The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
Christopher Hill, 1972

John Edward Christopher Hill (1912-2003) was a British Marxist Historian who was Master of Balliol College, Oxford in the 1960s and 70s. He wrote extensively about the seventeenth century, over a period of nearly half the twentieth. “Popular revolt,” Hill began this book, “was for many centuries an essential feature of the English tradition.” Although “the long-term consequences of the Revolution [of 1640] were all to the advantage of the gentry and merchants,” Hill believed ideas were generated and things were begun among the “lower fifty per cent of the population” which led to the world we live in. The result was not the upside-down utopia of communal brotherly love the Levellers had hoped for, but the echoes of their ideas are perceptible in the modern world, Hill suggested.

The value of this book for me was not so much in the historical narrative, which is at the extreme leading edge of the period I’m studying, but in the way Hill approached his material and the story. He gently warned against applying presentist categories, saying for example that it’s “misleading to differentiate too sharply between politics, religion, and general scepticism...a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger, or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends.” The “flood of radical ideas” unleashed by the Ranters and their associates made up a second layer of the Revolution. Though this was “another revolution which never happened,” Hill saw himself as part of the new generation, rescuing these radicals “from what [his] predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as ‘the lunatic fringe’.”

Although most of the story involved religious thought and many of the social arguments were made using religious terminology and metaphor, Hill said that as far back as the early sixteenth century, there was “a tradition of plebeian anti-clericalism and irreligion” that expressed class tensions. A previously static agricultural society with “no land and no man without a lord” was giving way to a world of enclosures, where “rogues, vagabonds and beggars” roamed the countryside. In the City, “a large population, mostly living very near if not below the poverty line, little influenced by religious or political ideology [was] ready-made material for what began in the later seventeenth century to be called ‘the mob’.” The forests harbored outlaws and witches. “Disafforestation and enclosure could thus be regarded as a national duty, a kindness in disguise to the idle poor, as well as of more immediate benefit to the rich encloser.” Hill suggested the poor saw the irony in this as easily as we do and clearly understood that “a wage-earner who had lost his common rights would be much more dependent on his employer than one who had not.”

Hill explained that “The traditional insecurity of medieval life had been intensified by the new insecurity of the capitalist market,” which intensified competition and undercut the social safety-net of village life. But this economic shift did not mean a new secular order was at hand. Thomas Edwards, writing in 1646, thought “religious toleration is the greatest of all evils...It will bring in first scepticism in doctrine and looseness in life, and then atheism.” King Charles I had agreed, saying “Religion is the only firm foundation of all power.” Oliver Cromwell, who “combined some genuinely radical religious beliefs with the normal social assumptions of a country gentleman … lumped Levellers and True Levellers [Ranters] together as ‘a despicable and contemptible generation of men’, ‘persons differing little from beasts’.” For radicals advocating “Collective cultivation of the waste [idle lands] by the poor, … Collective manuring of common lands was a religious act.” But this was clearly a different religion from the one their betters used to keep them down.

“It was clearer to Gerrard Winstanley [1609-1676] than to most radicals,” Hill said, “that the state and its legal institutions existed in order to hold the lower classes in place.” But the “Ranters were said to hold that the Bible ‘hath been the cause of all our misery and divisions...of all the blood that hath been shed in the world’.” So Winstanley was definitely in radical company. Attitudes such as “Rejection of church marriage by Clarkson, Winstanley, Ranters, Quakers, was in one sense a traditional lower-class attitude...But the Ranters, by rejecting sin, proclaiming free love and raising the matter as one for public discussion, went further.” And in a complete rejection of the British imperialism that became so familiar that it seemed inevitable in the nineteenth century, “some radicals denied the civilizing mission of white Anglo-Saxon protestants.” But as popular as these ideas might have been on the street, “in the 1650s Oliver Cromwell was trying to use an aggressive imperialist foreign policy as a means of reconciling royalists to his rule, not unsuccessfully.” The state was still doing what Winstanley had recognized was its job.

Hill said the severity of the official crackdown on common people after the restoration was illustrated by the fact that “the game laws were made...ferocious against all but the well-to-do: after 1671 gamekeepers had the right to search houses and confiscate weapons.” Hill reminded, “The Revolution began with Oliver Cromwell leading fenmen in revolt against court drainage schemes; its crucial turning point was the defeat of the Leveller regiments at Burford, which was immediately followed by an act for draining the fens, and it ended with the rout of the commoners and craftsmen of the south-western counties in the bogs of Sedgemoor.”

“For a short time” during this revolutionary break, Hill concluded, “ordinary people were freer from the authority of church and social superiors than they had ever been before, or were for a long time to be again.” Although they never had control of the revolution, radicals effectively used the unprecedented freedom of the press that existed briefly during the 1640s and 1650s. They “criticized the existing educational structure, especially the universities, and proposed a vast expansion of educational opportunity. They discussed the relation of the sexes, and questioned parts of the protestant ethic.” But they also frightened the aristocrats who who were steadily regaining control of society from the military. Parliament decided that “Ignorance, and admiration arising from ignorance, are the parents of civil devotion and obedience” (quoting Clement Walker in 1649). M.P. Luke Robinson (1610-1669) agreed, saying “I would not have a people know their own strength.”

“The radicals were so effectively silenced,” Hill said, “that we do not know whether many held out in isolation with Milton. We do not even know about Winstanley,” who historians generally believe became a moderate Quaker in his old age. By Sir Isaac Newton’s time, “the opinion formers of this society censored themselves. Nothing got into print which frightened the men of property.” Although he admitted that like natural philosophers they believed in the gradual evolution of knowledge and relied on experience rather than received truth, Hill said “the tragedy of the radicals was that they were never able to arrive at political unity during the Revolution: their principles were too absolutely held to be anything but divisive.” Perhaps this was a little harsh. They had all been brought up in a world of absolutes; the new “empirical” approach would take a couple of generations to settle in. Although the Quakers did not want to overturn the world, they did want “life to be lived better, more honestly.” They achieved some of that and carried the ideals forward even when they didn’t live up to them. Milton and Bunyan also carried some of the spirit forward. “We need not bother too much about being able to trace a continuous pedigree for these ideas,” Hill concluded. “They are the ideas of the underground, surviving, if at all, verbally: they leave little trace.” And the authors were not true radicals. “Milton had intellectual affinities with the radicals but was set apart from them by his patrician assumptions, [while] Bunyan shared the social and political attitudes of the radicals but not their theology.” So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of these ideas resurfaced two generations later in Benjamin Franklin, who read
Pilgrim’s Progress as a boy in Boston, before running away to Quaker Philadelphia to become a printer. It was not the end of the story Hill perhaps had in mind, but it’s not a bad end.