“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” -Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness
n a damp prison cell in the Tower of London in the year 1677, a portly Evangelist sat defiantly in his cell writing what would become, next to the bible, the most published and read book in the English language. He had been arrested countless times subsequent to Charles II’s Restoration, each time suggesting to his judge what Joey Strummer would later defiantly yell in his 20th century punk song “Clampdown,” to double the prison sentence. The man, in a statement quoted in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” preferred to“-stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” The book he wrote was about a dream, a dream about a man named Christian defeating all obstacles on a perilous but ultimately successful journey to the gleaming citadel of heaven. The man, of course, was John Bunyan. The book was his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress.
I use this anecdote of a dreamer in prison in response to the shocked and amused
“why?” I get every time I express my passion for the radical puritan literature that erupted from the English crucible of the 1640s and 50s. Today, the perception of 16th through 18th century puritanism in the consciousness of the left and modernity at large is one of scornful amusement, and justifiably so given modern developments. The descendants of puritanism, modern day radical Protestants, have been unkind to the legacy of Bunyan and his dreamer.
However, in the world of Bunyan and Winstanley the vocabulary of radical religiosity was at once religious and political, personally empowering and collectively egalitarian. In this extraordinary time where feudalism fell to parliamentarian liberalism, revolutionary puritanism became in England a way of critiquing emergent capitalism on radically equal spiritual grounds. The puritan experience was congruent with Christians’ in Pilgrim’s Progress: reading a book, looking at the world around, and asking “-what shall I do?” The revolutionary generation that Bunyan was but the latter bookend was marked by a different kind of puritanism from that which we are familiar with today; a puritanism that gave voices to the voiceless, namely women, preached radical economic equality begotten out of spiritual sameness, and one that rendered property and ownership as the root of sin on earth.
The dialectical nature of radical Puritan thought attacked one firmly held belief of historical import – the inherent inequality between social strata of men and women. In the radical puritan thought system, the body was annihilated and replaced with the fervent soul; a soul that suggested total equality divorced from physical and mental limitations often fraudulently ascribed to women in the period (and ours). It is no coincidence that in the English Revolution countless female political actors emerged from enforced silence to the center of movements through the avenue of spirituality. The spirituality of Puritanism, at the time, was a legitimated vocabulary that opened the door to the creation of discourses of struggle for women, namely for the purposes of this post Anna Trapnel.
A modern reader of Anna Trapnel, a fifth monarchist prophetess, may wonder if she was mentally insane. She writes fervently, like Bunyan, about hearing voices so loud as to turn her head. Yet, her textual constructions (Notably “A Narrative of Her Journey Into Cornwall”) and her visions were of a dual nature. On one hand her visions were orthodox and apocalyptic, typical for the period amongst puritan radicals. On the other, they pit a woman against the highest secular powers on earth; priests, kings, lords, and land-owners. Her most famous vision came at the very location where Charles I had lost his head, a vision that warned against the resurgence of tyranny and anticipated that Caesarian, Cromwellian bolt of lightening Marvell describes in his Horation Ode. She would fast for weeks on end, a radical divorcement from material reality, but she would always return to it in the visions that were produced from her periods of fasting. When she was arrested for disturbing the peace in Cornwall (preaching), she responded to her accusers with verses and parables; much like Jesus in his Roman trial. Throughout her career as a prophetess, we find keenly secular critiques in the form of visions rooted deeply in biblical precedent. (See Holstun’s chapter on Anna Trapnel in Ehud’s Dagger for more, citation below).
Anna Trapnel teaches the modern reader to dig deeper into Puritanical thought beyond the immediate facade of radical religiosity. For Trapnel as for Bunyan, Winstanley and others, Puritanism was a mechanism for critiquing society, a dialectical antithesis to a thesis of equality that formed the synthesis of the rule of the saints. These saints were without gender. Through visions and biblical citation, Anna Trapnel gained a secular voice through deep religiosity, and she was able to construct a validated discourse with which to clash with the ruling class of her society. The opportunity to construct socially antithetical discourses in direct opposition to secular powers gave voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and in doing so, rendered all of society as made up of equal members. Marxist critics of the period must be vigilant, as Holstun reminds us, not to simply render Trapnel’s voice as a product of bourgeois individuality, but rather as a point in the spectrum between individual empowerment and societal equality. Holstun concludes, “If we reduce the civilian an Army radicals at Putney to possessive individualists, we overlook the democratic and collectivist currents inside seventeenth-century radicalism, which never quite died” (256).
