Historical Examples

by Kevin Carson

Historical Examples

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Scott argues that the popular religion—or “folk Catholicism”—of Christian Europe,

far from serving ruling interests, was practiced and interpreted in ways that often defended peasant property rights, contested large differences in wealth, and even provided something of a millennial ideology with revolutionary import. Rather than being a “general anesthesia,” folk Catholicism was a provocation—one that, together with its adherents in the lower clergy, provided the ideological underpinnings for countless rebellions against seigneurial authority. [96]

As the Catholic church developed into a conservative institution—especially after it was established under Constantine—it shifted away from the earlier millenarianism that had predominated in Christian thought in the first two or three centuries. This shift included the growing dominance of Origen’s spiritualization of eschatology as a matter of individual salvation, and the Augustinian view of the Millennium and Kingdom of God at historically realized in the Church.

The third century saw the first attempt to discredit millenarianism, when Origen, perhaps the most influential of all the theologians of the ancient Church, began to present the Kingdom as an event which would take place not in space or time but only in the souls of believers. For a collective, millenarian eschatology Origen substituted an eschatology of the individual soul…. Such a shift in interest was indeed admirably suited to what was now an organized Church, enjoying almost uninterrupted peace and an acknowledged position in the world. When in the fourth century Christianity attained a position of supremacy in the Mediterranean world and became the official religion of the Empire, ecclesiastical disapproval of millenarianism became emphatic. The Catholic Church was now a powerful and prosperous institution, functioning according to a well-established routine; and the men responsible for governing it had no wish to see Christians clinging to out-dated and inappropriate dreams of a new earthly Paradise. Early in the fifth century St Augustine propounded the doctrine which the new conditions demanded. According to The City of God the Book of Revelation was to be understood as a spiritual allegory; as for the Millennium, that had begun with the birth of Christianity and was fully realized in the Church. This at once became orthodox doctrine. [97]

Nevertheless millenarianism persisted, underground, as a central component of popular religion in Christian Europe, an alternative version of the official ideology which provided a reservoir of ideas to be used against the established Church and state and their legitimacy claims. The apocalyptic tradition appealed to two great bodies of symbolism: popular exegesis of the Revelation of St. John and the Sybilline prophecies. [98]

This millenarianism tended to be combined with a radical critique of the institutional Church as part of the worldly power structure, and a contrasting ideal based on (variously) the Garden of Eden, the “primitive communism” of the Church described in the Acts of the Apostles, and personal saintliness as exemplified by the monastic movement as well as assorted freelance hermits and wandering lay preachers (what Cohn calls “the ideal of the apostolic life”). The monastic ideal itself, as exemplified by the Benedictine Rule’s provision that monks “live by the labor of their hands,” was inspired by the example of St. Paul working as a tent-maker to support himself and of the persecuted Christians in Acts sharing all that they had. [99]

When all these elements were combined in a single instance, usually in times of secular turmoil, the popular religion emerged from underground as a full-blown counter-ideology that stood orthodox Christianity on its head. The same recurring themes cropped up, again and again: an attack on corruption within the body of the Church, a call to replace the hierarchy with an egalitarian ecclesiastical polity dominated by ordinary Christians, a repudiation of tithes and a denial of the authority of the sacramental priesthood. This was accompanied by a critique of secular power—particularly that of the landed classes to whom the peasants paid rent or provided labor in kind—and a call for return to a primitive state of nature in which all things (particularly land) were held in common, as God originally intended. [100]

These themes surfaced, especially, during upheavals like the Jacquerie in France, John Ball’s revolt in England, the German Peasants’ War and Munster Commune, and the assorted forms of radicalism associated with the English Civil War and Interregnum.

In Germany, events culminating in the Munster Commune were heavily influenced by the millenarianism and antinomianism of the Anabaptists. Although Luther weakened the Roman Church’s bonds of orthodoxy, his teaching by itself lacked something in its appeal to many of the common people. The result was Anabaptism, which barely qualified as a sect, given that it “was not a homogenous movement and it never was centrally organized.” There were around forty independent Anabaptist sects, generally clandestine and “each grouped around a leader who claimed to be a divinely inspired prophet or apostle,” scattered throughout the German-speaking areas of central Europe. [101] Their theology was mostly indefinite, aside from an emphasis on the sole authority of Scripture, a symbolic interpretation of the sacraments, a mandate to rebaptise converts and a belief in congregational church government. But their social attitudes were definitely unfriendly to the powers that be.

