Thursday, 9 July 2020

Wu Ming Presents Thomas Muntzer Sermon to the Princes / Part of the Revolutions series / Verso Paperback / 176 pages / May 2010 / £8.99

"Omnia sunt communia—all things are common.”—Thomas Müntzer.

"In the eyes of the German working-classes, Muntzer was and is the most brilliant embodiment of heretical communism".- Karl Kautsky

"Luther had given the plebeian movement a powerful weapon—a translation of the bible. Through the bible, he contrasted feudal Christianity of his time with moderate Christianity of the first century. In opposition to decaying feudal society, he held up the picture of another society which knew nothing of the ramified and artificial feudal hierarchy. The peasants had made extensive use of this weapon against the forces of the princes, the nobility, and the clergy. Now Luther turned the same weapon against the peasants, extracting from the bible a veritable hymn to the authorities ordained by God—a feat hardly exceeded by any lackey of absolute monarchy. Princedom by the grace of God, passive resistance, even serfdom, were being sanctioned by the Bible". 

F Engels[1]

Wu Ming, the Italian authors collective have in this collection brought to a wider audience the work of the revolutionary pastor Thomas Muntzer. This Verso publication forms part of its revolution series.

The collective is best known for its excellent bestselling novel Q which was published under the pseudonym Luther Blissett. Wu Ming examines how Müntzer has continued despite the passage of years to be relevant for today's revolutionaries.

Thomas Müntzer was a radical pastor who had religious and political differences with the leaders of the Reformation. He was especially opposed to Martin Luther whom he called "brother soft life" it was one of the more polite phrases used against Luther by Mutnzer.

Mutnzer was critical of Luther's reforms believing they did not go far enough. Muntzer believed that the Kingdom of Heaven should be on Earth. To facilitate this end, he led the Peasants War in Germany. Muntzer and the war itself were a part of a wider movement of the Anabaptists. They constituted the revolutionary wing of the Protestant Reformation in Central Europe and were opposed to Luther's very limited reforms.

Muntzer was not only a powerful orator but a gifted writer. In his "Sermon To The Princes" Muntzer ransacked the bible in order to attack the greed and institutional corruption of the Vatican.

Muntzer was always a capable organiser, and many of his ideas for agitation and organising would find their echo in later political movements such as the 17th-century Levellers and Diggers and 19th and 20th-century political movements. As Engel's states "Just as Cromwell in England would be challenged from the left by the Levellers and the Jacobins in France likewise by the Enrages, Luther and his political patrons faced a revolt of the voiceless led by Thomas Muntzer.[2]

While Peasants Revolt of 1525 took many by surprise, the discontent had been simmering in Germany for decades. Even the conservative historian G R Elton believed that the revolt was caused "by various landlords to re-impose feudal rights that had fallen into disuse".

Elton was hostile to both Muntzer and the Peasants Revolt in general. As Wu Ming points out "G. R. Elton, in his Reformation Europe 1517-1559, memorably introduces Muntzer as a 'youngish man full of violent hatred for all things other than they should have been, university-trained, an idealist of the kind familiar in all revolutions', dubs him 'the demonic genius of the early Reformation' and concludes, in terms wholly congruent with the tradition initiated by Luther and Melanchthon, that he was 'not so much a constructive revolutionary as an unrestrained fanatic, and in his preaching of violence a dangerous lunatic'.[3]

Elton was also opposed to any Marxist understanding of history writing "history deals with the activities of men, not abstractions'. As Geoffrey Roberts points out "In Elton's concept of history as a story of human existence and activity there was little place for those large-scale forces, trends, structures, and patterns beloved by social scientists. Everything in history--the events of the past--happens to and through people. Sociological categories may be useful descriptive shorthands of movements and outcomes over the long-run, but they remained abstractions unable to explain specific actions and events--the details and particularities of past happenings created by real people doing something".[4]

Real people in this struggle were dealing with a rapidly declining population after the Black Death had ravaged Europe. While some peasants and serfs had enjoyed both higher wages and better conditions,  for the majority, it was a time of growing misery. On a broader note, serious economic changes had begun in the economy in Germany as it transitioned from a feudal based economy to a capitalistic one. These changes had brought about a series of local uprisings and peasant riots across Germany and all over Europe.  

As Franz Mehring explains the early origins of capitalist development "World trade arose in a number of cities because of specially favourable historical and geographical conditions. It started in Lower Italy through the overseas trade with the Orient, with Constantinople and Egypt, but spread from there to the North. It brought into circulation great fortunes which seemed almost immeasurable at the time and aroused the greed of all the ruling classes of Europe. Here modern capital appears for the first time, and it appears still essentially as merchant capital. But it immediately exerted a disruptive effect on the feudal mode of production.

