Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

The World Turned Upside Down

If you shine a light on fog, all you see is fog. Historians, when they shine a light on the past, are supposed to let us see through the fog, but what they mostly do is tell us what the vague shapes they illuminate for us with their historical torches really are, or rather what they think they are. Shine a torch on the seventeenth century from one direction and it looks like this, shine a torch from another direction and it looks like that. Go back tomorrow and shine it from the same direction again and it looks completely different.

Historians, who spend their lives in historical fog, learn to find their way around, orientating themselves by reading each other’s works and coming to their own conclusions about reality. Readers who put their trust in any one historian are likely to be as seriously misled as Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius were by Puck. You might as well read historical fiction, which is what most people do. With Puck as novelist and Oberon as publisher, you are at least guaranteed a good read.

I read The World Turned Upside Down – Radical Ideas During The English Revolution by Christopher Hill because I wanted to find out more about the Diggers. School history and most of what I had read subsequently about this period was mainly about Cavaliers and Roundheads, leaving me only vaguely aware of the part played by other groups with even stranger names (there were Levellers and Ranters, Seekers and Quakers, as well as Diggers) who joined in with the Putney Debates but otherwise were of no significance. The vague shapes in the fog were always Cromwell and the king.

What I learned (or think I learned) from this superb book, which was first published in 1972, is that, for a brief period in the middle of the seventeenth century, voices were heard that had been silent for at least a hundred years and did not speak again for a hundred more. In his introduction, Christopher Hill writes about ‘another revolution which never happened’, one which ‘might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic’. Levellers, True Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers and Quakers were the names given to the sects which emerged during this period and whose leaders were the ‘daring thinkers’ who ‘refused to bow down and worship’ the protestant ethic.

The greatest of these was Gerrard Winstanley. On Sunday 1st April 1649, he and a few other poor men began digging up a patch of waste land on St George’s Hill, near Walton-on-Thames, claiming it for themselves because ‘the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons’. Similar colonies sprang up in other places. They were Levellers, ‘True Levellers’ according to Winstanley, but for obvious reasons became known as Diggers. The sects were often difficult to distinguish and people moved from one to another, but all believed in the common ownership of land. They were communists who drew on Christian scripture rather than Marxist principles to justify their beliefs. ‘He that works for another,’ Winstanley wrote, ‘either for wages or to pay him rent, works unrighteously … but they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the earth a common treasury, doth join hands with Christ to lift up the creation from bondage, and restores all things from the curse.’

He writes good English prose of the kind we associate with Bacon’s essays and Donne’s sermons, plain and vigorous, the words embodying, not embellishing, the meaning. To landowners who base their claim to ownership on the grounds of inheritance, regardless of how the land was acquired by their ancestors, he writes, ‘though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land.’ Of the execution of the king, he wrote, ‘That top bough is lopped off the tree of tyranny, and the kingly power in that one particular is cast out. But alas, oppression is a great tree still, and keeps off the sun of freedom from the poor commons still.’

In 1652 he published The Law of Freedom, which Hill calls ‘a draft constitution for a communist commonwealth’. It includes detailed proposals for justice, defence, education, employment, politics and trade. In the matter of religion, he was as anti-clerical as any French revolutionary. Priests, he wrote, ‘lay claim to heaven after they are dead, and yet they require their heaven in this world too, and grumble mightily against the people that will not give them a large temporal maintenance. And yet they tell the poor people that they must be content with their poverty, and they shall have their heaven hereafter. But why may not we have our heaven here (that is, a comfortable livelihood in the earth) and heaven hereafter too, as well as you?’

The fog of the seventeenth century is not very different from the fog of the twenty-first. The priests then who told the poor to be content with their poverty are like the rich now who call protests against inequality ‘the politics of envy’. Do they think we don’t know how much pleasure it gives them to be envied? As someone once said, rich people want to be loved for their money, not just for themselves.

In his introduction to a book about what happened when 40,000 poor people led by Robert Kett occupied Norwich to protest against the enclosure of common land, exactly a hundred years before a dozen men began digging on St George’s Hill, the historian Joseph Clayton wrote, ‘The poor and the great mass of landless working folk in England have never made common cause against the wealthy and the landlords, while the latter, with a few heroic exceptions, have always stood together in close phalanx against the demands of the peasants. Today’ (he was writing in 1911) ‘it is with savage animosity and bitter impatience that the wealthy speak from the fullness of their hearts of the working people when the latter give trouble by going on strike. At other times, when the strike is forgotten, the tone is kindly contempt for obvious inferiors.’

That is why the Diggers play such a small part, if they play a part at all, in English history, not because they didn’t matter, but because the poor are still expected to be content with their poverty and not, under any circumstances, to envy the rich.

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My next post, due to be published on Wednesday 15 April, will be about Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Garden.

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This entry was posted on April 8, 2015 by in History and tagged , , , , .
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