These sectarians tended to be uneasy about private property and to accept community of goods as an ideal. If in most of the groups little attempt was made to introduce common ownership, Anabaptists certainly did take seriously the obligations of charitable dealing and generous mutual aid…. In particular, Anabaptists regarded the state with suspicion…. [102]

In the period after the Peasants’ War and subsequent repression, some militant subgroups of Anabaptists—for the most part otherwise peaceful and quietist towards the authorities—turned increasingly to millenarian fantasies of war by the Saints against worldly wealth and authority. [103]

Among them was the Drummer of Niklashausen. The church where the young Drummer, Boheim, denounced the clergy was transformed into a shrine and became a site of pilgrimage. His prophetic vision included a proclamation that the sacrifice of Christ had redeemed all of humanity—including serfs!—from all forms of bondage. [104]

Hans Hut, a Thuringian disciple of Muntzer who claimed prophetic authority and announced Christ’s imminent return at Whitsuntide 1528, taught that

Christ will give the sword and revenge to them, the Anabaptists, to punish all sins, stamp out all governments, communize all property and slay those who do not permit themselves to be rebaptised. [105]

In the early days of Bernt Rothmann’s communist sermons in Munster, the Anabaptist enthusiasts streaming into the town had no little Zomian or Croatanian character:

‘And so they came,’ remarks one observer, ‘the Dutch and the Frisians and scoundrels from all parts, who had never settled anywhere: they flocked to Munster and collected there.’ Other sources refer to ‘fugitives, exiles, criminals’… [106]

The reign of terror introduced by Matthys, Rothmann and Jan Bockelson later in the decade was an attempt to realize, in full, the communism both of the Golden Age before Nimrod and the primitive Church. [107]

Like the heterodox variants of Buddhism in Scott’s Zomian highlands, heterodox variants of Christianity in England had been propagated by radical preachers on the margins of society from the time of the Lollards through the English Revolution.

What we do not know, and probably shall never know fully, is how much continuity of underground radical use of the Bible there was from Lollards through Foxe’s martyrs down to the apparently sudden appearance of Biblical radicalism in the 1640s. I gave some evidence in ’From Lollards to Levellers’ for continuity in certain geographical areas, and in certain subjects—use of the Bible to criticize the sacraments and ceremonies of the church, denunciations of idolatry and encouragement of iconoclasm, millenarianism, the saints to judge the world, perfection in this life, the idea that all men and women may be saved, lay mechanic preaching, Biblical criticism; and for recurrent heresies—mortalism, anti-Trinitarianism, scepticism about the existence of heaven, hell, the devil and sin, rejection of church marriage. Thomas Nashe speaks of a variety of sects already existing in the 1590s, with their own ’mechanic preachers’.

Whether there was continuity of radical ideas or not, there can be no doubt about the wealth of unorthodox theories, some of them fairly sophisticated, which surfaced after the breakdown of censorship [in the 1640s]. [108]

Elsewhere, Hill writes of the “tradition of plebeian anti-clericalism and irreligion:

To go no further back, the Lollards carried a popular version of John Wyclif’s heresies into the sixteenth century. Professor A.G. Dickens has shown how Lollard influence survived in a popular materialist scepticism which makes one ‘feel appreciably nearer to the age of Voltaire than is normal in the 16th century’. A carpenter in 1491 rejected transubstantiation, baptism, confession, and said men would not be damned for sin; in 1512 a Wakefield man said ‘that if a calf were upon the altar I would rather worship that than the… holy sacrament… The date was past that God determined him to be in form of bread.’ The clergy, an earlier Lollard had declared, were worse than Judas, who sold Christ for thirty pence, while priests sold masses for a halfpenny. The commons, said another, ‘would never be well until they had stricken off all the priests’ heads’. ‘There was a saying in the country,’ a north Yorkshireman pleaded in 1542, ‘that a man might lift up his heart and confess himself to God Almighty and needed not to be confessed at a priest.’ A shearman of Dewsbury elaborated on this point: he would not confess his offences with a woman to a priest, ‘for the priest would be as ready within two or three days after to use her as he’.