The more commodity exchange developed, the greater became the power of money, for which anybody could obtain anything, which everybody needed and everybody took. At the source of the capitalist mode of production stood not the craft guild master, who with his limited number of journeymen could only achieve moderate prosperity, but the merchant whose capital was capable of unlimited expansion and whose lust for profit was therefore boundless. With merchant capital – the revolutionary force of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries – new life came into medieval society, and new ways of viewing things were born".[5]

Mehring believed that the social and political position of the clergy began to be seriously undermined by the development of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into German. The clergy's feudal based ideology rapidly came into conflict with the development of commerce, and the rising of a new capitalist class. When the clergy's Intellectual positions were taken from it, they became lazy and ignorant which in turn was reflected in the intimate relationship between the higher clergy and the princes so much, so they became indistinguishable.

Muntzer was scathing towards the clergy saying "What a pretty spectacle we have before us now – all the eels and snakes coupling together immorally in one great heap. The priests and all the evil clerics are the snakes...and the secular lords and rulers are the eels... My revered rulers of without delay the righteousness of God and take up the cause of the gospel boldly".[6]

The number of riots and revolts increased when the Reformation reached large parts of Germany and then spread to the rest of the empire. The revolt was feared and hated not only by the German princes and knights but also the leaders of the Reformation itself. The peasant revolt was entirely progressive. The twelve articles of Memmingen issued by the peasants, although religious in content were highly democratic. They came out of the "ecclesiastical shell of which inside the more profound growing political and class differences amongst the different sections of the Ruling elites were to be fought out".

The 12 articles[7] which were demanded from the Swabian League were one of the early examples of the "sighs of the oppressed". Unfortunately what the German peasants wanted in 1525 was only by the achieved by the French Revolution in 1789.

As Mehring states their demands were for "electing and recall of the clergy by the congregation, the abolition of serfdom and noble hunting and fishing rights, the limitation of excessive labour services and taxes, the restitution of the woods and pastures taken from individuals or communities, and the removal of arbitrary justice and administration".[8]

In the beginning, the peasants were able to keep their revolt largely peaceful. While this remained, it won support from the leaders of the Reformation. When the Peasant's revolt started to become violent, it caused considerable anger and violence amongst the princes. While the revolt was relatively peaceful, it also won the support of Luther who put forward that there should be a settlement based on the 12 articles. He said 'Not the peasants, but God himself was in revolt against the bloodthirsty tyranny of the princes'.[9]

Once the princes saw that the peasants were not going to be peaceful, they moved to drown the revolt in blood. They were spurred on by Luther who saw like the Princes that the revolt would be violent quickly changed his tune.

He gave the Princes his full support in the form of a pamphlet published on May 6th entitled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants'. Luther in this pamphlet blamed the Peasants for the violence "Since the peasants, then, have brought both God and man down upon them and are already so many times guilty of death in body and soul, since they submit to no court and wait for no verdict, but only rage on, I must instruct the worldly governors how they are to act in the matter with a clear conscience".

He then cleared the way for the brutal crackdown saying "The rulers, then, should go on unconcerned, and with a good conscience lay about them as long as their hearts still beat. It is to their advantage that the peasants have a bad conscience and an unjust cause, and that any peasant who is killed is lost in body and soul and is eternally the devil's. But the rulers have a good conscience and a just cause; and can, therefore, say to God with all assurance of heart, 'Behold, my God, thou hast appointed me Prince or lord, of this I can have no doubt; and though hast committed to me the sword over the evildoers (Romans XIII). It is thy Word, and cannot lie. I must fulfill my office, or forfeit thy grace. It is also plain that these peasants have deserved death many times over, in thine eyes and the eyes of the world, and have been committed to me for punishment. If it be thy will that I be slain by them and that my rulership be taken from me and destroyed, so be it: thy will be done. So shall I die and be destroyed fulfilling thy commandment and thy Word, and shall be found obedient to thy commandment and my office. Therefore will I punish and smite as long as my heart bears. Thou wilt judge and make things right.' From then on the princes needed no extra encouragement.

Thomas Muntzer

The leader of the Peasants revolt, and for that matter, one of the leaders of the Reformation was Thomas Munzer, who was the embodiment of all that was courageous and progressive in the revolt. He was a secular priest who called for social equality and did not hold back in ordering violence against all those who opposed change.

In Mulhausen, he laid the basis for a commune which was only able to last barely two months. He and his army of peasants were defeated in a battle by superior armed soldiers with access to significantly larger volumes of armaments.

Despite fighting with much bravery, the one-sided nature of the battles was evident. Some historians have said that the revolt failed because the demands put forward by the peasants were out of date, on the contrary, they were far ahead of the time and were an anticipation of future communist movements.

