On the Rant
- Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians by J.C. Davis
Cambridge, 208 pp, £22.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 521 26243 7
Professor J.C. Davis has written a book to show that the Ranters did not exist. There was no Ranter sect: no organisation: no acknowledged Ranter leadership. Those alleged to be leaders did not agree with each other on some points of doctrine; or they denied that they were Ranters; or they quickly recanted; or (like Laurence Clarkson, or Claxton, who acknowledged in his autobiographical The Lost Sheep Found that he had been known as the ‘Captain of the Rant’) might have been falsifying their own record for the sake of better setting off their new convictions (Clarkson had become a Muggletonian). Accusations of drinking, swearing and sexual libertinism against the Ranters can be dismissed as the lampoons of opponents or the sensationalism of the ‘yellowpress’. Accounts of Ranter beliefs and practices coming from Quakers, Baptists and other observers are valueless as evidence, being doctrinal polemics or lampoons. Davis demonstrates all this with tedious repetition and a swaggering pretence of rigour. He rounds it off with sixty pages of reprints from the worthless and salacious ‘yellowpress’ anti-Ranter tracts. This is like tying a large lead weight to the neck of whatever weakling kitten of the imagination has survived immersion in the tedium of his text, and sinking it finally to the bottom of the pond.
How, then, did it come about that both contemporaries and subsequent historians have supposed that there were Ranters? Two answers for that. First, in the disturbing times of 1649-51, a fictional, mythic image of Ranterism was projected, as a kind of moral grande peur. Once the Ranter bugaboo had arisen it was found very serviceable as a threat, or as a smear, in controlling doctrinal deviance or in effecting the consolidation of discipline in other sects. Secondly, the revival of interest in the Ranters since 1970 is explained in terms of the supposed ‘goals’ of the Communist Party Historians Group in 1946-56, the realisation of which may be seen in A.L. Morton’s The World of the Ranters and Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. At the same time, these and other historians wished to find precursors for the anti-hegemonic ‘hippy’ culture of the late 1960s, and Norman Cohn (whose membership of the CP Historians Group has gone unrecorded) wished to clobber that culture, and to show the way in which millenial Ranting led on to totalitarianism. So the old bugaboo was dug up and dressed in modern jeans.
What is silly about all this is that Davis has set up a historiographical bugaboo of his own. To ‘rant’ was a term of insult, and ‘Ranter’ was, like ‘loony Left’, a term invented by opponents. It is not likely that Coppe or Bauthumley or Richard Coppin would have assented to the sobriquet. As for the historians, perhaps Cohn, in The Pursuit of the Millennium, was a little credulous, since his thesis required that millennial sects be seen at their most crazy. But Morton, Hill and others have always been at pains to make it clear that there was never a Ranter sect. ‘It is extremely doubtful whether there ever was a Ranter organisation’ – thus Hill, who also comments on the ‘very wide discrepancies’ between the theology of such men as Salmon and Bauthumley and ‘the licentious practices of which rank-and-file Ranters were accused’. Nor does Hill ever pretend to some uniformity of Ranter doctrine. The World Turned Upside Down and The Experience of Defeat derive their richness of texture from their scrupulous attention to diversity among these unclubbable heresiarchs. As for Morton’s The World of the Ranters, this also insists that the Ranters were never a sect: ‘there is no evidence for any formal organisation or generally received body of doctrine.’ The ‘literature about the Ranters is uniformly hostile and frequently nothing but the lowest type of gutter journalism’, ‘pamphlets of the lowest, muck-raking type’ (i.e. Davis’s ‘yellowpress’). Morton considers, on the basis of such evidence as Clarkson’s The Lost Sheep, that the accounts of Ranter licence ‘may not be entirely without foundation’, but he, like Hill, handles all accounts with caution.
Vol. 9 No. 16 · 17 September 1987
SIR: What E.P. Thompson’s long and violent review of my Fear, Myth and History (LRB, 9 July) seems to suggest is that the orthodox views of the Ranters of Hill, Morton and McGregor are sacrosanct and that to challenge them is automatically to cast oneself as a sneering parasite, intellectually mediocre, tedious and politically suspect. The travesty of my book around which his review runs is hardly worthy of Mr Thompson at his polemical best, and the lurid association of myself as anti-History with Thatcher and Tebbit (as presumably anti-Christ or anti-Marx) has a gruesome comedy to it, reminiscent of Thomas Edward’s depiction of anti-Christ, rather than of one of this century’s best and most widely respected historians. I wrote my book because I was not persuaded by the standard accounts of the Ranter phenomenon. Despite Mr Thompson’s abuse, I remain unpersuaded. If the penalty for such scepticism is to be condemned to the Gulag of Mr Thompson’s anti-history, I know of no court of appeal except the good sense of my fellow historians. But the voice of heresiographers – celebratory or condemnatory – should never of itself convince.