Although the idea of a past Golden Age “without distinctions of status or wealth” resonated with the English peasantry at all times, in times of political and social upheaval it became a hope for the immediate future. [109] In the peasant revolt of the 1380s, the dissident cleric John Ball preached a sermon to the peasant army, using as his text the old proverb “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then a gentleman?” It was probably something like this, if we can believe Froissart’s rendition of a typical John Ball sermon:

And if we are all descended from one father and one mother, how can the lords say or prove that they are more lords than we are—save that they make us dig and till the ground so that they can squander what we produce? They are clad in velvet and satin, set off with squirrel fur, while we are dressed in poor cloth. They have wines and spices and fine bread, and we have only rye and spoilt flour and straw, and only water to drink. They have beautiful residences and manors, while we have the trouble and the work, always in the fields under rain and snow. But it is from us and our labour that everything comes with which they maintain their pomp.

Good folk, things cannot go well in England nor ever shall until all things are in common and there is neither villein nor noble, but all of us are of one condition. [110]

And according to another contemporary chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, Ball contended that, although the human race had for a time departed from God’s law in allowing propertied classes to engross the earth for themselves, the time was soon coming when the people would once again cast off their yoke:

Therefore they should be of good heart and conduct themselves like the wise husbandman in the Scriptures who gathered the wheat into his barn, but uprooted and burned the tares which had almost choked the good train; for harvest-time was come. The tares were the great lords, the judges and the lawyers. [111]

The ideology of the peasant revolt was closely associated with Lollardry and the teaching of John Wyclif. Wyclif himself, in teaching that God had given the earth to humanity in common, “never intended this theory to be applied in practice to secular society.” In fact he said it only once, in Latin, and added the qualification that the righteous must “acquiesce to inequalities and injustices and leave the unrighteous in possession of their wealth and power.” Apparently, however, some of the radical students in his lectures at Oxford attached more significance to his statement than he did—and it didn’t take it long to filter down to the popularized variant of Lollardry that came out in John Ball’s sermons (the role of millennarian ideology in the peasant uprising should hardly be surprising, given the role lower clergy played in it). [112]

Such populist sentiments were expressed in literary form in Langland’s Piers Plowman, with Piers the righteous plowman as a Christ-figure tearing down the authority of the rich and powerful and doing justice to the poor and simple. The coming apocalypse was to be “a final battle between the poor, seen as the hosts of God, and their oppressors, seen as the hosts of Satan.” [113]

The Lollard tradition survived the defeat of Ball and Tyler, surviving underground and emerging above-ground during the English Revolution of the 1640s in the complex of religious ideas exemplified by the Familists, Ranters, Quakers, Baptists, Levellers, etc.

Lollardry was, given the circumstances, a fugitive and underground sect with no means to enforce an orthodoxy on those who believed. It can be glimpsed in reports of illegal preaching, in occasional anticlerical incidents, and in some radically democratic readings of the Scriptures later echoed by the Baptists and Quakers. We do know they preached the refusal of both “hat honor” and the use of honorifics in address, that they believed as early as the fifteenth century in direct confession to God and in the abolition of tithes for all those poorer than the priest, and that, like the Familists, Ranters, and Levellers, they would preach in the taverns or in the open air. They thrived best in those areas where surveillance was least—the pastoral, moorland, and forest areas with few squires or clergy.

Their “subterranean history” emerged as a “public, open explosion of radical heterodoxy” in the English Civil War. [114]

The Lollards had mined the English Bible as a source of subversive ideas.

For more than a century before Henry VIII’s reign Lollards had been circulating manuscript versions of the Scriptures. They found profoundly subversive messages in the Bible. Lowly social elements gathered furtively in illegal groups to hear the vernacular Bible read and discussed. [115]

Both the assorted Puritan sects and full-blown antinomians used language—centering on a spiritual understanding of the sacraments, an emphasis on the priestly power of the laity, and local congregations as voluntary associations of baptized adult converts—virtually indistinguishable from the Lollards. [116] Further Left, Christopher Hill argues, we find Winstanley and the Diggers, who saw the Holy Spirit as something to be realized in human history and whose idea of the gospel was hard to distinguish from peasant communism:

…for Winsanley ‘the word of righteousness’, ‘the gospel’, meant communism, subversion of the existing social order. ‘If you would find true majesty indeed, go among the poor despised ones of the earth… These great ones are too stately houses for Christ to dwell in; he takes up his abode in a manger, in and amongst the poor in spirit and despised ones of the earth. [117]

