No Quarter: an Anarchist Zine about Pirates

Tuesday, January 23, 1990

The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution

If any book could make the case that radicals today should be interested in the English revolution, a period some 350 years distant, then this is the book. Conservative historical narratives represent this period as a civil war between Cromwell and King; between royalists and parliament. Instead of a history of great men, Hill gives us a history of “the lover fifty percent”, of rank and file soldiers, of common people, and of religious and political radicals.
Hill details groups such as the Levellers, radicals within Cromwell’s New Model Army, agitating for radical democracy within the army and in society at large, working against both the state church and the authority of the puritan divines. Hill looks at Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers who declared the world to be a common treasury for all and practiced agrarian communism on the commons. He looks at religious radicals of all stripes, Baptists, Familists, Muggletonians, Quakers and Seekers. He looks at conspiratorial groups such as the Fifth Monarchists, and perhaps the strangest and most interesting group, the Ranters. Various of these groups demanded the end of the state church, of tithes and religious courts, radical religious toleration (extending even to Muslims and Jews). They agitated for court proceedings in English instead of Latin (so that common people could understand the law) and the right to trial by jury and to represent oneself, even the abolition of lawyers. There was persistent agitation for universal suffrage (extending even to servants and women), universal healthcare, free universal education and various schemes of education reform, the redistribution of land seized from royalists to the poor, an end to Imperialist aggression in Ireland. The Diggers even went so far as to advocate ‘true levelling’, that is, the abolition of private land ownership, no wage labour and no law. Many religious communities allowed for easy divorce for men or women, various liberalizations of sexual morality including allowing wife swapping and destigmatizing adultery. Ranters argued that there was no sin and proceeded to practice what they preached. They loved to smoke, drink, curse, go nude, and have sex with whom they chose (supposedly in public at times). Hill documents that the revolutionary period was marked by widespread opposition and resistance to Calvinism and the protestant work ethic. Cottagers (people who built homes on common land) obstinately refused to work except when absolutely necessary or when wages were unusually high. Many of the radical religious sects and the Ranters were fond of drink and would often have their religious meetings in taverns rather than churches. It was common place for radicals (including George Fox, one of the founding Quakers, who later went on to respectability) to attend services at conservative congregations and challenge the pastor to a debate, demand the right to address the congregation, or simply to disrupt the service. Radicals declared the right of anyone to preach, not just the educated elite.
Hill argues that radical lay preachers in the New Model Army did a lot to spread the ideas during the civil war that blossomed into a social revolution. Ranters burnt the bible on at least one occasion. Many groups claimed that the bible was not literally true and should instruct by analogy. Others doubted its divine origins, pointing out the human element in translation, not to mention choosing which books are included in the bible. Many argued that God’s light existed in all and that one’s conscience was more important than anything in the bible or any other book, and that actions were more important than words ( a radical idea indeed at a time when education was restricted to a small elite). There were many wandering would-be messiahs and healers. Miracles and signs were common place. Many of the sects allowed women to preach (at a time when it was illegal for a woman to sit in the same pew as her husband at church). The claim that Jesus or God was within everyone was widespread, as was the denial of the historical Jesus, or even a creator God. Ranters cursed the bible, Jesus, puritans, the rich, almost anyone.
Hill provides evidence of all this and more, illustrating it with wonderful excerpts from primary sources. Censorship broke down during the revolutionary period and there is the most wonderful wealth of writings by and about the radicals. Hill’s scholarship is excellent but he never gets bogged down or boring. Despite being a well respected academic and perhaps the world’s leading authority on the English revolution (or perhaps because of it) his writing practically boils over with revolutionary enthusiasm. This book is consequently a wonderful introduction, especially for radicals to an amazingly radical period in the history of England, when common folk very nearly turned the world upside down. Hill notes: “The reader who wishes to restore his perspective might with advantage read the valuable book recently published by Professor David Underdown: Pride’s Purge (Oxford U.P., 1971). This deals with almost exactly the same period as I do, but from an entirely different angle. His is the view from the top, from Whitehall, mine the worm’s eye view. His index and mine contain entirely different lists of names.” I for one am glad I stuck with Hill.
This book is especially important if we want to take seriously Hill’s thesis in Radical Pirates (which unfortunately I’ve only read excerpts from), that English radicals, especially Ranters, may have ended up in the new world and influenced- perhaps even became- pirates themselves. I for one am willing to take seriously anything Christopher Hill says.


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