

Well, as with everything in life, it’s complicated. The 14th century was a tumultuous one – I remember reading when I was a teenager Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial (but now rather out of date) A Distant Mirror, which calls it a calamitous century. The Hundred Years War, the Black Death, revolt and rebellion, it was all kicking off. And yet, for many, in the latter half of the century, things had improved in southern England, at least. Much of the population had meat on their tables, wore better clothing, had the chance of better wages. The successive plagues had more than decimated the population, and so there were opportunities for those who were left. As you can imagine, landowners were not keen to face up to this. Parliament pushed through statutes that artificially suppressed pay. Not popular. Worse, the war with France wasn’t going well in the aftermath of the last illness of King Edward III and into the minority of his son, Richard II. And war was costly.

It’s a tough one, too, because I approve of taxation. Unlike Morris, whose ideas tended towards a stateless anarchism, my experience of living in the safe, peaceful society that has been Britain for the majority of my forty-plus years on this earth has led me to believe that a form of taxation that allows us to pay when we can (i.e. when we have an income) for things that we might need when we can’t – things like the our universal health care system, our free schooling, our state pensions, our welfare state, and, when I was young, for the fees and grants that allowed everyone to go to university, if they made the grade. And the peasant’s revolt is a lot about taxation, and not wanting to pay it.

But how much do you tax? And whom? There can be no doubt that a line was crossed by parliament. It was Simon of Sudbury who demanded the last and largest amount – £160,000 (a labourer was paid roughly 5p a day, just to contextualise that). Over a 3 or 4 year period a bewildering number of different taxes were laid on the country, and everyone, rich and poor alike, had to pay. There’s even an account of a sergeant at arms, John Legge, lifting girls’ skirts to see if they were old enough for sex i.e. had pubic hair, and were thus old enough to pay the tax, liable from age 15. Nice. The tax collectors turned up with bully boys, and corruption was rife. The burden of the later taxes fell hardest on the poor.

 

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Chelmsford celebrating John Ball in this painting by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, in the County Hall.

And people were already angry. Angry with successive wars, Angry with a venal church that cared little for the pastoral needs of the ordinary folk in their parishes. Angry with the continuing burden of petty rules and regulations, particularly for serfs, who were effectively owned by their landlord – they had to pay, for example, merchet, a kind of fine to get married, and owed time and produce to their lord. It must have seemed they got little in return for this bargain. More people were making their way off the land and into towns, and in the towns and villages too were itinerant preachers, ready to speak of a better way of being – as John Ball is supposed to have written, ‘Now pride reigns as prize, covetousness is held wise, lechery without shame, gluttony without blame, envy reigns with treason and sloth is in high season. God bring remedy, for now is time…’ To rise up? Yes.

 

But to rise as they did, looting and murdering? That’s what I find hard. There are moments of calm, such as when John Wrawe, in Suffolk, and his men, repair to an alehouse in Long Melford for a pipe of wine, and pay the landlord from their takings, Robin Hood style. But contrast that with the treatment of John de Cavendish and John de Cambridge, a king’s justice and Bury’s prior respectively. One waylaid and executed at Lakenheath, the other at Mildenhall, and their heads paraded around Bury for the amusement of the people. Then there’s the looting. Some of it reasonable – take the records and burn them, that’s a great way to start a new world order, as we are then, in theory, created as equal as we were when we were born. But much of the violence seems meaningless. It reminds me of the riots in Britain in 2011 after the trigger incident of a police killing. And again, the revengeful outpouring of hate and violence that erupted after Trump was elected. The people are angry. They will take revenge.

 

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The skull of Simon of Sudbury at St Gregory’s, Sudbury.

