WHEN THE WORLD DID NOT TURN UPSIDE DOWN-THE DEFEATED IN THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION
THE EXPERIENCE OF DEFEAT-MILTON AND SOME CONTEMPORIES, CHRISTOPHER HILL, PENGUIN BOOKS, NEW YORK, 1984
As I have noted in previous reviews of the work of Professor Hill although both the parliamentary and royalist sides in the English Revolution, the major revolutionary event of the 17th century, quoted the Bible, particularly the newer English versions, for every purpose from an account of the Fall to the virtues of primitive communism that revolution cannot be properly understood except as a secular revolution. The first truly secular revolution of modern times. The late pre-eminent historian of the under classes of the English Revolution Professor Hill has taken the myriad ideas, serious and zany, that surfaced during the period between 1640-60, the heart of the revolutionary period and analyzed their contemporary importance. Moreover, he has given us, as far as the surviving records permit, what happened to those ideas, the people who put them forth and their various reactions to the defeat of their ideas in the late revolutionary period and at the Restoration. And through it all hovers Hill’s ever present muse for the period, John Milton- the poet who tried to explain in verse the 'ways of God' to humankind at the failure of the ‘revolution of the saints’.
As been noted by more than one historian there is sometimes a disconnect between the ideas in the air at any particular time and the way those ideas get fought out in political struggle. In this case secular ideas, or what would have passed for such to us, like the questions of the divinity of the monarch, of social, political and economic redistribution and the nature of the new society (the second coming) were expressed in familiar religious terms. That being the case there is no better guide to understanding the significance of the mass of biblically-driven literary articles and some secular documents produced in the period than Professor Hill. Here we meet up again, as we have in Hill's other numerous volumes of work, with the democratic oppositionists, the Levelers; the Diggers, especially the thoughts of their leader Gerrard Winstanley, in many aspects the forerunner of a modern branch of communist thought; the Ranters, Seekers and Quakers who among them challenged every possible orthodox Christian theory and the usual cast of individual political and religious radicals like Samuel Fisher and, my personal favorite, Abiezer Coppe.
As I have noted elsewhere a key to understanding that plebian entry onto history's stage and that underscores the widespread discussion of many of these trends is Cromwell's New Model Army where the plebian base and the frustrated professional middle class, for a time anyway, had serious input into the direction that society might take. Some fellow historians have criticized Hill on the question of how important this was in the overall scheme of things but the last word on the impact of those ideas and their influence has not been spoken. In any case, as these radicals were moved to the margins of political society they had various reactions familiar as well in later revolutions- passivity, silence, a personally opportunistic acceptance of the new order and, in too few cases, a fight to save the revolutionary gains. In many ways Professor Hill's book is a study of what happened when for lack of a better term, the Thermodorian reaction- the ebb of the revolution set in and a portion of those 'masterless' men had to deal with the consequences of defeat for the plebian masses during the Protectorate and Restoration. The heroic attempts to save the revolution in danger by the Fifth Monarchy uprisings, composed of former soldiers, and the return of Quakers to the Army in 1659 only underscore that point. Those of us on today’s embattled plebian left now know we had some honorable predecessors.