On the Rant

E.P. Thompson

  • 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.

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