The legacy Holstun alludes to is a truly remarkable part of Puritan thought and revolution in Early Modern England. Puritanism gave voice to the voiceless and opened the door to the creation of discourses antithetical to worldly power, and just what they said is still relevant to contemporary struggles against strictly gendered societies obsessed with mammon. Much of the radical egalitarian ideology of 1648/9 came out of the New Model Army, an army of radical parliamentarians with a significant puritan leaning. Cromwell lead this army to smashing victories over the king at Marston Moore and elsewhere; surely a sign, as Cromwell noted, of God’s favor. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the New Model knew a different kind of providence than he, one that made them all equal and members of a democracy of God, pike and musket.
At Putney soldiers met with Cromwell and his leadership to discourse and debate over the “disunity” of the parliamentarian cause. Cromwell, in motions similar to those of modern moderates, scolded the New Model for promoting faction and disunity. His solution, of course, was to submit to New Model authorities. Each regiment elected agitators to speak for them and agitate for their goals. If one reads the Putney Debates, one finds agitators cautiously unwilling to speak on behalf of their soldiers, reflective itself of an emergent communal power in the New Model. Both of these concepts were important, community and power, for the Putney agitators and for modern critics looking for a cast shadow on political developments in the 18th century. The soldiers were not solely a collection of individuals but something more; they were a community whose power superseded that of a single arm or pike; and they knew it.
Thomas Rainsborough, one of the more memorable agitators of the New Model at Putney, elucidates:
“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.” (Rainsborough, Putney Debates)
Rainsborough knew by his very presence at Putney that a man’s voice was not simply his own but that of his entire class. Through the Puritan creation of alternative discourses Rainsborough moved, if only for a moment, into something profound and historically unique; a critique of emergent, victorious English capitalism. Rainsborough and his agitators were the voice of the voiceless, a struggle opened by radical puritanical egalitarianism and taken forward perhaps most famously by New Model Colonel, Gerrard Winstanley.
The resurgence of the popularity of Gerrard Winstanley in the general public and critical circles in the wake of the Occupy movements is telling of the character of the Colonel’s ideology. Winstanley is undeniably a proto-marxist, a socialist without Marx, and a class warrior on the historical frontier of emergent capitalism. Yet, as we must not forget, Winstanley was a fervently religious man and a devout puritan. His motivation to creating a common treasury of earth through his communist Diggers was a vision. He, like Bunyan and Trapnel, heard divine voices speak to him in times of trouble.
Yet, Winstanley’s religious, critical analysis leads him to make cutting critiques of capitalism and authority; be it King or lord (or Lord Protector, for that matter). Winstanley wrote several letters to the Council of State (of which Milton was the Latin Clerk) urging them to fulfill revolutionary promises, elucidating with precision the theme I am highlighting throughout – Puritanism as a mechanism for critiquing the emergent bourgeoisie and their counterrevolution. In his famous “Declaration of the Poor Oppressed People of England, Winstanley declares, “And we look upon that freedom promised to be the inheritance of all, without respect of persons; And this cannot be, unless the Land of England be freely set at liberty from proprietors, and become a common Treasury to all her children.” Winstanley reached a new synthesis of puritanism in conflict with bourgeois society in the crucible of English revolution. Not only is he speaking on behalf of a class and not a denomination or sect, but Winstanley looks at his society (like Bunyan’s Christian) and highlights the problem – inequality. It is inequality that makes the revolutionary promises of Cromwell and his Council impossible. While Lords are left to tyrannize the working classes, no rule of the saints can truly be procured. In short, Winstanley was right. The promises of saintly equality were impossible while the land was divided and profited from by a select few.
We must guard against rendering Winstanley as a “man ahead his time,” however. Winstanley was but one man who cast a literary shadow in writing, but he was emblematic of a movement that bursts through the cracks of history at Putney, Whitehall and even Milton’s Pandaemonium. Puritanism, first through the creation of egalitarian discourses for both male and female, and secondly through the emergent consciousness of community, power and inequality in New Model struggle, became capitalism’s first resistance movement. Winstanley was not an aberrant lifestylist, as some Trotskyists claim (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1949/05/english-revolution.htm), but a man born from an army of consciousness and struggle.
