BOOKS AND ARTS
31 March 2011, Review by John Morrill
Ranting, quaking and digging
Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England: a concise history from the English Civil War to the end of the CommonwealthAndrew Bradstock
I.B. Tauris, £15.99
Tablet bookshop price £14.40 Tel 01420 592974
In the revolutionary years around 1649 unthinkable things happened in England: a king was put on trial for treason against his people and beheaded by order of Parliament; monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished; the Established Church was destroyed “roots and branches” and the legal obligation on all, Catholics included, to attend divine worship on a Sunday was revoked; and Oliver Cromwell set out to “extirpate” (his word) popery in Ireland and the regime he represented set out to remove all Catholics from 28 of the 32 counties of Ireland. When such unthinkable things were happening, it is not surprising that unthinkable thoughts were being thought and indeed published. It was a time of teeming liberty, and every heresy there had ever been, especially antinomianism, blossomed afresh.
This book celebrates this effervescence in what it claims to be “the first genuinely concise and accessible history of the fascinating ideas and movements which emerged in this fascinating period”. This is a bit hard on Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: radical ideas during the English revolution (hardback 1972, Penguin paperback 1975), one of the most popular and highly regarded works of the historian who bestrode seventeenth-century studies from the 1960s to the 1980s. But concise and accessible it certainly is. Seven chapters deal with the enduring movements, Baptists, Quakers, and startlingly Muggletonians, who kept going as a tiny sect until 1979, and those that are not so much movements as epiphenomenal moments, such as Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, and Fifth Monarchists, framed between a rather narrow historiographical introduction and an expansive conclusion which claims that many of the ideas survived and, it is asserted, deserved to survive, into modern times. Readers may well share my position, midway between Hill-Bradstock enthusiasm and the slightly rancid revisionist realism
represented by Professor
Andrew Bradstock’s Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England is very much Hill redivivus. There is the same sentimental celebration of liberty descending into licence, the same insouciant acceptance of his radicals’ accounts of their experience of persecution as they challenged what was left of hierarchy and authority, the same wistful plea for the evergreen integrity of their ideas. Ironically, Bradstock is so successful in locating his radicals in their own times that his claims for their enduring value seem less plausible at the end than at the beginning. That said, he does indeed offer a wonderfully clear summary of his three movements and four moments, and the bigger and more enduring the better he is.
This is certainly now the best short introduction to the truculence of the early Quakers – militant passive resisters, organ-isers of tithe strikes and disrupters of services in steeple houses – and of the determined separatism of the Baptists; and it offers a measured account of the Fifth Monarchists, constantly disappointed in their conviction that the 1,000-Year Rule of the Saints was tomorrow night. It is less surefooted with the Ranters, brushing aside the compelling evidence of J.C. Davis that whatever the antinomianism of a congeries of violent anti-Calvinists, the “movement” was in the minds of establishment puritans more than in the gatherings of men and women determined to demonstrate that they were free from sin by practising all the sins which are most fun. Davis’ work is dismissed in a sentence in which he is “anonymised”.
It is good to see the profound if idiosyncratic biblicism of the Levellers and Diggers (the one radical libertarians, the other radical egalitarians) taken seriously, and entertaining to find anti-clericalism taken to such extremes. Most readers of this book will find its presentation entertaining and enlightening, but most will also find its wider claims unconvincing. The bibliography is tendentiously selective and no references are provided for the host of lively, vivid, startling quotations from original sources, which is a real pity. Bradstock has written passionately in the past about Gerrard Winstanley, most passionate of the Diggers, and it is with them that his sympathies most obviously lie. This book will make few converts among readers of The Tablet, but it will do them no harm to see just how thinkable some thoughts are when there are no bishops around to keep the faithful in line.
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