Communist ideas, associated with the Continental anabaptists and denounced in the Established Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles, were not limited to the Diggers; they were found, to a greater or lesser extent, among many of the radical sects. They had probably remained dormant for decades in many localities, as a legacy of Lollardry, and been reactivated when New Model Army troops or itinerant preachers came along. [118]

As described by Christopher Hill,

…in the turmoil of the seventeenth century, the Bible became a sword to divide, or rather an armoury from which all parties selected weapons to meet their needs. And what an armoury! The great advantage of the Bible was that it could be quoted to make unorthodox or unpopular points…. [And unlike the Greco-Roman classics] the Bible in the vernacular was open to all, even the lower classes, to pillage and utilize.

In seventeenth century England, a century of revolution and civil war, all parties appealed to the Bible for support… Seventeenth-century radicals claimed to find their ideas in the Bible. And they were right. All heresy originates from the Bible, because the Bible itself is a compilation, a compromise; orthodoxy changes as it incorporates or over-reacts against a heresy—which itself originated from the Biblical text. [119]

The agrarian changes of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, enclosure and evictions, the revolts of 1535, 1549, 1607 (in which the names of Digger and Leveller were used), 1628-31—all these and many lesser disturbances witnessed to social tensions that expressed themselves in class theories of politics of which the Norman Yoke was one variant. ‘When Adam delved and Eve span/Who then was the gentleman?’ was a Biblical version. The Bible gave confidence and reassurance to men and women who badly needed it. Their times were out of joint; unprecedented things were happening to their world and their lives, apparently beyond human control. Some of the more daring of them came to conceive of solutions which were so novel that they could only be contemplated if they were envisaged as a return to purer Biblical days. God was at work in the world, overturning in order to transform; where but in his Word should we look for explanations of his mysterious actions and intentions, and guidance as to his wishes.

Hill compares the subversive uses of the Bible, by those paying lip-service to official orthodoxy, to the “Aesopian language” used in the communist regimes of the 20th century.

Once we get behind the screen of loyal verbiage, it becomes clear that there were fundamental disagreements of principle at stake among the rulers as well as between rulers and ruled…. We must distinguish between the way in which men felt able to express themselves, their conventionally loyal language, on the one hand, and their actions on the other. Their language was often Aesopian, conveying messages different from what appears on the surface. To convince oneself of this possibility does not call for great intellectual or imaginative effort. A glance at the history of eastern Europe over the past decade might help.

The Bible facilitated this double-talk. Men knew their Bible very well in the seventeenth century, and could convey messages through allusions to it which are lost on a godless age. The Romanian priest Laszlo Tokes was able under Ceausescu to get political messages across to his congregation by preaching on Nebuchadnezzar and other wicked rulers. [120]

The common language and symbolism was adopted by all parties to political and religious dispute, but supplied with idiosyncratic content by the respective parties.

The words of the Bible limited the way in which men thought about society and its institutions. Hence the fierce quarrels during the Reformation about whether ‘church’ meant a national or international organization, or a local congregation…. If concepts changed, the Bible’s words could not be replaced: their meanings had to be altered.

So the Bible became a battle-field. For those who knew it well, judicious selection could turn up the desired answers to most problems. You could find defences of the status quo—’the powers that be are ordained of God’ (Romans XIII.1); but you could also find severe criticism of kings, defences of the rights of the poor, attacks on usury….

The Bible could offer codes by which novel or unpopular ideas might be communicated with less risk…. In 1648 the author of Persecutio Undecima wrote of Puritans ‘They took up a canting language to themselves… abusing phrases of Scripture, thereby to understand one another’. New allegorical significance could be given familiar stories. …Cain and Abel, Antichrist and Samson, could convey very different meanings to different people, different groups. Some nonconformists had agreed alternative meanings to those accepted by the state church…. [121]

The popular use of the English Bible was widely understood, as suggested by statements from prominent Levellers and Diggers, to be a circumvention of the official apparatus for ideological propagation.

William Walwyn, in the mock confession which he attributed to Thomas Edwards, made that great persecutor admit to ‘base fear that plain unlearned men should seek for knowledge any other way than as they are directed by us that are learned’. For ‘if they should fall to teach one another, …we should lose our domination in being sole judges of doctrine and discipline’. Radicals like Winstanley and Coppe did not fail to emphasize and enlarge on such texts. ‘I command thee, to let Israel go free’. ‘As the Scriptures threaten misery to rich men… surely all those threatenings shall be materially fulfilled, for they shall be turned out of all’. ‘As when the sun riseth with heat, then the grass withereth, and his flower falleth away; …even so shall the rich man wither away’ (James I.9-11)….