Winstanley and his Diggers did not only attack inequality, however, and this is perhaps the greatest contribution of English puritanical radicalism through the precision of hindsight; they attacked what they saw as the root of all inequality – property. Bunyan’s “Vanity Faire” is a commodity market, Christian’s chief enemy Apollyn offers Christian a higher wage for him to desist form his journey to the Celestial City, Milton’s Mammon is obsessed with gold and its procurement, and Winstanley’s Biblical analysis dating back to Cain and Abel sees ownership as the root of all sin on earth.
Winstanley is perhaps the most emblematic of the puritanical impulse to see property as the root of sin on Earth. Winstanley writes, “So long as the earth is intagled and appropriated into particular hands and kept there by the power of the sword……so long the creation lies under bondage.” As Winstanley’s career advances towards the ultimate forceful dissolution of his Diggers we see a developing understanding of the violence inherent in the system (to quote the Anarcho-Syndaclist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Winstanley sees not only inequality as a problem but identifies its main cause; the ownership of property and the system built to enforce it. Inequality does not simply exist in Winstanley’s analysis, it is enforced by sword and fire. Winstanley and the agitators at Putney made class struggle central to a developing puritan understanding of saint and society; one tempered by their experiences with the property holders of their society.
Winstanley, like later Marxists, would see the specter of property as theft. Winstanley’s historical firstness is key here, and it suggests that a unique collision of material circumstances produced his forward-looking ideology; chiefly the collision of puritanical egalitarianism and the capitalist state it helped create on the battlefield. Winstanley, Rainsborough, Bunyan, Trapnel and others are evidence that the Puritanism of England was not simply a catalyst in the creation of bourgeois, humanist ideology and the republicanism that would take hold in the Americas and Western Europe. At work in the Puritan experience in the New Model and early modern English society at large was burgeoning radicalism. A radicalism that would be repressed in 1649 in England, 1786 in the United States, and 1794/5 in France. Of import is the fact that these movements were suppressed by emergent capitalism by force, and was not simply a product of bourgeois liberalism. I can say without flinching that Winstanley and his Diggers are the roots of modern British Socialism, if not international socialism; and the grounds for such a statement are in Winstanley and other radical Puritan’s rendering of property as the cause of inequality and sin. Winstanley concludes,
“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.” (Winstanley, Declaration).
Winstanley looks to the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 as a historical lesson, that the lords attained their wealth by the sword and with the sword they will keep it. This, in short, is the experience of radical puritan elements in the English Civil War. 1649 would see the Levellers and Diggers disbanded, executed and imprisoned. The common treasury would be taken away to private cellars, Trapnell would be thrown in prison along with Bunyan, left only with his literary dreamer defeating what Bunyan could not in physical reality. Winstanley’s ideology evolves through material struggle, a pedagogical process for future generations who would carry on his work. Winstanley began with the belief that his Diggers could coexist with Lords and manors, but later, as illustrated in this quote, realized that struggle was necessary; and struggle he did, through scriptural critiques and communal living. In summary, Puritan radicalism in England must be understood as a struggle within a unique, period, and religious vocabulary that procured material struggle between newly forming proletariat and bourgeoisie. Of this struggle we find the creation of radical, inclusive discourses, emergent class-consciousness and the rendering of property as the root of all of Earth’s ills.
The historical struggle of the radical puritans in early modern England gives valuable insight to the movements of today that struggle still with lords and manors of different character but identical nature; those who would keep their property by murder and theft and deny the people their common treasury. From that which we started we shall end, as there is no finer example of the puritan radical experience than that of Bunyan’s Christian, shedding tears over the present state of things but ultimately struggling against it through dangerous adventure. To Bunyan as it was to Winstanley and as it is to us today, the common treasury is but a dream. As Bunyan proved with his prose, Trapnell with her prophecy, Rainsborough with his pike, and Winstanley with his pen, to dream is a first step well taken towards the procurement of a rule of the saints.
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Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989. Print.
Hill, Christopher. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.
Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution 1603-1714. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-century Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 1993. Print.
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Winstanley, Gerrard. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Ed. Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.