The times are more dangerous now, the stakes far higher. John Ball was a sort of left-wingish (if we can say such a thing of a medieval character!) populist. The populous were whipped into action all too easily because they had cause to be angry and had no voice. Then, the rebellion was put down hard. Nobody listened. The chroniclers vilify Ball and Tyler and the rest. They try to make people like Simon of Sudbury and John de Cambridge martyrs, and my goodness, these were not nice men they were trying to sanctify! But they were the establishment, and it had enough might to suppress pretty much anything, then. Does it today? Do we want to be able to? Do we want more surveillance? Do we want harsher laws to ‘protect’ us? No. So we mustn’t make the mistakes of the past. We must listen to those who are angry and find common ground, the common ground of our thoughts and the decency with which we all believe we are living our lives. And those who are angry need to listen, too. Need to see that revenge and violence against whoever the scapegoat might be – whether the establishment, or whether against a random ‘other’, such as the forty unfortunate Flemish clothworkers murdered during the Revolt in London – is not the way to make their own lives better.

 

And so, for once, if we are going to dream of John Ball, let’s make him a not rabble-rouser but a peaceable man.

Images:

  1. An illustration of the priest John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels  of 1381, from a c. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles in the British Library.
  2. John Ball by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, image copyright Essex County Council
  3. The skull of Simon of Sudbury, copyright Evelyn Simak
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Citizen of Nowhere, or, the Ranty One.

Wouldn’t it be great to wake up and find yourself somewhere else? To discover that the cares of the past have all dissolved into a glorious new future where, if you don’t feel at home, you can at least know that all you were fighting for back in your day finally came to pass? That’s what happened to a certain Mr Guest back in 1890 … and at the moment I can’t help wishing it would happen to me.

Yes, it’s a utopian idea. Utopia – good place? Or no place? Certainly no place like home at the moment. My jaw dropped when I saw Teresa May’s comments about those claiming to be a citizen the world – indeed, the whole Tory Party Conference has seen my jaw on the floor. But it’s that comment “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” that really got me. What would William Morris say? I think he’d be laughing. Nowhere? Has she never read anything? Doesn’t she know what Nowhere is? Nowhere? Yep, I’ll take that – I’ve read about Nowhere and it sounds like a great place to be.

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News from Nowhere or an Epoch of Rest being some chapters from an Utopian Romance by William Morris, first published 1890, this Kelmscott Press edition 1892, with an illustration by Charles March Gere of ‘the old house by the Thames’ in the story – actually Kelmscott Manor, which Morris rented.

Nowhere is a place of poetry, of song, of storytelling and of friends gathering together to share laughter and talk over good food and drink in beautiful places. Well, so far so good – I’m very lucky, I live in Nowhere if that’s the case, for my life is filled with creativity and creative friends. Lucky me – others here in today’s Non-Nowhereland don’t have that. In Nowhere, everyone has that chance to express themselves and be supported in their creative self-expression.

Nowhere is a place where everyone has a job, a place in the world. But it’s not a Non-Nowhereland day job, wage-slavey, tied to the mortgage, to the rent, to your parents’ house, to poverty kind of job. And it’s not a big business, doing deals to add to your 3 million a year kind of job either. Its community working together, slotting people into the right jobs at the right time. Everybody who can helps in the harvest, and people take themselves off onto working parties to work on the land, to mend roads, to maintain Nowhere and its workings. Because they want to. Because they are fit and healthy and want the exertion of physical work. Because they feel in their hearts that this is useful work that needs doing. There’s plenty of time to create craft and art – and, why not, the scientific discoveries that were rather off Morris’s radar.

In Nowhere there’d be no fracking. No way. The people of Nowhere would stare at you with jaws dropped as low as mine has been all the time, it seems, since the 23 June. There’d be no extensive logging. No waste in the sea. No open caste mining. (Although in Nowhere, I fear, they’ll still be clearing up what Non-Nowhereland did.) So how do they power Nowhere? Well, there’s plenty of dung in the Houses of Parliament, they can use that, perhaps? But in Nowhere they’ve sloughed off our Non-Nowhereland need for excessive consumption and they need less energy than we believe we do. In Nowhere they care for the land, and they care for the buildings in it. Morris spent some considerable time trying to preserve some trees near his home on the river in Hammersmith … in Nowhere that care encompasses everywhere.

