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The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972)

por Christopher Hill

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949716,664 (4.08)30
'His finest work and one that was both symptom and engine of the concept of "history from below" ... Here Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Muggletonians, the early Quakers and others taking advantage of the collapse of censorship to bid for new kinds of freedom were given centre stage ... Hill lives on' Times Higher Education In 'The World Turned Upside Down' Christopher Hill studies the beliefs of such radical groups as the Diggers, the Ranters, the Levellers and others, and the social and emotional impulses that gave rise to them. The relations between rich and poor classes, the part played by wandering 'masterless' men, the outbursts of sexual freedom, the great imaginative creations of Milton and Bunyan - these and many other elements build up into a marvellously detailed and coherent portrait of this strange, sudden effusion of revolutionary beliefs. 'Established the concept of an "English Revolution" every bit as significant and potentially as radical as its French and Russian equivalents' Daily Telegraph 'Brilliant ... marvellous erudition and sympathy' David Caute, New Statesman 'This book will outlive our time and will stand as a notable monument to the man, the committed radical scholar, and one of the finest historians of the age' The Times Literary Supplement 'The dean and paragon of English historians' E.P. Thompson… (mais)
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The period of the English Revolution of the 17th century, especially the late 1640s, was a time of incredible intellectual ferment, which we happen to know about in unusual detail, because there was a gap in official censorship of the press between 1641 and 1660. Everyone —idealists, dreamers, prophets, con-men, magicians, political and religious theorists, self-appointed messiahs, people with grudges against those in power, and quite a few who were simply deranged — put their ideas down on paper and issued them in pamphlets with wonderful titles like Jonahs Cry from the Whales Belly, The Lawyers Bane, Rome Ruin'd by Whitehall, Spiritual Whoredome discovered in a sermon before the House of Commons, The Vanitie of the Present Churches, Tyranipocrit Discovered, and — my favourite — A Fiery Flying Roll.

Most of these were objecting in one way or another to the compromises of the Commonwealth political settlement, which might have got rid of king and bishops for the time being, but had failed to sweep away other bugbears like tithes, landlords, and the professional monopolies of lawyers and priests, and was evidently seen by many at the bottom of society as simply replacing one set of powerful wealthy oppressors by another. Levellers looked for a more equal distribution of property — their hardline counterparts, the Diggers, wanted to eliminate private ownership of land altogether, setting up collective farms on uncultivated land. Seekers and Ranters took the teaching of the Reformation beyond Calvinism to reject clerical control of their religious and moral life altogether, embracing an antinomian position that nothing could be sinful to those who were living in the Spirit, and demonstratively indulged in the 17th century equivalent of sex, drugs and rock and roll in their services to prove it. Abiezer Coppe (he of the Burning Bun) is supposed to have sworn from the pulpit for a solid hour on one occasion: "there's swearing ignorantly i'th dark, and there's swearing i'th light, gloriously".

Hill takes us through the ideas of these groups and their many successors — the Ranters seem to have been one of the breeding grounds for the very respectable Quakers, for instance: Hill has fun casting James Nayler as the Trotsky subsequently written out of of Quaker history (he doesn't actually go on to call Fox and Penn Lenin and Stalin, but it seems to be implied...).

What is also very interesting is the way, not always clear, these ideas fit into social history. Hill makes a lot of how bottom-up it all was: A lot of the conspicuous radical figures including Fox, Coppe, Bunyan, and the Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley came out of the new Army and/or had been "mechanicks" — itinerant artisans — and thus didn't have a well-defined place either in traditional agrarian society or in bourgeois/professional town life. Very few seem to have come from the traditional kind of middle-class intellectual background, and those who did, like Milton, were usually analysts and commentators rather than being involved in actual radical action. Hill suspects, but can't actually prove, that the ideas expressed by people like the Ranters and Levellers came out of things that were always present in a radical stream of English popular culture (going back to the Peasants' Revolt and Lollards, and forward to Blake), emerging into the mainstream in the disorder of the Civil War, and then pushed back underground by the repression of the Restoration.

The history we learn at school seems to take it for granted that the Civil War was a momentary aberration in English politics far less significant than the subsequent settlement of 1688, but when you read about what was going on in the 1640s, you can't help wondering what would have happened if Cromwell had not eliminated the influence of the Levellers in the army at Burford in 1649. Would we have had democracy (or even communism) in the 17th century? Or would the Calvinists have got the upper hand again and turned England into a semi-theocracy like the Dutch Republic? We'll never know, but it's fun thinking about it. ( )
  thorold | May 16, 2020 |
Thie book is a study of radical ideas that appeared in England during the English Revolution or Civil War of the 1640s and 1650s. Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Muggletonians, the early Quakers, 5th Monarchists and other religious and political dissenters take sought a new type of freedom. Of all the dissenting groups only the Quakers survive today more than 350 years on. ( )
  QRM | May 2, 2020 |
A question on the r/askhistorians subreddit the other day expressed confusion over Milton's Paradise Lost: how was it that such an established canonical writer was able to compose such a subversive work, which expresses so much sympathy with the Devil? How was this allowed in the seventeenth century – didn't he get in trouble?

Underlying the query is the assumption that in the Old Days, the tenets of religion were monolithic and universally accepted. In fact, as this book shows, the disruption of the English civil war(s) and the chaotic interregnum saw the biggest flare-up of religious experimentation and batshit unorthodoxy that side of the Enlightenment (for which, in some ways, it may have laid the groundwork). A whole baffling array of fantastically radical politico-religious sects sprang up: Levellers, Familists, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Seekers, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians, Grindletonians…all of them merging into each other, all of them with extraordinary and subversive ideas.