Levellers and other radicals opposed ‘servile tenures’ like copyhold, which they tried to get abolished, and the custom of primogeniture, which led to consolidation of estates in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. The words ‘birthright’ and ‘inheritance’, which figure largely in the story of Esau and Jacob, were associated in the seventeenth century with land. [122]

As might be expected, radical lay readings of the Bible tended to reflect the economic and political issues they brought with them: “…in the forties uneducated men and women read back into the Bible themselves and their problems, and the problems of their communities, and found Biblical answers there, which they could discuss with others who shared the same problems.” [123]

As also might be expected, the Biblical raw material of the Jubilee year and the Millennium were put to radical uses in 17th century England.

Preachers of Fast Sermons also accepted the connection of the Jubilee with the millennium. The Scot George Gillespie, preaching to the House of Commons on 27 March 1644, spoke of ‘the acceptable year of Israel’s jubilee, and the day of vengeance upon Antichrist’, which was ‘now coming and is not far off’…. In February 1649-50 Vavasor Powell declared that ‘this year 1650… is to be the saints’ year of jubilee’, according to the interpretation of ‘most godly writers upon Daniel’. Bunyan appears to equate the Jubilee with the day of Judgment, which he expected in the near future.

In what appears to be a rather liberal interpretation of Leviticus XXV, the near-Digger pamphlet Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (December 1648) declared that ‘in Israel, if a man were poor, then a public maintenance and stock was to be provided to raise him again. So would all bishops’ lands, forest lands and crown lands do in our land, which the apostate Parliament men give to one another, and to maintain the needless thing called a King. And every seven years the whole land was for the poor, the fatherless, widows and strangers, and at every crop a portion allowed them’. William Aspinwall in 1656 called for the cancellation of debts after seven years, in accordance with Old Testament law, which would be the only authority in the millennium. [124]

It’s important to remember that, for the people making such appeals to Scripture, they were not “merely playful, poetic analogies.” As Hill argues,

They are serious, because of their sacred origin. To say that Cain is in all great landlords is a declaration of war. To compare the last Levellers shot (at Burford) with Abel amounts to saying that the generals are like Cain, beyond the pale of humanity….

After 1640 the collapse of censorship and the incursion of ‘illiterate’ radicals into politics ensured a more direct approach, a sharper tone. Biblical myths were put to new uses. Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, no longer merely illustrated the workings of God’s will in predestining some to eternal life and others to reprobation. Abel and Jacob now represented the common people. Cain and Esau were their oppressors, here and now. [125]

To put things in Scott’s terms, there is a close parallel between the legible forms of organization in both church and state; and the social strata drawn to the radical sects had a large whiff of Zomianism to them.

A quite different sort of masterless men were the protestant sectaries. These had as it were chosen the condition of masterlessness by opting out of the state church, so closely modelled on the hierarchical structure of society, so tightly controlled by parson and squire. Sects were strongest in the towns, where they created hospitable communities for men, often immigrants, who aspired to keep themselves above the level of casual labor and pauperism…. [126]

The rural counterparts of the London poor were the “cottagers and squatters on the commons, wastes and in forests,” living on the margins of the agricultural economy and outside the control of the landed classes. These were the people “idealized in the ballads of Robin Hood.” [127] Itinerant craftsmen, traveling from village to village in search of work and spreading their heresies as they went, round out the picture. 128 The moors and fens swarmed with radical puritans, witches, Levellers and Quakers. [129]

Beneath the surface stability of rural England…, the vast placid open fields which catch the eye, was the seething mobility of forest squatters, itinerant craftsmen and building laborers, unemployed men and women seeking work, strolling players, minstrels and jugglers, pedlars and quack doctors, gipsies, vagabonds, tramps; congregated especially in London and the big cities, but also with footholds wherever newly-squatted areas escaped from the machinery of the parish or in old-squatted areas where labour was in demand….