Yes, I know – it’s a utopia. It won’t happen. Not like this. Nowhere wouldn’t be ideal for me, I know. But it would find a place for me, it wouldn’t turn me away. In Nowhere there is tolerance. Criminals are cared for – in the end the punishment they get is that that they inflict on themselves. But crimes are rare, because the community supports people, and because, perhaps, people have freedom. They don’t feel trapped in relationships, in jobs, in places – in lives that they can’t bear. And there is little private property (Nowhere is a Socialist dream, of course – albeit one tending towards anarchy). The historian Guest spends (a lot of) time talking to says this on Guest’s question about punishment:

“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation. “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had no need to fear, since theyi.e., the rulers of society – were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so neighbour?”

We did think so, didn’t we? But now I see a culture that is becoming more cowardly again. In Non-Nowhereland we don’t love ourselves or take responsibility for ourselves and we don’t love our neighbours. We are now being encouraged to hate them. How long before we go back to 1890 and start ‘solemnly and legally’ committing crimes against humanity? I am afraid. As Morris was afraid. And Morris didn’t see what the people of Non-Nowhereland in the 20th and 21st centuries have done to each other in fear.

Nowhere isn’t perfect. Parents today would boggle at Morris’s Lord of Flies type children bringing up the children in the summer ideas. I suspect he was writing with hindsight of having brought up two boisterous young girls who had the good fortune to escape the ‘hideous town’ and play in the gardens and around the Old House on the Thames that Morris rented alongside his friend/romantic rival Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But in Samoa (I think!) it was the older children who brought up the younger because the women had better things to do with their time – making craft, as it happens. For me, Nowhere is a bit anti-intellectual, but Morris hints that those who want to spend their time investigating the past can – it’s up to them, even if it’s a bit odd. Then there is the woman thing. Morris actually changed his text in the wake of cross comments from his feminist friends and readers and included more active female characters when the serial was published as a book – although he still believed women were more likely to want to do domestic stuff. Well, as a man of his time he still had a ways to go in imagining what women could do and be – but he saw further than most and he allows choice. And then there’s his almost-silence on the rest of the world – it is a very English utopia, after all. As I say, not perfect.

Morris’s Nowhere doesn’t need to be ours. Morris’s Nowhere was written in part as a response to another Nowhere, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward – a machine-led society imagined in 1887. More than 100 years on we need new Nowheres. Each age produces its own: from Plato’s Republic through to Utopia (Thomas More, riffing on the delights of the Greek language in which the ‘u’ or ‘eu’, which sound the same in English, could mean something negative – that ‘Noplace’ – or something positive, that ‘Goodplace’ – or both at the same time…) and to the Erewhons and Nowheres of the 19th century. We need Nowhere. If you are a citizen of Nowhere, you might have your head in the clouds, but your feet are on the ground. You are dreaming a better world, but perhaps, like Morris, you are also prepared to go out there and help make it.

I’m proud to be a citizen of Nowhere. And somewhere, Morris is still laughing. It’s the only way to stop himself crying about how we never, ever seem to learn from the mistakes of the past.

 

William Morris is dead, long live William Morris

hdr-william-morris-updated-415-detailWilliam Morris died #OTD exactly 120 years ago. The 3 October 1896 was a bleak day for his friends and family. The Great Man was only 62, but had been failing for some time before. Nonetheless, that July Morris had travelled to Norway with a friend – his doctor knowing that this would be his last voyage. Apparently on the boat Morris asked to seated so his could see ‘the younger and prettier women…’ but the trip didn’t raise his usual enthusiasms for the wild landscapes of the north. His dear friends Sydney Cockerell and Emery Walker met him from the boat, and were informed that congestion of the lungs had now set in. He was still working – his last novel, The Sundering Flood, was finished through dictation to Cockerell that August, but things were ending. Walker and Cockerell knew they couldn’t fill Morris’s shoes and decided not to continue Morris’s Kelmscott Press after he was gone – though both continued to advance and enhance the world of both private and commercial printing throughout their lives. His friends visited – Georgie and Edward Burne Jones, Philip Webb, F S Ellis – old friends. His wife, daughter May (his elder daughter, Jenny, was sick herself, and couldn’t come), Georgie and a couple of other friends were with him at the end, with Walker, Cockerell, Webb and Edward Burne Jones all there the day before, and immediately after. Georgie said he died ‘as gently, as quietly as a babe who is satisfied drops from its mother’s breast.’

