Sunday, 13 March 2011

A Review of" a glorious liberty" the ideas of the Ranters A L Morton

There is no doubt that without the intervention of the historians around the Communist Party of Great Britain groups like the Ranters would have been consigned to a few footnotes of history. Leslie Morton’s is perhaps most well-known for his important work a People’s History of England. It was the founding book of the CPHG. From the beginning there was a contradiction between the avocation of the Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about democratic groups such as the Levellers, Ranters and Diggers in the vain of history from below. The CPHG group tended glorify an unbroken historical line of English Radicalism. His small book a glorious liberty also has a tendency to do this.

To his credit A L Morton who was probably the world’s leading authority on the Ranters had sought to make an objective assessment of the Ranters who up until then had largely been described as “mad men”. In historical terms the Ranters had a very short shelf life. They burst into life in waning days of the civil war and barely survived the Cromwell Protectorate.

According to Morton “The Ranters formed the extreme left wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English Revolution, both theologically and politically. Theologically these sects lay between the poles of orthodox Calvinism, with its emphasis on the power and justice of God as illustrated in the grand scheme of election and reprobation, with its insistence upon the reality of Hell in all its most literal horrors and upon the most verbal and dogmatic acceptance of the Scriptures, and of antinomianism with its emphasis upon God’s mercy and universality, its rejection of the moral law, and with it, of Hell in any but the most figurative sense, and its replacement of the authority of the Scriptures by that of the inner light. The political views of the Ranters were the outcome of this theology. God existed in all things: I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being no where else out of the Creatures. [1]

While the Ranters were a relatively new phenomenon their ideas were not. Morton traced their antecedents throughout Europe and down through the centuries from “ Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century, with his doctrine of the three ages, in the last of which, shortly to be expected, the sons of God would enjoy perfect spiritual liberty. To trace the course of these ideas in any detail would take me far beyond my present scope - a few salient points only may be noted.[2] A generation or so after Joachim, the Amurians in France added to his doctrine of the three ages a neo-platonic pantheism which declared that “all things are one because whatever is, is God”. Later, in Germany, the loosely connected groups which are known under the general name of the Brethren of the Free Spirit turned this idea into a way of living. While Joachim had expected the age of the spirit in the near future, the Brethren claimed that it was already here and exercised themselves the promised liberty of the sons of God. Sharing the perfection of God all that they did must of necessity be good: sin for them ceased to have a meaning. In the sixteenth century these beliefs received a new social dimension from Thomas Munzer, the leader of the great peasant insurrection of 1525, and among the Anabaptists of Munster”.

While it is not in the scope of these notes to examine the relationship between the Levellers in and the Ranters in large detail some points can be made. Both groups took part in a successful revolution and their leaders were prominent members of the New Model Army. The social base for both movements were similar. There were religious differences but these were not major sticking points as can be seen when some Levellers moved easily into the Ranters towards the end of the Civil War. One difference was that the Ranters were able to at least theoretically to think beyond the end of the civil war. They saw the civil war and the revolution as a stepping stone to a better and more equal society. They really did want to see the world turned upside down. Another marked difference with the Levellers was the fact that the Ranters openly appealed to the lower sections of the population i.e. a very embryonic working class.

As this quote shows they appealed to the “poorest beggars, even “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses” are “every whit as good” as the great ones of the earth. Morton is sceptical as to the extent the Ranters got their message to this section of the population. He continues“ In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and a primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller, who was to come shortly “to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, to lay the Mountaines low”. It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth”.

Coupled with their appeal to the poor was their attack on the rich and powerful.” The rich, Foster declared, grudge the poor even a piece of bread, but “all things are the Lords” and he is coming shortly to bring down their pride, who “because of your riches have thought yourselves better than others; and must have your fellow-creatures in bondage to you, and they must serve you, as work for you, and moyle and toyle for you, and stand cap in hand to you, and must not displease you, no by no meanes”. [3] Coppe, who like Foster drew much of his imagery from the Epistle of St. James, addressed himself to the poorest and most depressed strata of society, at a time when the slum population of London was suffering terrible hardships as a result of the wartime dislocation of trade and industry".