Many thought the Bible was merely allegorical; some did not believe in life after death, or the historical Christ, or the concept of a soul. Gerrard Winstanley, one of the Diggers, equated ‘God’ with ‘Reason’, or spoke ambiguously about ‘the God Devil’; one of the Ranters, Laurence Clarkson, wrote that to the truly pure, ‘Devil is God, hell is heaven, sin holiness, damnation salvation’. (Here you might sense Milton taking notes directly.) A lot of these pamphleteers and itinerant preachers were, in modern terminology, essentially atheists, though in the religious atmosphere of the seventeenth century even this unbelief was expressed in theological terms: they called themselves ‘pantheists’ or ‘deists’. ‘God has become a synonym for the natural world,’ as Christopher Hill puts it. Many of them were profoundly impressed by the emerging rational science – so much so that, Hill says, ‘chemistry became almost equated with radical theology’. This new materialism could make people's objections to religion awesomely practical – I loved hearing the record of one John Boggins of Great Yarmouth, who demanded:

‘Where is your God, in heaven or in earth, aloft or below, or doth he sit in the clouds, or where doth he sit with his arse?’

As in religion, so in politics. All these radical sects were, in a general sense, speaking for the masses as against the ruling classes; they had supported the Parliamentarian side in the civil war, they opposed the union of church and state (‘The function of a state church was not merely to guide men to heaven,’ Hill reminds us: ‘it was also to keep them in subordination here on earth’); they believed in a widespread redistribution of wealth and land, and thought traditional moral censure should give way to an enjoyment of life's brief pleasures. This included sex: opposition to marriage as a state-sanctioned (and expensive) piece of admin was pretty universal among these groups, but some took it much further and advocated a kind of free love. ‘There's no heaven but women, no hell save marriage,’ according to one rector. Hill is professorial about all this, and shows himself well aware of the fact that

[s]exual freedom, in fact, tended to be freedom for men only, so long as there was no effective birth control.

Women's voices are rarely heard directly in this book, though; hopefully that's something that later historians have been able to improve upon.

Overall, it's hard not to feel on the side of the radical underdogs, but you can see why they had such a tough time because their vision was genuinely revolutionary. When an opponent of Winstanley's objected that his ideas, if realised, would destroy all government, ministry and religion, ‘Winstanley replied coolly: “It is very true.”’

And ranged against them was a land-owning aristocracy and a hierarchy of bishops, whose conservatism and staunch antidisestablishmentarianism aimed to keep property in the hands of the few and to regulate the behaviour of the great unwashed – though, on the plus side, it did mean I was able to use the word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’, so swings and roundabouts.

A Marxist historian, Hill perhaps sees things in more overtly class-warlike terms than other writers would – he never talks about the ‘civil war’, for instance, but always refers to it as the English Revolution. This is justified, but it does reflect a certain perspective. Personally I find it a very productive way to approach the period, but your yardage may vary.

Certainly one thing you don't get much of in this book is the wider historical context. Hill assumes you know the outline of all the major players and events going in, takes it for granted that you appreciate the difference between the Long Parliament, the Rump Parliament, the Barebones Parliament and the Restoration Parliament, and can identify Cornet Joyce or Thomas Fairfax at fifty paces. ‘The events following Nayler's symbolic entry into Bristol in 1656…are well known,’ he says, rather optimistically. The last time I did any serious reading in this period was twenty years ago during a ‘17th century literature and culture’ module at university, so I found it all a bit of a shock to the system at first – even half a page on what the Civil War was all about would have helped. But once I'd waded a few chapters into it, I was won over by the sheer heady excitement of the time and place – the sudden rush of ideas, the intellectual melting-pot, is very powerfully evoked.

And for a narrative historian (which Hill isn't quite), the whole thing does have the appealing shape of a classical tragedy. The monarchy was restored, a state Church was re-established, and social equity, for the most part, remained an unrealised fantasy. Of the spectrum of weird and wonderful sects, the only survivors are the Quakers, and they survived only by submitting to the worldly authority they had originally opposed – an evolution that, for Hill, epitomises ‘the fading of the [countercultural] dream into the half-light of common day’.

It is sad, in a way – but it's also hugely inspiring to get such a comprehensive overview of this rich, anti-authority tradition in English intellectual history. It was a tradition that was picked up by Milton, and later by Blake and the Romantics, and that by rights should be drawn on today, by people looking for inspiration in turning today's inequalities upside-down, too. ( )
5 vote Widsith | Aug 13, 2018 |
2 copies in diff places
  WandsworthFriends | May 28, 2018 |
Biography and History > British Isles -- Scotland And Ireland > Europe > Great Britain > Union of crowns and parliaments 1603-1707
  FHQuakers | Feb 12, 2018 |
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'His finest work and one that was both symptom and engine of the concept of "history from below" ... Here Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Muggletonians, the early Quakers and others taking advantage of the collapse of censorship to bid for new kinds of freedom were given centre stage ... Hill lives on' Times Higher Education In 'The World Turned Upside Down' Christopher Hill studies the beliefs of such radical groups as the Diggers, the Ranters, the Levellers and others, and the social and emotional impulses that gave rise to them. The relations between rich and poor classes, the part played by wandering 'masterless' men, the outbursts of sexual freedom, the great imaginative creations of Milton and Bunyan - these and many other elements build up into a marvellously detailed and coherent portrait of this strange, sudden effusion of revolutionary beliefs. 'Established the concept of an "English Revolution" every bit as significant and potentially as radical as its French and Russian equivalents' Daily Telegraph 'Brilliant ... marvellous erudition and sympathy' David Caute, New Statesman 'This book will outlive our time and will stand as a notable monument to the man, the committed radical scholar, and one of the finest historians of the age' The Times Literary Supplement 'The dean and paragon of English historians' E.P. Thompson

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