The Ranters

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

by Christopher Hill
Viking, 353 pp., $8.95

Each generation re-creates the English revolution in its own image. In an age of Parliament and Empire the Victorians admired the morally earnest architects of constitutional liberty—Hampden, Pym, and the makers of the Petition of Right. Even Cromwell, whose relations with Parliament had been continuously unhappy, was paradoxically commemorated by the erection of a statue outside the Palace of Westminster. Later, with the coming of universal suffrage, interest shifted to the more radical figures who emerged in the wake of the Civil War, particularly the Levellers, whose dramatic assertion of universal political rights was revealed in the newly discovered text of the Putney Debates. The Levellers had proclaimed fundamental law as well as democracy, and in the 1930s and 1940s their extensive writings were assiduously edited by American scholars.

Meanwhile the rise of communism had directed attention to the neglected career of the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, whose followers had in the year of Charles I’s execution established small collectivist colonies to till the soil, and whose doctrines seemed (and still seem) to anticipate much of what was most penetrating in Marxian analysis. Parliamentarians, Levellers, and Diggers have thus together enjoyed most of the historical attention lavished on the thought of the two mid-seventeenth-century decades. The preoccupations of historians are symbolized by three great monuments: S.R. Gardiner’s Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, C. H. Firth’s edition of The Clarke Papers, and George H. Sabine’s collection of the writings of Winstanley.

Times change, however, and with them historical fashions. An age of long hair, pop music, and sexual freedom can hardly be expected to find its heroes in the grim figures of Pym and Cromwell (even if Cromwell at his daughter’s wedding did allow mixed dancing until five o’clock in the morning). Interest is predictably shifting to the more far-out aspects of the interregnum scene—to the Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchists, and other religious enthusiasts, libertarians, and eccentrics whom previous generations curtly dismissed as the “lunatic fringe.” Already we have had Dr. B. S. Capp’s excellent study, The Fifth Monarchy Men.1 Now in a book of fundamental importance Christopher Hill has brought the hitherto despised Ranters to the fore. He has brilliantly succeeded in demonstrating both their great interest in the history of thought and their uncanny relevance to the contemporary world.

As a study of radical ideas during the Puritan revolution The World Turned Upside Down thus differs from its predecessors in passing quickly over the Levellers and focusing its main attention on the years immediately after the king’s execution in 1649, when the defeat of political democracy appeared fairly certain but when the emergence of a new radical culture still seemed possible. The essence of this “counter-culture” was not so much political as theological. For, in spite of a bewildering variety of individual responses, the Ranters, Diggers, and early Quakers were united in proclaiming a fundamentally new view of man, which involved the repudiation of 1500 years of religious teaching.

Ever since the beginning of Christianity…

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