The revolt had support from a few towns, and some workers such as miners gave support to the rebellion, but the urban centres were still too far underdeveloped to lend the support needed to defeat the knights and princes.

Also, in general, the movement was beset by internal disputes and problems. Battles remained local and provincial in their character. Many peasants refused to come to the aid of their sisters and brothers fighting in other parts of Germany.

The princes utilised trickery and outright deception against the Peasantry, which they had through years of serfdom had grown accustomed to trusting their so-called betters. On many occasions, the princes made promises to them, and when the peasants laid down their arms, they were slaughtered by the Princes' armies. It has been said upwards of 100,000 peasants was killed during the entire conflict.

When the rebellion was over, it would be fair to say that apart from escaping with their lives, not much had changed for the peasants. Although they lost some of their self-government in many respects, they had been so poor at the start of the war that after it, their life had not been made worse. Many richer middling sort peasants had been ruined. For the Princes the war was a financial bonanza, it had allowed them to seize vast tracks of the clergy's land, and they levied huge fines on the towns which had supported the uprising.

The persecution after the war did not just stop at the general Peasantry, the Anabaptists which took their name from the fact that they opposed the baptism the church carried out on newborn children were treated no less harshly and were virtually killed off as a movement.

The Anabaptists were considered a religious peculiarity and were seen by the Princes to be a dangerous enemy and in some quarters were correctly considered revolutionaries. They were driven out of most parts of Germany and were finally pushed to Holland. To survive the movement took up arms. In the old town of Munster, the movement albeit for a short while had done what the Peasant's revolt had failed to do in setting up and controlling a complete town. It had, however, taken the whole might of the German empire to drown the Peasants revolt in blood.

While the Peasant's revolt took place at the time of the Reformation, its political inspiration was more of a democratic nature. In other words, an embryonic form communism. The war had significant social consequences. An important part of late medieval Germany disappeared overnight.

In the merchant dominated areas, you saw the beginnings of the capitalist nation-state. A National language began to replace Latin. The power of gold and money began to change social and economic relationships, and even agriculture began to be organised along capitalist lines. The knights and general aristocracy felt threatened by these developments.

The church was the most to be affected by these changes and had to adapt. Agricultural lands were developed to make profits. To increase its wealth, it seized common lands and attacked the Peasantry. The new capitalist mode of economic development had little need for the clergy except to keep the masses in their place. The rising bourgeoisie began to take responsibility for science and education. Monasteries increasingly became obsolete and served no function. Priests became lazier, and baseness and vice became commonplace.

As David North writes "Religion began to encounter the type of disrespect it deserved, and the gradual decline of its authority introduced a new optimism. All human misery, the bible had taught for centuries, was the inescapable product of the Fall of Man. But the invigorating scepticism encouraged by science in the absolute validity of the Book of Genesis led thinking people to wonder whether it was not possible for man to change the conditions of his existence and enjoy a better world".[10]

Current historiography

Much of the current Reformation historiography is dominated by a collection of conservative revisionist historians who downplay the revolutions which were a by-product of the Protestant Reformation. They certainly oppose the concept that the Reformation can be seen in the context of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. 

Whether you agree with a Marxist interpretation of the Reformation as Karl Marx said "Germany's revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation.  As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk, so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher. But if Protestantism was not the true solution, it was at least the true setting of the problem".[11] On his death bed while being tortured Muntzer stayed true to the revolution saying "Omnia sunt communia" – "all things are to be held in common and distribution should be to each according to his need". While there is no reason idealise Wu Ming's or Verso's politics, this collection of Thomas Muntzer's sermons and letters can still inspire today's revolutionaries.

















[1] The Peasant War in Germany, trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (New York: International Publishers, 1966), p. 62.

[2] Quoted in

[3] Wu Ming Presents Thomas Muntzer Sermon to the Princes  / Part of the Revolutions series / Verso Paperback / 176 pages / May 2010 / £8.99

[4] Defender of the Faith: Geoffrey Elton and the Philosophy of History.

[5] Franz Mehring-Absolutism and Revolution in Germany

1525–1848 Part One -The German Reformation and its consequences

Merchant Capital

[6] Müntzer, Thomas (1988). Matheson, Peter (ed.). The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer.


[8] Franz Mehring-Absolutism and Revolution in Germany


[9] Taken From-Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1532

By Martin Brecht


[11] Quoted in Martin Luther: A Christian between Reforms and Modernity (1517-2017)

edited by Alberto Melloni

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Susan Myra Kingsbury and The Records of the Virginia Company of London

For more than a century, Susan Myra Kingsbury has been a major figure in the historiography of early colonial Virginia. Her edition of The Records of the Virginia Company of London published between 1906 and 1935 offers an essential foundation for all subsequent studies of the early years of the first permanent English settlement in North America. The works published last year (2019) to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Virginia Assembly and the almost simultaneous arrival of the first African slaves inevitably drew on her volumes.

