Wait, There Were Communists in 1381?

There have always been religious teachers for whom all material creation was a thing of evil. Through the whole of the Middle Ages, under the various names of Manicheans, Albigensians, Vaudois, etc., they became exceedingly vigorous, though their importance was only fitful. For them property was essentially unclean, something to be avoided as carrying with it the in-dwelling of the spirit of evil. Etienne de Bourbon, a Dominican preacher of the thirteenth century, who got into communication with one of these strange religionists, has left us a record, exceedingly unprejudiced, of their beliefs.

And amongst their other tenets, he mentions this, that they condemned all who held landed property. It will be here noticed that as regards these Vaudois (or Poor Men of Lyons, as he informs us they were called), there could have been no question of communism at all, for a common holding of property would have been as objectionable as private property. To hold material things either in community or severalty was in either case to bind oneself to the evil principle. Yet Etienne tells us that there was a sect among them which did sanction communism; they were called, in fact, the Communati. How they were able to reconcile this social state with their beliefs it is quite impossible to say; but the presumption is that the example of the early Christians was cited as of sufficient authority by some of these teachers. Certain it is that a sect still lingered on into the thirteenth century, called the Apostolici, who clung to the system which had been in vogue among the Apostles.

St. Thomas Aquinas mentions them, and quotes St. Augustine as one who had already refuted them. But these were seemingly a Christian body, whereas the Albigensians could hardly make any such claim, since they repudiated any belief in Christ’s humanity, for it conflicted with their most central dogma.

Still, it is clear that there were in existence certain obscure bodies which clung to communism. The published records of the Inquisition refer incessantly to preachers of this kind who denied private property, asserted that no rich man could get to heaven, and attacked the practice of almsgiving as something utterly immoral.

The relation between these teachers and the Orders of friars has never been adequately investigated. We know that the Dominicans and Franciscans were from their earliest institution sent against them and must therefore have been well acquainted with their errors. And, as a fact, we find rising among the friars a party which seemed no little infected with the “spiritual” tendency of these very Vaudois. The Franciscan reverence for poverty, which the Poor Man of Assisi had so strenuously advocated, had in fact become almost a superstition. Instead of being, as the saint had intended it to be, merely a means to an end, it had in process of time become looked upon as the essential of religion. When, therefore, the excessive adoption of it made religious life an almost impossible thing, an influential party among the Franciscans endeavored to have certain modifications made which should limit it within reasonable bounds.

But opposed to them was a determined, resolute minority, which vigorously refused to have any part in such “relaxations.” The dispute between these two branches of the Order became at last so tempestuous that it was carried to the Pope, who appointed a commission of cardinals and theologians to adjudicate on the rival theories. Their award was naturally in favor of those who, by their reasonable interpretation of the meaning of poverty, were fighting for the efficiency of their Order. But this drove the extreme party into still further extremes. They rejected at once all papal right to interfere with the constitutions of the friars, and declared that only St. Francis could undo what St. Francis himself had bound up. Nor was this all, for in the pursuance of their zeal for poverty they passed quickly from denunciations of the Pope and the wealthy clergy (in which their rhetoric found very effective matter for argument) into abstract reasoning on the whole question of the private possession of property.

The treatises which they have left in crabbed Latin and involved methods of argument make wearisome and irritating reading. Most are exceedingly prolix. After pages of profound disquisitions, the conclusions reached seem to have advanced the problem no further. Yet the gist of the whole is certainly an attempt to deny to any Christian the right to temporal possessions. Michael of Cesena, the most logical and most effective of the whole group, who eventually became the Minister-General of this portion of the Order, does not hesitate to affirm the incompatibility of Christianity and private property.

From being a question as to the teaching of St. Francis, the matter had grown to one as to the teaching of Christ; and in order to prove satisfactorily that the practice of poverty as inculcated by St. Francis was absolute and inviolable, it was found necessary to hold that it was equally the declared doctrine of Christ.