The eternally unsuccessful quest by J.P.s to suppress unlicensed ale-houses was in part aimed at controlling these mobile masses, which might contain disaffected elements, separatists, itinerant preachers. [130]

Enclosure and drainage, like the “strategic hamlets” in South Vietnam, was a deliberate ploy to render this mobile, marginal population legible to the state and the landed classes who desired to extract a surplus from them with greater ease. [131]

The religious concepts of the superior classes were appropriated and recuperated by the lower classes even within the English Revolution. Although they made it clear they intended them to be of limited application (“When we mention the people…, we do not mean the confused promiscuous body of the people”), the ideas of popular sovereignty were originally used by the Presbyterian and Independent parties of the gentry to undermine the king’s claim of divine right were quickly adapted by the lower classes—like Leveller agitators in the army and in London—for use against the gentry. [132] The myth of a pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon idyll, likewise used by the anti-royalist gentry for very limited purposes, was also used to much more radical effect by the lower orders. [133]

The concept of social revolution also emerged in the forties and fifties, in Biblical phrases like ‘the world turned upside down’ and Ezekiel’s ’overturn, overturn, overturn’. Thomas Manton in 1648 recognized that ’the levelling humour is no new thing in the Church of God’, instancing the rising of Korah, Dathan and Abiram against Moses (Numbers XVI.3). ’Thus the wicked reason against God’s ordinance’, the Geneva margin commented on this passage. Quakers and William Aspinwall applied to their own activities the phrase ‘the world turned upside down’. Such phrases normally sounded hostile in the mouths of the respectable. James I, for instance, had used ‘leveller’ in the sense of ‘anti-monarchist’. Ballads on ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ depicted it as a nonsensical inversion of deferential normality. But George Wither saw Habakkuk and Ezekiel as predecessors of the Quakers. [134]

The Leveller Winstanley used the Biblical story of Esau and Jacob as a prooftext for agrarian reform:

‘The earth’, declared Winstanley, ‘was never made by God that the younger brother should not live upon the earth unless he would work for and pay his elder brother rent for the earth…. England cannot be a free commonwealth till this bondage be taken away’. Monarchy and the House of Lords have been abolished: ‘now step two steps further, and take away the power of lords of manors and of tithing priests’. Land is ’everyone’s birthright’ said Winstanley in The Law of Freedom…. ‘Kingly government’, under which the ‘younger brother’s creation birthright is taken from him, ‘may well be called the government of highwaymen’. It ’makes one brother a lord and another a servant while they are in their mother’s womb’. The doctrine of rewards and punishments after death is a way of terrifying the younger brother into letting go ‘his hold in the earth’ and submitting ‘to be a slave to his brother for fear of damnation in hell after death’. Those who preach such doctrines aim only ‘to hinder Christ from rising, and to keep Jacob under to make him a slave to the man of the flesh’. [135]

He was echoed by other Digger pamphleteers, like the author of this 1650 broadside in Buckinghamshire: “Cain is still alive in all great landlords…. The Lord hath set Cain’s mark upon lords of manors for their oppressions, cheating and robbery’. [136] Radicals also made widespread use of Nimrod Ahab, Rehoboam, and other tyrants as types for all kings and landlords. [137]

The Lollard appropriation of concepts continued to resonate with radical movements into the 18th and 19th centuries. Many are familiar with the Jubilee reference (“Proclaim liberty throughout the land…”) on the Liberty Bell. In the 19th century,

‘Jubilee’ was used by William Benbow for a national strike, ‘a grand national holiday’. ‘Sir William Courtenay’, leader of ‘the last agricultural labourers’ rising’ in 1838, told his followers that ‘the great jubilee was to come, and we must be with ‘em’. [138]

It’s as good a time as any, here in the context of Christopher Hill, to remark on the imperative of avoiding condescension when comparing “religious” ideologies of liberation to the “scientific” or “politicial” ideologies of the post-Enlightenment era. James Scott, in the context of Zomian religion, argues against “exoticizing” prophetic rebellions and treating them as somehow less rational or otherwise fundamentally different in kind from Western revolutionary movements:

…virtually all popular struggles for power that today would qualify as “revolutionary” were, before the last quarter of the eighteenth century, generally understood in a religious idiom. Popular mass politics was religion, and religion was political. To paraphrase Marc Bloch, millennial revolt was as natural to the seigneurial (feudal) world as strikes, let us say, are to large-scale capitalism. Before the first two avowedly secular revolutions in North America and France in 1776 and 1789, virtually all mass political movements expressed their aspirations in religious terms. Ideas of justice and of rights and, indeed, what we might today call “class consciousness” were religiously phrased. [139]

…Commonly, [prophetic] movements are often treated as a phenomenon sui generis, a radical break with normal reasoning and
action and therefore suggestive of a kind of collective derangement, if not psychopathology. This is unfortunate for two reasons. …[I]t ignores the rich history of millenarian movements in the West that continue to this day. [140]

As Hill argued, newly literate or illiterate laborers, in the flourishing of debate after the lapse in censorship and the availability of cheap Bibles, were grappling seriously with social problems using the only conceptual tools at their disposal.