Susan Kingsbury was born in San Pablo, California in 1870 and was educated in that State before becoming a teacher at Lowell high School in San Francisco from 1892 to 1900. Subsequently, she went to Columbia University in New York to study colonial economic history.

Whilst a student there, she travelled to England to collect documentary material for her Ph.D. thesis entitled An Introduction to the Records of the Virginia Company of London for which she was awarded her doctorate in 1905. Thereafter, her career took her into posts in industrial and technical education, economics and social work. She retired as Professor of Social Economy at Bryn Mawr College in 1936 and died at the age of 79 in November, 1949.

Unfortunately, no copy of her thesis appears to be available on-line at present. However, given its length at just over two hundred pages, it is likely that it was identical to the work published by the Government Printing Office in 1905 entitled, An Introduction to Records of the Virginia Company of London with a Bibliographical List of the Extant Documents.

It was produced with a foreword by Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, praising her work and the counsel of her adviser, Professor Herbert L. Osgood of Columbia University. A year later, when the first two volumes of The Records of the Virginia Company of London edited by S.M.Kingsbury (and containing the Court Book of the company from 1619 to 1624) were published, Herbert Putnam and Herbert L. Osgood again provided prefatory remarks. The text of Dr Kingsbury’s introduction was identical to that of 1905 (and probably to that of her thesis as well). 

The extensive list of documents she provided for the company and colony from just before 1609 also appears to be identical to that published in Volumes 3 and 4 of The Records of the Virginia Company of London which appeared in 1933 and 1935 respectively. A handful of emendations were made to include material from the proceedings of the Privy Council relating to Virginia and to note that one or two documents could no longer be traced. Some material, which had come to light since 1905-1906 and which had been published elsewhere, e.g. in the Sackville Papers before 1623, was omitted. But, to a very large extent, all four volumes edited by Susan Kingsbury reflected work she had done by 1905.

This coverage of the extant archives was not, however, complete. She had reproduced only seventy eight of the documents relating to Virginia from the Ferrar Papers held in Magdalene College, Cambridge. As David Ransome’s more recent work has shown, there were five hundred and fifteen such documents in that collection. Similarly but on a much smaller scale, her assumption that the colonial papers of the Duke of Manchester then held in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London constituted the entire archive of Sir Nathaniel Rich and the 2nd Earl of Warwick was also mistaken. 

There were and are scattered pieces of evidence related to Virginia’s colonisation still to be found elsewhere in English archives. When Wesley Frank Craven composed his study of The Dissolution of the Virginia Company (published in 1932), he paid a thoroughly well-deserved tribute to Susan Kingsbury’s invaluable edition of the company’s records. He was right to do so as later historians would wholeheartedly agree but the hunt for supplementary sources still.

Christopher Thompson    29th June, 2020

Friday, 26 June 2020

Michael Mendle, ed. The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers, and the English State. Cambridge University Press, 2001. xii + 297 pp. + 1 illus. $64.95. Review by Keith Livesey

"I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government".

Colonel Rainborowe

"We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured, by the several Declarations of Parliament, to the defence of our own and the people's just rights, and liberties".

Towards the end of 1647 with King Charles, I heavily defeated in a bitter civil war, a group of New Model Army officers and soldiers met at St. Mary's parish church, near the Thames, at Putney Bridge, southwest London.

The extraordinary discussion that took place at that church has been examined and then fought over by historians for decades if not centuries. At the time little was known of this debate. Very few of the news broadsheets mentioned the historic debate. 

Although the debate was recorded by William Clarke using shorthand, his documents lay dormant for over 243 years. They were found by a librarian at Worcester College Oxford who told the historian Charles Firth and the rest is history.

The discovery of these documents has been called a "serendipitous find" and has led to a significant amount of historiography surrounding the events at Putney. It is strange given the extraordinary radical nature of the debates that most of this historiography has been dominated by a set of conservative/revisionist historians. The collection of essays that came out of a conference held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1997, the 350th anniversary of the debates continues this conservative historiographical stranglehold.