Abeizer Coppe continues somewhat powerfully:” Thou hast many baggs of money, and behold I [the Lord] come as a thief in the right, with my sword drawn in my hand, and like a thief as I am - I say deliver your purse, deliver sirrah! deliver or I’l cut thy throat!I say (once more) deliver, deliver my money which thou hast to him, and to poor creeples, lazars, yea to rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses, who are flesh of thy flesh, and every whit as good as thy self in mine eye, who are ready to starve in plaguy Gaols, and nasty dungeons....The plague of God is in your purses, barns, houses, horses, murrain will take your hogs (0 ye fat swine of the earth) who shall shortly go to the knife, and be hung up i’th roof, except - blasting, mill-dew, locusts, caterpillars, yea, fire your houses and goods, take your corn and fruit, the moth your garments, and the rot your sheep, did you not see my hand, this last year, stretched out?You did not see.My hand is stretched out still. Your gold and silver, though you can’t see it, is cankered, the rust of them is a witnesse against you, and suddainly, suddainly, suddainly, because of the Eternal God, myself, its the dreadful day of Judgement, saith the Lord, shall eat your flesh as it were fireJames 5.I-7.The rust of your silver, I say, shall cat your flesh as it were fire”. [4]

Certainly at the time this was a radical appeal to the poor and Cromwell and parliament were certainly aware of the dangers if a broad section of the population  could have been provoked into carrying out large scale riots over many issues such as high food prices, low wages and hunger.

While social and economic conditions were favourable to the Ranters they had no real means of carry through their program. As professed pacifist they could not militarily oppose Cromwell In their own words “And maugre the subtilty, and sedulity, the craft and cruelty of hell and earth: this Levelling shall up;Not by sword; we (holily) scorne to fight for anything; we had as live be dead drunk every day of the weeke, and lye with whores i’th market place; and account these as, good actions as taking the poor abused, enslaved ploughmans money from him... we had rather starve, I say, than take away his money from him, for killing of men.[5] .

Ranters pacifism was an important part of their philosophy according to Morton “It came partly from the nature of their theology, with its emphasis on the inevitable coming of the new age of liberty and brotherhood. God, they felt, was abroad in the land and they needed only to proclaim his purpose. But it came also from the precise political situation in which Ranterism developed. In February 1649 when A Rout, A Rout was written, Charles had just been beheaded and the Council of State was in effective control. In the two parts of Englands New Chains Discover’d we can sense the feeling of the Levellers that they had been outwitted and betrayed. In a few weeks their leaders would be in prison: in a couple of months their last hope would be destroyed at Burford”.Already a sense of defeat, that something had gone wrong with the expectation of a new England, was in the air. It was in this situation, with the left in retreat and the turning point of the Revolution already passed, that the Ranters became prominent. With ordinary political calculation failing. Many people began to look for a miraculous deliverance”.

It is very easy for some politically motivated historians to dismiss the Ranters as “mad men” or lunatics. And as my research for this article can vouch for there is a lot of malice and exaggeration in lot of the comments made particularly on sexual practices, as Morton concedes some of these are not far from the mark and  “not really at variance with declared Ranter principles. Edward Hide Jun., a hostile but not on the whole unfair critic, explains that they believe “that all the women in the world are but one mans wife in unity and all the men in the world are but one womans husband in unity; so that one man may lie with all the women in the world in unity, and one woman may lie with all men in the world, for they are all her husband in unity”. [6]

While acknowledging Morton’s work on the Ranters one does not have to accept all his conclusions. I don’t agree with him when he says that “The Levellers, again, had behind them a solid class basis to which their programme made a definite appeal. The Ranters could appeal only to the defeated and declassed, the lower strata of the urban poor and upon these no substantial movement could possibly be built”. The Ranters, Levellers, Diggers largely had the same social base it is true but the Ranters appeal to the poor was far more pronounced but failed as Morton said because of the lack of objective conditions i.e. the fact that no substantial working class existed at the time on which to base an alternative program to that of Cromwell who had support from both lower and higher sections of the bourgeoisie.

Morton acknowledged that the Ranters did attempt to have “a comprehensive world outlook, however confused, which gave the Ranters a firm and peculiar place in the English Revolution and in the list of English heresies, and which established them as a main link in the chain that runs from Joachim of Fiore to William Blake”.


1. The Light and Dark sides of God, Jacob Bauthumley, quoted from N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, P. 336.

2. See Norman. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1957, especially Chapters. VII and VIII. Whatever may be argued against Prof. Cohn’s conclusions, his book is a most valuable compilation of material on popular heresies of the Middle Ages. See also A. L. Morton, The Everlasting Gospel, 1958.

3. Last Trumpet, p. 2.

4. Roll, Pt II PP. 2-3.

5. Roll, Pt. 1, pp. 1-5.

6.A Wonder, p. 42

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