A view from Dave Trott

A view from Dave Trott: The peasants are revolting

In the 14th century, England was run on feudal lines.

The lords owned the land and also the peasants who worked on it.

The peasants were slaves, in all but name.

Then came the Black Death: the plague.

Roughly a third of all the peasants died.

This was actually good news for those that survived.

The only source of energy the landowners had was peasants’ muscle, and now there was a shortage.

The peasants found they could get better wages by changing jobs.

So laws were made to stop them doing that.

At the same time, the poll tax was introduced.

So the poor did all the work and got nothing, the rich did nothing and got all the rewards.

One priest, John Ball, began preaching the wrongness of this.

But what was really shocking was he used the language of the peasants: English.

The educated classes, the ruling classes, spoke Latin or French.

The peasants couldn’t understand this, and so were powerless.

But John Ball preached in English so they could understand. 

His maxim became the rallying cry for all peasants.

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

Basically: the Bible states that Adam and Eve were the first humans, so they must have done all the work. 

God didn’t make anyone sit around and live off the profits of their labour.

In simple language, John Ball gave everyone a religious argument against feudalism.

It was the first-ever mass-market strapline in the English language.

He encapsulated the reason-to-believe in a simple mnemonic.

It became the cry of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and a peasant army marched on London. 

The king, lords and nobles were terrified.

Richard II was forced to grant the peasants freedom.

But, as soon as they left, he reneged on that pledge and had them murdered in their hundreds.

He addressed the people as follows:

"Peasants you were and peasants you remain.

"You will stay in bondage, not as before but in an incomparably worse state. For as long as we are alive to achieve this, we shall work with our minds, powers and possessions to keep you in such subjugation that the abject state of your servitude may be a lesson to posterity."

John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered for his plain speaking.

That’s how dangerous it was considered.

And they were right: plain-speaking was dangerous.

The English language was the beginning of the end for feudalism.

England changed as the language of the peasants took over.

In fact, 300 years later, the king was beheaded by the ordinary people.

That’s how powerful it is to give people a rallying cry in their own language.

To deliver your message in a way they can understand and repeat.

To talk to people not in the language of the educated classes.

To talk to people in their own language.

It’s not comfortable, it’s not elegant, it’s not educated.

But if you want results, that’s how you get them.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three