One such contributor Blair Worden said it was "fitting that the 350th anniversary was celebrated in two places: in Putney Church, with speeches by Christopher Hill and Tony Benn, representatives of the tradition that has looked east to Moscow; and, in the conference from which this book has emerged, in Washington, the capital of the free world".[1]

It is clear that the editor, Michael Mendle was mindful of the extremely conservative and unified nature of the collection of essay writers, so much so that he issued a strange declaration that I have not seen anywhere else: "Those that write here have no party line to follow are adherents of no single interpretive school, and perhaps most notably, span several scholarly generations".[2]

It is, of course palpably not true. Two themes run through the book. Theme one is to play down the influence of the Levellers, and theme two is to oppose a Marxist analysis of the English bourgeois revolution. The Putney debates started on October 28th 1647. A Meeting of the army's General Council of the Parliament's New Model Army met to discuss the state of the revolution and more specifically the Levellers document The Agreement of the People and the more conservative document The Heads of Proposals.

According to Wikipedia the Agreement was produced by "civilian Levellers or agitators and called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and equal distribution of MPs' seats by several inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law".

A Counter document the Heads of Proposals was issued by the Grandees. A much more moderate document. "Heads of Proposals" was the document to be adopted later on by the Cromwell's government. It recommended a written constitution and led to Cromwell being given powers that bordered on a dictatorship. Oliver Cromwell came to the Putney debates in 1647 from a position of considerable political and military strength. Although the fact that he still needed to invite radical elements within the army to the Putney Debates meant that he and his general's position of power had been far from consolidated.

Cromwell was well aware that the invitation of civilian Levellers meant that the discussion held at Putney would have a resonance far beyond the walls of Putney church. How much Cromwell was aware of the growing radicalisation of his army is open to conjecture. To what extent Cromwell read the volumes of letters sent to him from the various radical groups is again hard to fathom. But even this conservative of men would have least noted with alarm the growing influence of radical groups such as the Levellers and Fifth Monarchists. After all one of his top general's Thomas Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist supporter and shared similar religious and political positions with other radicals. Cromwell also up until Putney had a reasonably close social and political relationship with one of the Leaders of the Leveller's John Lilburne.

In the months leading up to Putney Cromwell and his generals faced a growing threat to their leadership. They faced a two-pronged attack from the Presbyterians and the radical groups. One of the most important radical tracts printed by October 29th was called A Call to All Soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England which was a defence of the radical regiments and demanded a purge of the parliament amidst a call for the agitators to meet as an 'exact council' and to act with the 'truest lovers of the people you could find'. One of the main aims of the document was to expose the "hypocrisy" and "deceit" of Cromwell and Ireton. It must have been with extreme reluctance that Cromwell invited the agitators to Putney. In doing so his aim was to defeat these forces politically at Putney and then militarily later on.

Politically Cromwell was to the right of the English bourgeois revolution. In many ways his actions at Putney were largely opportunistic, he promised the Levellers to look into their demands but in reality, he had no intention of adopting the Agreement. He read very little outside of the bible and had only a superficial understanding of the radical tracts produced during the early period of the revolution. An interesting PhD dissertation topic would be to examine what was in his library at the time of his death.

It is clear that Cromwell at Putney completely underestimated his political opponents in the army. The documents presented by Leveller supporters in the army clearly shocked and dismayed this conservative of gentleman. The debates brought to the surface deep seated ideas regarding property, democracy and the future course of the revolution. Political divisions were becoming sharper in the run up to the Putney Debates. Even deeper divisions among historians have meant that there is no agreement as to how radical the army was or when its radicalisation started. This radicalisation did not fall from the sky. The ideas that came to fore at Putney were not only exacerbated by war they were provoked by grievances over pay and condition, the fact of the matter is that these developed into broader political demands is because they were the products of longer gestation.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this collection of essays is the absence of any examination of what was said at Putney as Rachel Foxley points out "it is sad that an entire volume on the Putney debates should have so little room for analysis of the vocabulary and dynamics of the debates in terms of political thought. There is much more work to be done here. The debates are more than a script written for the actors by simple circumstance, and all we now know about their context should enable us to read their content in genuinely illuminating new ways".[3]

If any proof was needed about the overarching conservative nature of these essays, it is that most of them were influenced by leading revisionist historian Mark Kishlansky who attended the conference but did not write an essay for this collection. Kishlansky classified the period as being marked by its "vaunted peace and harmony,"However, this was not a period that was marked by its its "vaunted peace and harmony". The radicalisation brought about by heated attacks on the army by the Presbterains provoked one writer to say "it is objected to us, that we would have toleration of all sectaries, schismatiques, heretiques, blasphemies, errours, licentiousnesse, and wickednesses".[4]

The hostility to the radicalisation of the soldiers was given further political expression by the Presbyterian faction in parliament when it published its 'Declaration of Dislike' in the House of Commons. The document provocatively called the soldiers "enemies to the State and disturbers of the public peace". The document represented a declaration of war against both independent and radicals alike. It was an expression growing class differences contained within and outside of parliament. As Austin Woolrych commented, "seldom can ten words have done more mischief than Holles's 'enemies of the state and disturbers of the public peace".[5]

There existed a growing nerviness inside the Presbyterian party within parliament that was caused by the growing calls inside the army for more democracy, protests against social inequality and an end to property. In answer to the The Declaration of Dislike the army said "We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of parliament to the defence of our own and the People's just Rights and Liberties".[6] This would have sent shockwaves through the Presbyterian Party.

