06
Sep
15

A World Turned Upside Down – report

A World Turned Upside Down

This year’s A L Morton Memorial Lecture was delivered by the Emeritus Professor of History at Warwick University, Bernard Capp, renowned for his research into 17th century popular culture and politics during the ferment of the English Revolution.

His first and perhaps most well-known book, The Fifth Monarchy Men, published in 1972, was an original and pioneering account of one of the small radical sects which emerged during the mid-century turmoil. Capp felt that they had been relatively neglected by previous historians of the period.

His talk, which stimulated an enthusiastic discussion, concentrated on the radical groups “to the left” of the Levellers, namely the True Levellers or Diggers, the Ranters and other short-lived groups such as the aforementioned Fifth Monarchy Men – who were appropriately named given that most of them were indeed men.

Prof Capp explained that the 1640s was a decade noted for two key developments that provided fertile ground for the growth of radicalism: the breakdown in censorship led to the flourishing of cheap pamphlets and birth of weekly newspapers; meanwhile the flight of King Charles from London in 1642 had a great impact on the popular consciousness and undermined belief in regal authority.

Capp compared the 1640s to the upheaval of 1789 in France as a period when people began to think the unthinkable, that the old social order could be “overturned” and replaced with an entirely new form of society.  .

With the Bible for guidance, people saw the deep social unrest as signs that a new age was about to be born which would see “the rule of the godly”. Such millenarian beliefs were shared by people across the social spectrum including Oliver Cromwell and John Milton, but they were especially prevalent among the “middling sort” who made up the ranks of the New Model Army.

The fifth monarchists believed in direct action to usher in the New Jerusalem and their tendency to violence means that they never been fashionable among historians, Capp said, unlike the Diggers and Levellers, whose ideas were much more amenable to modern political thinking.

Capp pointed out that the Quakers, who have long since become a respectable religious organisation in society, trace their roots to the radical sects that emerged during the 1640s and they shared some common beliefs with the Ranters, who were one of the most subversive of all the groups.

The Ranters held that “God was within everyone” which resembles the Quaker belief in the “inner light”, but while the Quakers simply stood up to authority by refusing to remove their caps when in the presence of supposed social superiors, the Ranters brazenly swore, got drunk and rioted.

Capp stated that these various groups continue to be remembered if only as rich material for writers, playwrights and film directors. Their influence has extended well beyond this country as is indicated, for example, by the memorial to Digger leader Gerard Winstanley that was erected in Red Square by the Bolsheviks following the Russian revolution of 1917.

Bernard Capp delivered his talk to a packed meeting room at Marx House on 18th July. The SHS was honoured to be able to host such a distinguished historian.

David Morgan

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