What do delve and span mean in this quotation from John Ball's sermon addressing the rebels of the Peasant's Revolt?

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

It doesn't seem to fit the usual meaning of delve as in "to dig into," and I have no idea what Eve would be spinning in the Garden of Eden.


It is a poetic way of replacing the word work in a gender-specific way. To wit:

When the quotation says that Adam delved, it is saying that he delved into the soil of the earth he farmed; this illuminates the connection with the primary meaning of delve. In other words, it is another way to say that he tilled the soil, an old male-specific metaphor for general work in English.

When it says that Eve span, it is similarly referring to a female-specific metaphor for work; not so long ago, women were largely responsible for tailoring and mending the clothing of their household, and even today hobbies like crocheting and knitting are strongly associated with the feminine sex. Weaving cloth in those days would have required a distaff and a spindle; a spindle is a weighted object that spins as it releases cloth to the loom, which explains the use of the participle span.

Though you didn't ask about it in your question, gentlemen had less of a vague meaning than today, where it can be applied to just about anybody, rich or poor; back then, in John Ball's time, to have been called a gentleman would have been to be a man of means, of good family and distinction, and it would connote more of a class divide than we observe with the word today. Indeed, gentlemen has a shared etymological root with the word gentry, which as you'll note still retains that distinction for scholarly use.

So in other words, the quotation can be crudely paraphrased thus:

Back when our righteous forefathers worked, who among them would have been better than the other, who would have observed any class distinctions?

That massage would have soundly resonated with the rebels of the Peasant Revolt John Ball was preaching to.

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

20 And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

  • +1 - "Gentleman" in fact used to essentially mean "a man who doesn't have to work for a living". My impression is that folks like P.T. Barnum, by using it regularly as outrageous flattery, started the modern corruption of the meaning down to "a polite word for man". – T.E.D. Nov 12 '12 at 19:40
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    Spinning was women's work. Weaving and tailoring, not so much. Not so long ago, almost all women spent all their available free minutes spinning, because it takes a damn lot of thread to make fabric. However, in many places that thread would then be delivered to a weaver to be made into cloth, and then taken from the weaver to a tailor to be made into clothes. Both of those were specific occupations, as likely to be held by a man as a woman. Also, spinning requires a spindle (and for some fiber types, a distaff); neither of those is needed for weaving. – Marthaª Nov 27 '12 at 18:32
  • @Marthaª no doubt knows better than me. Could I fix this? – Uticensis Oct 28 '13 at 18:36
  • A man'a a man for a that! – Fattie Jun 16 '15 at 15:58
  • @martha, I think you should just boldly edit this (totally superb) answer. As you explain, "eve span" refers to her spinning thread. The comments about weaving etc. are incorrect. The answer is otherwise wholly superb so you should just edit it, since it looks like Uti. is taking a break. – Fattie Jun 16 '15 at 16:03

Essentially the point John Ball made was that originally there was no feudal hierarchy, so feudalism was not ordained by God. All should work, as peasants did but gentlemen did not.

After Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, he was presumably a farmer like his sons, and she had to made clothes to cover their recently discovered nakedness.


Some of the popularity of this saying may have been due to a humourous double-entendre: Eve's 'span' refering to her spread legs, and Adam's natural delving I'll leave to your imagination...

I'm pretty sure I've seen reference to this innuendo in 19th century works (when the phrases were repopularised). But I don't remember where. I believe there was also a German version of this rhyme in circulation.

If anyone has references (or an etymological analysis on whether the double-entendres were possible in the 14th century) — please let me know.

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    Interesting speculation: as you say, the answer only lacks a credible source. – MetaEd Nov 27 '12 at 18:25
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    @MετάEd The actual quote, which can be found in the OED citation for spin (verb.) is “When Adam dalve, and Eve span, Who was than a gentle-man?” from 1560 in Pilkinton’s Exposition upon Aggeus. There can be no question whatsoever that this is the past tense of spin. – tchrist Jun 16 '13 at 15:47
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    @tchrist The question at issue is whether there are facts to support the double meaning interpretation. – MetaEd Jun 16 '13 at 15:53

When Adam delved it meant he was working in the fields and tilling the soil. Eve spanning on the other hand meant she was giving birth and raising up children. She wasn't spinning anything. Just to clarify.

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    Why do you say that span means "gave birth"? – Charles Nov 12 '12 at 19:52
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    Spinning thread from wool was quintessentially women's work in mediaeval times: so much so that the distaff used became the heraldic term for the female side. – TimLymington Nov 12 '12 at 22:22
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    The actual quote, which can be found in the OED citation for spin (verb.) giving an example of span as the past tense of spin, is “When Adam dalve, and Eve span, Who was than a gentle-man?” from 1560 in Pilkinton’s Exposition upon Aggeus. There can be no question whatsoever that this is the past tense of spin. This answer is wrong. – tchrist Jun 16 '13 at 15:49

protected by TimLymington Oct 29 '13 at 23:38

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