Austin Woolrych in his essay takes a very cautious approach to the Putney Debates. Woolrych somewhat controversially states that the army had "refrained from political activity despite the tendency of the Presbyterians both religious and political, to portray it as a hotbed of sectaries and radicals." If this is true then did Putney drop from the skies? Is there no connection between the activity of the army before Putney and during? Surely history is not just a series of unconnected episodes.

Woolrych continues  "Anyone who strains to hear the voice of the soldiery in the Putney debates should be aware that, apart from one brief interjection by an unnamed agent, the only troopers who spoke that day were Sex by and Everard, and on the other two days recorded by Clarke the only others who opened their mouths were Lockyer and Allen. No agitator of a foot regiment is known to have spoken. Out of just fifty officer-agitators listed in October, twelve spoke in the course of the three-recorded days five of them only once, and very briefly. We should be very cautious about treating the Putney debates, wonderful as they are as the typical voice of the army'?[7]

This theme of downplaying the influence of the radicals at Putney is continued by other essayists. While it is true that the ordinary soldiers were thin on the ground, the politics that were debated at Putney had a deep resonance inside the army. Even Woolrych is forced to describe such incidents where 'open incitements to mutiny and were already bearing poisoned fruit. Fairfax had lately ordered Colonel Robert Lilburn's foot regiment to Newcastle, for sound military reasons but a party of new agents bearing copies of the Case of the Armie overtook it and urged it not to let the army be divided.Thereupon its soldiers turned back, held an unauthorised rendezvous and refused to obey their officers. Other regiments were in a state of incipient mutiny before the debates at Putney were would up".

One thing not mentioned by Woolrych is that Presbyterians alongside the Independents had a lot to lose if Lilburne and his revolutionaries had their way. A large number of MP's had grown rich out of the civil war and intended to keep their newfound wealth come what may. Many in parliament had grown rich from the change of relations of land ownership, although the enclosure and the sequestration church holdings had begun before the civil war it was continued with during the first revolution with fresh impetus. The Long Parliament had got rid of the Episcopate and to administer its interests, it organised a committee for the sale of church lands.

Often the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army were permitted to buy land cheap. Sometimes exchange for their unpaid salary and at half price. Fifth Monarchist's like Lieutenant colonel Thomas Harrison became very rich out this process.

According to Evgeny Pashukanis "The Civil War between Parliament and the Crown thus had, as a result, the mass transfer of property (which was partly annulled upon the Restoration). Not less than half of all the movable property and half of the lands, rents and incomes of the noblemen who fought on the side of the Crown fell under sequestration. In order to raise the sequestration, it was necessary to pay a composition in the amount of approximately one-fifth of the total value. Such an operation was conducted in 1644 on not less than 3,000 "gentlemen". The direct profit from this measure was received by the Presbyterian party which then held sway in parliament, a party whose members became rich buying land cheaply, squeezing out the Royalists who had fallen under sequestration, with money at usurious interest, and finally, releasing sequestration for a bribe. The corruption which developed gave one of the major trump cards to the Independents and their struggle against the parliamentary majority. In the interest of justice it should be noted that after this when Cromwell's army triumphed over parliament, the Independent majority of the "Rump" began to engage in the same dirty business".[8]

Cromwell may have led the debate at Putney, but thanks to Barbara Taft's excellent essay we get to know better the real theoretical leader of the Grandees at Putney which was Henry Ireton. Ireton and other members of the General Council of the new Model army resided in Putney church essentially to discuss the Levellers Agreement of the People from October 28th to November 11th 1647. According to H N Brailsford' When one compares these debates with those of its sittings at Reading in July, it is clear that in three months the temper and outlook of the army were changed. At Putney, the mood was sultry and tense'. While it true that the grandees and the agitators were moving roughly in the same direction in July by October a huge chasm was to open up between them ".[9]

