Literary Daybook, June 12

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 12, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 12, 1970, Hiro Tanaka born.
-- "East Is East" (1990)
by T. Coraghessan Boyle

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1381, preacher John Ball spoke at Blackheath to those assembled for the Peasants' Revolt, inciting them with perhaps the most provocative rhymed couplet in history:

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

The rebels apparently took up this chant as they marched on London to demand of 14-year-old Richard II and those about him why "They are clothed in velvet and soft leather furred with ermine, while we wear coarse cloth; they have their wines, spices and good bread, while we have the drawings of chaff, and drink water; they have handsome houses and manors, and we the pain and travail, the rain and the wind, in the fields" (from a John Ball sermon, in Froissart's "Chronicles"). Though defeated -- leader Wat Tyler killed in a knife fight; John Ball hung, drawn and quartered -- the poetry lived on, says one historian, as the embodiment of "a spirit fatal to the whole system of the Middle Ages."

One of the most interesting and ironic resurfacings of Ball's couplet -- though not his alone, as the lines have been traced back to the 1340s -- came 500 years later, through William Morris. Lucky the medieval lord who might have had Morris about the manor, for his industry as well as talent: architecture, textiles, stained glass, wallpaper, furniture and of course books. His Arts and Crafts Movement would revolutionize Victorian taste, but in his politics he was literally a rebel, working tirelessly for the Socialist League, and marching in the 1887 "Bloody Sunday" demonstration beside George Bernard Shaw. That year too, he published "A Dream of John Ball," a socialist, time-travel fantasy in which Morris promotes his vision of an idealized, craftsmen's world.

When Morris started his famous Kelmscott Press several years later, one of his first books was his own edition of "A Dream of John Ball," with a frontispiece illustration of the delve-span couplet by Edward Burne-Jones. Perhaps in this book, at least, Morris realized his composite ideal of medievalism, socialism and craft-as-art. A first edition now costs $3,000 -- not the $75,000 needed for the Kelmscott Chaucer, described as a "pocket cathedral" and said to be the most beautiful book ever printed, but not chaff and water either.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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