20150912_163145He is buried in a quiet corner of Kelmscott churchyard, where Janey, Jenny and May later joined him. It is an unassuming gravestone by an unassuming church. Morris loved Kelmscott church, a quiet 12th century building with little spectacle. Webb designed the gravestone, based on a piece of stonework that Webb found in the churchyard, making Morris’s tomb utterly of the place. Webb understood his old friend very well – their enthusiasms matching each others in art, architecture and socialism along the way – and I think Morris would have been pleased with the simplicity of it.

549px-kelmscott_manor_news_from_nowhereWhat would William Morris say to his legacy? The obituaries of the day heralded him as a poet. Today his verse is little read. We know him as a designer, mostly, someone who created nice wallpapers and fabrics – and maybe we know he was the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement. We know him, perhaps, as someone who’s love life was tangled. We might know the ‘useful and beautiful’ quote – but maybe not what prompted him to need to write that and all the other essays on living through and in art. We may know that he was a socialist and a ‘dreamer of dreams’. We know his prose better than his poetry, and maybe we might have read News from Nowhere. We know, some of us, the Icelandic sagas he helped bring to the British public. We’ve been in, perhaps, some of the buildings the organisation he founded, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, saved in their original state for the nation. We may also have seen the stained glass his firm placed in many  ancient – and new – buildings. We might not know all of him, but we do know him.

What would William Morris say to #OTD on twitter? I dread to think! But I so think he might sneakily pleased that all aspects of his life are still being brought to the world, even if he might abominate some of the media that dies it!

And as for what happened next … Although he left the church behind many, many years before to search for many and various earthly paradises, he did apparently say to a friend shortly before he died that he could ‘not believe that I shall be annihilated.’

Note:

To find out more about Morris’s death (and life!) read Fiona MacCarthy’s biography William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber & Faber, 1994)

Images:

Image 2: Kelmscott churchyard copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis.

Abbeville, or, a musing on war

This is the next in the series of blogs about my trip to France last year, following in William Morris’s footsteps.

Morris started in Abbeville, and so our tour of churches started there, too. It was July when they set out – and for us too. If it was as hot for them as it was for us I pity them in their hot Victorian clothes … and Morris in his new boots! But the Abbeville they saw was not the one that we, in 2015, visited. The church was there, rising up over the rooftops of the town just as it does in this drawing by John Ruskin from 1868. And there was a fountain in the square. But nothing else was the same.

This is what Morris says about their arrival, ‘the town itself is very and full of exceedingly good houses; we were all three in ecstasies thereat’[i]. I wish I could have said the same. Morris was in ecstasies many times in his trip, and blessedly, most of things he exclaimed about still exist, but a 160 years can bring many, many changes.

98496154That 160 years brought two wars to European soil. Abbeville is on the River Somme… The town was hit twice, both in the First and Second World Wars. Poor St Wulfran’s suffered a hit in the Second World War. Accordingly to my ancient French Rough Guide (1997! So long ago!) it was then ‘under scaffolding since the war’ and ‘still closed to the public’[ii], but by the time we arrived in 2015 they had reopened the church. Ish. French churches, we were to discover, are not as open as their English counterparts, even in large towns. But we got in after the desperate expedient of having a pleasant coffee and read in the same square that we see in Ruskin’s image.This is what the Place des Jacobins looks like now. Actually, it is very pleasant. But… Not quite the same.