Massey University, New Zealand
SIR: At the very least J.C. Davis’s Fear, Myth and History is brief and to the point. E.P. Thompson’s review, aptly named ‘On the rant’, is neither. Indeed, as a long-time admirer of Professor Thompson’s political work against nuclear weapons, I hope he may now devote himself entirely to this and resign his other hat, as a professional historian, altogether. For Thompson’s piece is about present-day politics, not 17th-century history, and a function of Davis’s book is to direct us to the lamentable consequences of confusing the two. For all of its commissioning by a ‘prestigious university press’ and the favourable reviews it has received, Davis’s work is, Thompson would have us believe, a ‘meagre bit of anti-history’ which should never have been written. Its ‘meagreness’ in Thompson’s eyes may result from the possibility, left open by the review, that he has missed the wider point of the book altogether.
Davis’s very small book is so potent precisely because by focusing on a tiny area of 17th-century history it raises what is probably the major problem facing the practice of professional history today. All professional historians have a choice. On the one hand, they can choose to exercise their historical imagination to travel to another time and place, and to another way of thinking. Such (mental) travel in time is just like travel in space and involves the same choices; we can opt for the package tour (‘20th-century meals served’), or decide to go the whole hog and slum it with the indigenous inhabitants. I use this metaphor conscious of its practical limitations: the imaginative attempt at such travel is, nevertheless, the very essence of the historian’s craft. It is in this way that historians can attempt to broaden both their own experience and that of those with whom they are paid to share it. This is the only peculiar educative function history has to offer as a discipline, and one by-product of it should be greater tolerance of variety and difference between people, as well as across time. This is also, by the way, the only way historians can contribute as historians to Professor Thompson’s avowed political goal: a withdrawal from the precipice of nuclear annihilation. This is a human rather than a technological problem, which can only be solved when ignorance is replaced by some sort of readiness to tolerate difference. Readiness to tolerate difference is a quality conspicuously absent from Professor Thompson’s review.
The other choice for historians is to use the records of the past simply to confirm and bolster present political positions and prejudices. This is the real meaning of anti-history, because it involves no engagement with the dimension of time, no attempt to stand outside the assumptions of the present, and no exercise of the historical imagination whatever. Of the two choices it is much the easier and much the more likely to result in public popularity in the present. It can, however, teach us nothing at all: it can only make us more articulate and entrenched in our ignorance. And one by-product of this choice is that it also makes the work of professional historians much more difficult by the distortion, misuse and misrepresentation of the historical record which it entails. The 17th-century historiographical landscape is an appalling, and at times almost impenetrable, litter of mythology and misinformation heaped up in this way, by both ‘Left’ and ‘Right’. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a window through the complications of the historiography that will allow us the slightest view of the history.
Davis’s book takes just one small aspect of this mess to demonstrate irrefutably a wider problem: that those who live by the sword will die by it (and we must take care not to die with them); that the propaganda-makers of today will find their evidence principally in the propaganda-makers of yesterday; and even that the ‘left-wing’ historians of today will find themselves swallowing hook, line and sinker the ‘right-wing’ propaganda of a previous age. It is hardly surprising that this irony makes Professor Thompson hopping mad. It is bad enough to accuse someone who has put their history at the service of their politics of being historically mistaken. To accuse them of unsound political cohabitation in the process is the last straw.
The reason that left-wing historians end up swallowing right-wing myths, and vice versa, is that, from the point of view of the practice of history, there is no difference between them. And, pace Thompson, Davis is patently not attacking ‘left-wing’ historians from a ‘right-wing’ stance. He is issuing a general caution to historians who use the past principally for the political service of the present that they both beggar the present and get the past wrong in the process. Every serious professional historian – particularly those struggling to rescue the political thought of the 17th century from the political thought of the 20th century – will applaud every page of this message.
It is indeed a miserable comment on what Professor Thompson calls ‘these latter days’ that to publish such a book required from Davis not only meticulous scholarship but also some courage. He has duly reaped his measure of abuse. Davis’s point, however, remains entirely intact and fundamentally historical: and that abuse remains predictably and irrelevantly political. People interested in the practice of history and its future must now read Davis’s book for themselves and think these issues through. People interested in present-day politics in England will recognise in the terms Thompson sees fit to apply to Davis’s work – ‘a tebbit-like sneer’ and ‘the encroaching thatcherism of the upwardly-mobile historical mind’ (what extraordinary class snobbery is this?) – signs of a contemporary political frustration which may be understandable but which has nothing to do with these historical concerns.