Even Ockham, a brilliant Oxford Franciscan, who, together with Michael, defended the Emperor, Louis of Bavaria, in his struggle against Pope John XXII, let fall in the heat of controversy some sayings which must have puzzled his august patron; for Louis would have been the very last person for whom communism had any charms. Closely allied in spirit with these “Spiritual Franciscans,” as they were called, or Fraticelli, were those curious medieval bodies of Beguins and Beghards. Hopelessly pantheistic in their notion of the Divine Being, and following most peculiar methods of reaching on earth the Beatific Vision, they took up with the same doctrine of the religious duty of the communistic life. They declared the practice of holding private property to be contrary to the Divine Law.

Another preacher of communism, and one whose name is well known for the active propaganda of his opinions, and for his share in the English Peasant Revolt of 1381, was John Ball, known to history as “The Mad Priest of Kent.” There is some difficulty in finding out what his real theories were, for his chroniclers were his enemies, who took no very elaborate steps to ascertain the exact truth about him. Of course, there is the famous couplet which is said to have been the text of all his sermons:

“Whaune Adam dalf and Eve span,

Who was thane a gentilman?”

at least, so it is reported of him in the Chronicon Angliae, the work of an unknown monk of St. Albans. Froissart, that picturesque journalist, who naturally, as a friend of the Court, detested the levelling doctrines of this political rebel, gives what he calls one of John Ball’s customary sermons. He is evidently not attempting to report any actual sermon, but rather to give a general summary of what was supposed to be Ball’s opinions. As such, it is worth quoting in full.

“My good friends, things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common; when there shall be neither vassal nor lord, and all distinctions levelled; when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. How ill have they used us! and for what reason do they thus hold us in bondage? Are we not all descended from the same parents—Adam and Eve? And what can they show, and what reason give, why they should be more the masters than ourselves? Except, perhaps, in making us labor and work for them to spend.” Froissart goes on to say that for speeches of this nature the Archbishop of Canterbury put Ball in prison, and adds that for himself he considers that “it would have been better if he had been confined there all his life, or had been put to death.” However, the Archbishop “set him at liberty, for he could not for conscience sake have put him to death.”

From this extract all that can be gathered with certainty is the popular idea of the opinions John Ball held; and it is instructive to find that in the Primate’s eyes there was nothing in the doctrine to warrant the extreme penalty of the law. But in reality, we have no certainty as to what Ball actually taught, for in another account we find that, preaching on Corpus Christi Day, June 13, 1381, during the last days of the revolt, far fiercer words are ascribed to him. He is made to appeal to the people to destroy the evil lords and unjust judges, who lurked like tares among the wheat. “For when the great ones have been rooted up and cast away, all will enjoy equal freedom—all will have common nobility, rank, and power.” Of course, it may be that the war-fever of the revolt had affected his language; but the sudden change of tone imputed in the later speeches makes the reader somewhat suspicious of the authenticity.

The same difficulty which is experienced in discovering the real mind of Ball is encountered when dealing with Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, who were, with him, the leaders of the revolt. The confession of Jack Straw quoted in the Chronicon Angliae, like nearly all mediaeval “confessions,” cannot be taken seriously. His accusers and judges readily supplied what they considered he should have himself admitted. Without any better evidence we cannot with safety say along what lines he pushed his theories, or whether, indeed, he had any theories at all. Again, Wat Tyler is reported to have spoken threateningly to the King on the morning of his murder by Lord Mayor Walworth; but the evidence is once more entirely one-sided, contributed by those who were only too anxious to produce information which should blacken the rebels in the minds of the educated classes.

As a matter of fact, the purely official documents, in which we can probably put much more reliance (such as the petitions that poured in from all parts of the country on behalf of the peasants, and the proclamations issued by Richard II, in which all their demands were granted on condition of their immediate withdrawal from the capital), do not leave the impression that the people really advocated any communistic doctrines; oppression is complained of, the lawyers execrated, the labor laws are denounced, and that is practically all.

It may be, indeed, that the traditional view of Ball and his followers, which makes them one with the contemporaneous revolts of the Jacquerie in France, the Ciompi in Florence, etc., has some basis in fact. But at present we have no means of gauging the precise amount of truth it contains.