It is clear from the Clarke transcripts that Cromwell was no great theoretician but it worth quoting one of his better contributions: While it took Cromwell a little while to understand what was going on at Putney when he saw the Levellers Pamphlet The Agreement of the People he reacted in this way on October 28th "These things that you have now offered, they are new to us: they are things that we have not at all (at least in this method and thus circumstantially) had any opportunity to consider of, because they came to us but thus, as you see; this is the first time we had a view of them. Truly this paper does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the kingdom, alterations from that government that it hath been under, I believe I may almost say, since it was a nation –I say, I think I may almost say so. And what the consequences of such an alteration as this would be, if there were nothing else to be considered, wise men and godly men ought to consider. I say, if there were nothing else to be considered but the very weight and nature of the things contained in this paper. Therefore, although the pretensions in it, and the expressions in it, are very plausible, and if we could leap out of one condition into another that had so specious things in it as this hath, I suppose there would not be much dispute – though perhaps some of these things may be very well disputed. How do we know if, whilst we are disputing these things, another company of men shall not gather together, and put out papers plausible perhaps as this? I do not know why it might not be done by that time you have agreed upon this, or got hands to it if that be the way. And not only another, and another, but many of this kind. And if so, what do you think the consequence of that would be? Would it not be confusion? Would it not be utter confusion? Would it not make England like the Switzerland country, one canton of the Swiss against another and one county against another to go on along with it, and whether those great difficulties that lie in our way are in a likelihood to be either overcome or removed".?

While Cromwell was no great thinker Ireton was. Ireton was ambitious, and with a class understanding to match. He had a valuable ability to process complicated theoretical arguments and respond to them on the spur of the moment. Ireton's goal at Putney was to diffuse the more radical elements of the Leveller programme and if possible, co-opt them into the Grandes strategy if this failed Cromwell and Ireton were not adverse to use force to achieve their aims. Ireton would use the Levellers up to a point as a bulwark against the Presbyterians in Parliament they were after all according to  E. Bernstein" were the first among the people and the simple soldier agitators in the army to understand the necessity of energetic opposition for the counter-revolutionary elements of Parliament".[10]

It was a dangerous game played by Cromwell and Ireton according to Pashukanis "One can have doubts about the degree to which Cromwell and the other leaders of the Independents truly wished to remain loyal to the Presbyterian majority in parliament. But there is no doubt that the soldiers' organisations never entered into their calculations for the purpose of their struggle with parliament. It is one thing to put pressure on parliament by relying upon a disciplined armed force subordinate to oneself, but entirely another thing to create an illegal organisation embracing the mass of soldiers and awakening their independent activity, an organisation which immediately and inevitably had to bring forth socio-political demands extending far beyond the ideas of the moderate Independents".[11]

As was said earlier, the historiography of the Putney Debates has been dominated by right-leaning historians. It is beginning to change as left historians begin to even up the score. It is worth quoting one of them John Rees who recently wrote "The main axis of debate on both sides assumes that what is under discussion is a universal male franchise. Cromwell and Ireton object to this proposal on the basis that if the poor are given the vote, they will use it to take property away from the rich. Rainsborough responds that unless the poor are given the vote ', I say the one parte shall make hewers of wood and drawers of water' of the rest and 'the greatest parte of the Nation bee enslav'd'. Sexby argued that though the soldiers had little property in the kingdom that they must be included in its political settlement.

Only on one occasion during the Putney debates does Leveller Maximillian Petty retreat from the idea of universal male suffrage. Petty suggested that servants or those dependent on others might be excluded from the franchise. This reads as a rather off-the-cuff response to debate with Henry Ireton, who has himself admitted that the franchise might be 'better than it is'. John Rede also adds an interesting cautionary note. He says that those who have given themselves over to 'voluntary servitude' should also be excluded from the vote".[12]

As was already mentioned by Rachel Foxley, the essays collected in this book could have done with more of the actual debate. Perhaps the famous exchange of these debates was between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell's son in law. Rainborowe stated that 'The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government'.

He continues 'Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If you say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him perpetual slave. We do find in all presses that go forth none must be pressed that are freehold men. When these gentlemen fall out among themselves, they shall press the poor scrubs to come and kill one another for them'. Do these comments represent an individual or did his words echo a much wider yet unconscious expression that Putney represented not just the people that took part but had a broader significance in the army and within the country itself".

To the participants at Putney his words would have seemed revolutionary but as Christopher Hill argued 'The Leveller conception of free Englishmen, was thus restricted, even if much wider, than that embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it".[13]

Ireton recognised that if the franchise were widened, it would threaten the Independents interest. As Hill again explains 'Defending the existing franchise, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine "that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here". The vote was rightly restricted to those who "had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom". Namely, the persons in whom all lands lies and those incorporation's in whom all trading lies".[14]

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. 

The centrepiece of this collection of essays is the one by John Morrill and Phillip Baker. This type essay is what Jim Holstun called a "revisionist manifesto".Their refusal to call the Levellers and their supporters agitators preferring the less radical sounding adjutators sets the tone for the rest of their essay. Morrill's and Baker's argument is that main voice at the Putney debates of 1647 was that of New Model Army soldiers not of the Levellers. They argue that these soldiers were not as radical as some left-leaning historians have made out.