Victoria University of Wellington,
Vol. 9 No. 17 · 1 October 1987
SIR: My review of Fear, Myth and History (LRB, 9 July) was not a political polemic but a defence of history against ideology. Ninety-five per cent of the review – which neither Davis nor Scott (Letters, 17 September) address – concerned substantive questions of the Ranters and of the antinomian tradition; 5 per cent of rhetorical political ornaments provoked by J.C. Davis’s own leaden polemics against the Communist Party Historians Group of forty years ago. I described Davis’s book as ‘a work of anti-history’ because it ‘discovers no new sources, throws no new light on obscure places, but [its] object is to destroy the findings of scholarship and leave in their place nothing but a knowing tebbit-like sneer’. I found his treatment of antinomianism to be lacking precisely in the exercise of the historical imagination to which Scott appeals. But the elevation of ideological premises above the procedures of empirical enquiry or of imaginative recovery is not an offence peculiar to the ‘Right’ or the ‘Left’. Nine years ago, when I wrote The Poverty of Theory, it was especially flagrant amongst some of those who supposed themselves to be Marxists. Nowadays the ideological heavies mostly belong to the political Right, whose bad intellectual manners are becoming spectacular. Davis, as a scholar in New Zealand, is not responsible for this: but what is that word ‘Gulag’ doing in his letter?
Upper Wick, Worcester
Vol. 9 No. 18 · 15 October 1987
SIR: If there is to be an extended public debate on the Ranters, let it be one of substance, not shadows. Despite the warnings of J.C. Davis and Jonathan Scott (Letters, 17 September) not to confuse contemporary politics with the act of historical enquiry – a confusion which they see in E.P. Thompson’s review of Davis’s study of the Ranters (LRB, 9 July) – they still focus entirely upon the political dimension, thereby avoiding the historical objections which Thompson raises. It is Davis’s intention to show that left-wing historians have been fooled by the pejorative image of the Ranters projected onto them by their enemies. Thompson rightly stresses that this image was not simply one of castigation but also a means for the imposition of discipline among radical Puritans after 1651. He wonders why Davis should make so much of this, when most other historians have long accepted the point. What he does not point out is that Davis does not ‘travel … to another way of thinking’, as Scott puts it, to place himself in the Ranter’s position. Rather, Davis accepts the straw man Ranter of the heresiographers and the Marxists, and shows how none of the individuals accused of being Ranters fit the bill. Instead, they usually turn out to be ‘spiritual enthusiasts’: and there Davis’s case ends, or rather turns back upon the shortcomings of left-wing historians and their rhetoric.
To me, ‘spiritual enthusiasm’ is the starting-point for enquiry. What is crucial is the way in which the externally-imposed name ‘Ranter’ interacts with each individual’s picture of him or herself. As Thompson shows, Davis fails to present the broad appeal, intellectually and spiritually, of the Antinomian and perfectionist strain so well portrayed by Christopher Hill. Paradoxically, it is through this rigid, limited vision that Davis is able to sort out some difficult problems. One of the best moments in his book is the demonstration that Richard Coppin was both Antinomian and universalist (or even Arminian). The rewarding ground for historians is the contradictory language of radical religion, with its codes, evasions and inconsistencies. So, while Thompson is right to stress the solfidian element in John Saltmarsh’s Free Grace (1645), he does not show how Saltmarsh attempted to reconcile free grace with the rhetoric of predestinarian Calvinism. Thompson has done an injustice to his own dissenting tradition by ignoring (as Davis does not) the historian who has done most to map the radical religious mind: G.F. Nuttall.
One of Davis’s theses is that the so-called Ranters did not keep in touch with each other. Davis actually suppresses published evidence which confirms that a small ‘Ranter core’ did write to each other during their brief period of notoriety. The evidence of letters and local records as well as pamphlets seems to point to a widespread nexus of radical spiritualists, closely in touch with each other, and interacting also with those outside the sects. It was in this milieu that the word ‘Ranter’ circulated, and in the 1650s ‘Quaker’ was no less an unstable or unfaithful term used to describe the individuals involved
Scott speaks as if it were possible to write a history free from political bias. This is absurd. The energy in historical writing is generated by the predispositions of the historians. Deciphering them is part of the trade of all historians.
Keble College, Oxford