But even better known than John Ball is one who is commonly connected with the Peasant Revolt, and whose social opinions are often grouped under the same heading as that of the “Mad Priest of Kent,”—John Wycliff, Master of Balliol, and parson of Lutterworth. This Oxford professor has left us a number of works from which to quarry materials to build up afresh the edifice he intended to erect. His chief contribution is contained in his De Civili Dominio, but its composition extended over a long period of years, during which time his views were evidently changing; so that the precise meaning of his famous theory on the Dominion of Grace is therefore difficult to ascertain.

But in the opening of his treatise, he lays down the two main “truths” upon which his whole system rests:

I. No one in mortal sin has any right to the gifts of God;

II. Whoever is in a state of grace has a right, not indeed to possess the good things of God, but to use them.

He seems to look upon the whole question from a feudal point of view. Sin is treason, involving therefore the forfeiture of all that is held of God. Grace, on the other hand, makes us the liegemen of God, and gives us the only possible right to all His good gifts. But, he would seem to argue, it is incontestable that property and power are from God, for so Scripture plainly assures us. Therefore, he concludes, by grace, and grace alone, are we put in dominion over all things; once we are in loyal subjection to God, we own all things, and hold them by the only sure title. “Dominion by grace” is thus made to lead direct to communism. His conclusion is quite clear: Omnia debent esse communia.

In one of his sermons, when he has proved this point with much complacent argumentation, he poses himself with the obvious difficulty that in point of fact this is not true; for many who are apparently in mortal sin do possess property and have dominion. What, then, is to be done, for “they be commonly mighty, and no man dare take from them”? His answer is not very cheerful, for he has to console his questioner with the barren scholastic comfort that “nevertheless, he hath them not, but occupieth things that be not his.” Emboldened by the virtue of this dry logic, he breaks out into his gospel of plain assertion that “the saints have now all things that they would have.” His whole argument, accordingly, does not get very far, for he is still speaking really (though he does not at times very clearly distinguish between the two) much more about the right to a thing than its actual possession. He does not really defend the despoiling of the evil rich at all — in his own graphic phrase, “God must serve the Devil”; and all that the blameless poor can do is to say to themselves that though the rich “possess” or “occupy,” the poor “have.” It seems a strange sort of “having”; but he is careful to note that, “as philosophers say, ‘having is in many manners.'”

Wycliff himself, perhaps, had not definitely made up his mind as to the real significance of his teaching; for the system which he sketches does not seem to have been clearly thought out. His words certainly appear to bear a communistic sense; but it is quite plain that this was not the intention of the writer. He defends Plato at some length against the criticism of Aristotle, but only on the ground that the disciple misunderstood the master: “for I do not think Socrates to have so intended, but only to have had the true catholic idea that each should have the use of what belongs to his brother.”

And just a few lines farther on he adds, “But whether Socrates understood this or not, I shall not further question. This only I know, that by the law of charity every Christian ought to have the just use of what belongs to his neighbor.” What else is this really but the teaching of Aristotle that there should be “private property and common use”? It is, in fact, the very antithesis of communism.

Some have thought that he was fettered in his language by his academic position; but no Oxford don has ever said such hard things about his Alma Mater as did this master of Balliol. “Universities,” says he, “houses of study, colleges, as well as degrees and masterships in them, are vanities introduced by the heathen, and profit the Church as little and as much as does Satan himself.” Surely it were impossible to accuse such a man of economy of language, and of being cowed by any University fetish.

His words, we have noted above, certainly can bear the interpretation of a very levelling philosophy. Even in his own generation he was accused through his followers of having had a hand in instigating the revolt. His reply was an angry expostulation. Indeed, considering that John of Gaunt was his best friend and protector, it would be foolish to connect Wycliff with the Peasant Rising. The insurgents, in their hatred of Gaunt, whom they looked upon as the cause of their oppression, made all whom they met swear to have no king named John.