But I understand that St Wulfran’s is all about war. I’ve read somewhere that current building was built to celebrate the return of Abbeville into French hands in 1477. Can’t find the reference now, naturally, so it may not be true! But – Abbeville has long been on the border of a battlefield – throughout the Hundred Years War it passed back and forth between the English and the French. Crécy is just up the road. This war haunted our trip in the commemoration we saw of Joan of Arc … who we, the English, killed. In those days, we wanted to be part of Europe! In the sense of owning as much of it as possible, of course, but still, we understood ourselves to be inextricably part of Europe, and had done long before the Normans arrived…

p1030796St Wulfran’s as we see it now dates from a building campaign that began in 1488 and ended in 1539. The building dragged on past the end of the Gothic, and there was a hiatus, with the chancel being an unassuming 17th century take on Gothic, quiet and low compared to the soaring flamboyance of the architecture of the rest. Outside, the difference between the two parts is striking (though not as striking as Beauvais!) – this photograph taken from the chancel looking up at would I assume would have formed the crossing.

p1030795Its glory is the west front, of course. Compared to some we would see, it is restrained, but has an elegance, a simplicity in the way the plain spaces intermix with the coiling whirls of the rose window and the sculpture.

p1030799I love this sculpture of St Eustace crossing the river in the tympanum over this door on the north side.

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And there is humour too, hidden in the arches around the doors!

The interior was cool and pleasing – and we discovered that the day before there had been an example of the entente cordiale with a wedding between a French woman and an Englishman – the ribbons were still on the chairs, orders of service still on the seats…

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But what really struck me was this:

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It’s a baroque intrusion into the Gothic of the church, and ordinarily I would pass it by as the baroque isn’t my favourite style, shall we say. I’m certain Morris, Burne Jones and Fulford barely noticed it. But this one is different. Unlike the rest if the interior, here the damage from the war has been left intact. I think it’s the Assumption of the Virgin – but I’m not sure as the figures are broken and stained in amid the swirling baroque clouds. It serves as a reminder that war came here and broke the world apart for the people who lived here. It reminds us that war is never far away, beneath the crumbling façade of tolerance and liberalism we built in the 20th century. Since our trip France has suffered at the hands of extremists of various sorts, Britain has cut itself off from the continent, the Far Right has risen higher than any of us who had that direct connection with WW2 in our parents and grandparents could have imagined could happen … war wages on and on in the Middle East – and over years and years of interference, part of the blame rests on western shoulders, and yet we continue to turn our backs… We need to see this sculpture with its charred clouds and dismembered women and see what war does to people … and not forget.

But what would Morris have said? I am sure he would have been horrified at the way war developed in the 20th century, and horrified too by the wanton destruction of heritage that has been brought by the use of aerial bombing and bombing on the ground. When he talks of violent revolution across the globe in his socialist writings he perhaps didn’t think through the suffering of the individuals involved nor the destruction to the physical world that would certainly have occurred. His first introduction to politics was an anti-war statement and a reaction against violence – in the Eastern Question, and the treatment of the Bulgarians by the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s. But he was also a member of the Artists Rifles in its earliest days in the 1860s (though he had a tendency to turn left when instructed to go right, with copious apologies), and his poems and novels are full of heroic violence. He was brave when confronted with violence – such as at the Bloody Sunday ‘riots’ of 1887 – and could be led by his famous temper, famously getting into trouble for allegedly bopping a policeman at an earlier protest. But he lived his life through a time when England wasn’t threatened directly either by war or by the kind of large scale terrorism we are getting used to now in the early 20th century. If he had lived through a war, either a medieval one, or one of the 20th century world wars, would his opinions have been different? Would he have recognised war for the horror it is? His vision of utopia is non-martial in the extreme, after the revolution – I’d like to believe that’s what he really wanted.

Notes:

[i] Purkiss, J ‘Morris, Burne-Jones and French Gothic’ (1991), p. 8

[ii] Baillie, K and Salmon, T France: The Rough Guide (London, 1997), p. 197

Image credits:

  1. Image from mapio.net
  2. All the rest of the images are © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2015