What is also is clear is the influence of Mark Kishlansky on this essay. Even amongst conservative historians, this essay was controversial. So much so that it provoked a heated debate at the conference with other historians providing in writing their differences. It is a shame that a modern-day William Clarke did not record the debate.

The Levellers undoubtedly were a petit-bourgeois party. While some historians including Morrill protest that capitalist relations were not that developed to describe them as such. There were sufficient bourgeois-capitalist relationships, at the 1640s to warrant such a claim. Indeed, capitalist relations had not developed to a large extent into the English countryside, to such an extent demands could not enter into their programme for a general division of land.

The Levellers appeared and were organised as a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern-day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group-containing a group called the Diggers or as they have been called the True Levellers, another group the Ranters were on the extreme left wing of the revolution.

The Levellers called for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layer which made up the Levellers themselves.

Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralisation of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion which essentially was not different from that of Cromwell, they had no concrete programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequality would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained 'I am no advocate for the poore further than to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient'. 

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate, the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting around it. As was said before it seems the overriding influence on these essays such as Morrill's and Bakers is the arch revisionist historian Mark Kishlansky who agrees with much in this chapter of the book. Kishlansky, like Morrill is hostile to a Marxist interpretation of the English bourgeois revolution.

He writes 'Much has been written about the ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principal reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model's officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Sponger and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet a careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objection to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism'.

This revisionist domination of Putney debates historiography is beginning to change. Several left-leaning historians such as John Rees have started to challenge the largely right-wing conceptions typical of the essays in this collection.

In his recently published essay,[15] Rees makes the following observations. “Perhaps the most famous discussion of the relationship between the Levellers and the labouring classes of the mid-17th century comes in the Putney debates of 1647. These critical discussions between the most senior officers of the New Model Army, elected representatives from the army rank and file, and civilian Levellers have rightly fascinated historians.

One issue to which historical debate has frequently returned concerns whether or not the Leveller spokespeople at Putney advocated the expansion of the franchise implied in the Agreement of the People, first presented at Putney. Should it include the poorest males in society, or should servants and wage labourers be excluded from the vote?
It might be said that this issue has been over-analysed by historians. Jason Peacey, for instance, has suggested that historians have tended to divorce the study of a Levellers from the broader spectrum of radical Parliamentary opinion of which they were a part and also that they have concentrated too narrowly on the franchise debate at Putney. Both issues are of relevance here. The Levellers certainly were part of, indeed emerged from, a wider current of radical parliamentarianism. And the debate over the constitutional settlement of the nation after the First Civil War was one in which Levellers were engaged in debate with a much wider constituency of parliamentarians, some of whom contributed directly to the content of the Agreement of the People. Others held opinions with which the Levellers had to contend, even if they disagreed with them or distrusted those advancing them. We will see this dynamic at work throughout this discussion. But for all the differentiation among them, it is still the case that the Levellers were a distinct political movement. They recognised themselves as such, and their opponents did likewise".

To conclude Michale Mendle's book despite it' revisionist historiography is an important contribution to the debates about the Putney debates. One worrying aspect has been the lack of challengers to the right-wing nature of the historiography. Despite the huge passage of time, the debates still provoke much heat is testimony to their importance. It is now high time that left-leaning historians begin to step up to the plate and challenge this right-leaning historiography.


John Rees's paper The Levellers, the labouring classes, and the poor-John Rees- was first given at Honest Labour: exploring the interface between work and nonconformity, a regional day conference of the International John Bunyan Society, organised in association with the University of Bedfordshire, Keele University, Loughborough University and Northumbria University in April 2019. It will appear in the forthcoming issue of Bunyan Studies.

[1] The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers and the English State
edited by Michael Mendle
[2] Introduction-The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers and the English State edited by Michael Mendle
[3] Review by: Rachel Foxley Source: The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 1010-1011
[4] Vox Militaris: Or an Apologetical Declaration Concerning the Officers and Souldiers of the Armie, under the Command of his Excellency Sr. Thomas Fairfax, (London: 11 August [Thomason]),
[5] Taken from Austin Woolrych, Soldiers and Statesmen), page 36-37.
[6] From the Representation of the Army 1647
[8] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law
[9] The Levellers and the English revolution (1961)
[10] E. Bernstein, Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1919), 3rd German edition, p.78. – See also E. Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1930), Allen and Unwin, London [eds.]
[11] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law
[12] The Levellers, the labouring classes, and the poor-John Rees-
[13] The Century of Revolution: 1603–1714-By Christopher Hill-p129
[14] Taken from
[15] The Levellers, the labouring classes, and the poor-John Rees-