And John Ball, whom the author of the Fasciculi Zizaniorum calls the “darling follower” of Wycliff, can only be considered as such in his doctrinal teaching on the dogma of the Real Presence. It must be remembered that to contemporary England Wycliff’s fame came from two of his opinions, viz. his denial of a real objective Presence in the Mass (for Christ was there only by “ghostly wit”), and his advice to King and Parliament to confiscate Church lands.

But whenever Ball or anyone else is accused of being a follower of Wycliff, nothing else is probably referred to than the professor’s well-known opinion on the sacrament of the Eucharist. Hence it is that the Chronicon Angliae speaks of John Ball as having been imprisoned earlier in life for his Wycliffite errors, which it calls simply perversa dogmata. The “Morning Star of the Reformation” being therefore declared innocent of complicity with the Peasant Revolt, it is interesting to note to whom it is that he ascribes the whole force of the rebellion. For him the head and front of all offending was the hated friars.

Against this imputation the four Orders of friars (the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites) issued a protest. Fortunately in their spirited reply they give the reasons on account of which they are supposed to have shared in the rising. These were principally negative. Thus it was stated that their influence with the people was so great that had they ventured to oppose the spirit of revolt their words would have been listened to. The chronicler of St. Albans is equally convinced of their weakness in not preventing it, and declares that the flattery which they used alike on rich and poor had also no mean share in producing the social unrest. Langland also, in his “Vision of Piers Plowman,” goes out of his way to denounce them for their levelling doctrines:

“Envy heard this and bade friars go to school,

And learn logic and law and eke contemplation,

And preach men of Plato and prove it by Seneca

That all things under Heaven ought to be in common,

And yet he lieth, as I live, and to the lewd so preacheth

For God made to men a law and Moses it taught—

Non concupisces rem proximi tui

(Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods).

Here then it is distinctly asserted that the spread of communistic doctrines was due to the friars. Moreover, the same popular opinion is reflected in the fabricated confession of Jack Straw, for he is made to declare that had the rebels been successful, all the monastic orders, as well as the secular clergy, would have been put to death, and only the friars would have been allowed to continue. Their numbers would have sufficed for the spiritual needs of the whole kingdom. Moreover, it has been noticed that not a few of them actually took part in the revolt, heading some of the bands of countrymen who marched on London.

It will have been seen, therefore, that Communism was a favorite rallying-cry throughout the Middle Ages for all those on whom the oppression of the feudal yoke bore heavily. It was partly also a religious ideal for some of the strange gnostic sects which flourished at that era. Moreover, it was an efficient weapon when used as an accusation, for Wycliff and the friars alike both dreaded its imputation.

Perhaps of all that period, John Ball alone held it consistently and without shame. Eloquent in the way of popular appeal, he manifestly endeavored to force it as a social reform on the peasantry, who were suffering under the intolerable grievance of the Statutes of Laborers. But though he roused the countryside to his following, and made the people for the first time a thing of dread to nobles and King, it does not appear that his ideas spread much beyond his immediate lieutenants. Just as in their petitions the rebels made no doctrinal statements against Church teaching, nor any capital out of heretical attacks (except, singularly enough, to accuse the Primate, whom they subsequently put to death, of overmuch leniency to Lollards), so, too, they made no reference to the central idea of Ball’s social theories. In fact, little abstract matter could well have appealed to them. Concrete oppression was all they knew, and were this done away with, it is evident that they would have been well content.

The case of the friars is curious. For though their superiors made many attempts to prove their hostility to the rebels, it is evident that their actual teaching was suspected by those in high places. It is the exact reversal of the case of Wycliff. His views, which sounded so favorable to communism, are found on examination to be really nothing but a plea to leave things alone, “for the saints have now all they would have”; while on the other hand the theories of the friars, in themselves so logical and consistent, and in appearance obviously conservative to the fullest extent, turn out to contain the germ of revolution.

Said Lord Acton with his sober wit: “Not the devil, but St. Thomas Aquinas, was the first Whig.”


This article is excerpted from Mediæval Socialism by Jede Barrett.