Take a young Welshman like Arise Evans, who came to London in 1629. He tells us how his attitude towards the Bible changed in the decade before the Revolution. ‘Afore I looked upon the Scripture as a history of things that passed in other countries, pertaining to other persons; but now I looked upon it as a mystery to be opened at this time, belonging also to us.’ This attitude must have been shared by many of the victims of economic and political crisis who turned to the Bible for guidance in those perplexing years. The 1640s and 50s were indeed the great age of ’mechanick preachers’—laymen like Bunyan interpreting the Bible according to their untutored lights with all the confidence and excitement of a new discovery….

The Bible was the accepted source of all true knowledge. Everybody cited its texts to prove an argument, including men like Hobbes and Winstanley, who illustrated from the Bible conclusions at which they had arrived by rational means. The difference in the case of simpler men like Arise Evans is that they believed the Bible to be divinely inspired, and applied its texts directly to problems of their own world and time, with no idea of the difficulties of translation, nor of the historical understanding required…. But these untrained minds included a George Fox and a John Bunyan. They were grappling with the problems of their society, problems which called urgently for solution, and they were using the best tools they knew of. [141]

The use of religious conceptual building blocks by revolutionary ideologies is not at all “primitive” or “irrational.” The conceptual tools of both official state legitimizing ideologies and ideologies of rebellion were alike religious.

Human beings use and adapt the conceptual tools that are available. Alchemy, for example, was a set of conceptual tools for explaining empirical observations and controlling the world. Consider how many of the founders of scientific method in the early modern period started out as alchemists.

Magic, likewise, is to a considerable extent a body of empirical, inductive observation and praxis using an alien (to most people reading this) conceptual vocabulary. Using “spiritual” terminology to denote the hypothetical mechanism behind observed phenomena is no more irrational than Greek physicians using the term “humors.” In both cases, the chosen term was in effect assigned to a black box. Our very word “atom” was originally a metaphysical term adopted by Ionian philosophers, and only far later found to loosely correspond with the findings of modern experimental science. Even distinguishing Epicurus’ “natural” atoms from a shaman’s “supernatural” spirits is imposing an anachronistic distinction on people who were just trying to find patterns of regularity in observed reality.

In Poul Anderson’s novel Brain Wave, life on Earth had evolved for millions of years as the planet passed through a vast energy field which slightly dampened electro-chemical activity like that of neurons. As the Earth passed out of this field, every species with a central nervous system experienced an abrupt increase in intelligence of several hundred percent. In one of his vignettes Wato, a West African shaman, spontaneously began reinventing Aristotle’s Organon using conceptual building blocks from his own magical vocabulary: “—the law of similarity, that like causes like, may be expressed in the form ya or not-ya, thus showing that this form of magic obeys the rule of universal causality. But how to fit in the law of contagion—?” [142]

More recently, we see the same phenomenon—the drawing of ideological symbolism from a common cultural pool by contending class interests—in the American political struggles leading up to the Revolution. The Federalists, essentially a court party that wanted to replicate the Walpolean system without Britain, nevertheless used the symbolism of Anglo-Republicanism (Cato’s Letters, Harrington, etc.) to buttress their arguments for a centralizing, aristocratic Constitution.

The Christianity of black slaves in the southern United States was essentially a millenarian, libertarian inversion of their masters’ religion.

Preachers with the interest of the masters at heart would emphasize New Testament passages about meekness, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and texts like the following (from Ephesians 6:5-9), which, paraphrased, also appeared in a catechism for “Colored Persons”: “Servant, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye service, as men pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” In contrast to this plea for a sincere official transcript from slaves, the offstage Christianity… stressed the themes of deliverance and redemption, Moses and the Promised Land, the Egyptian captivity, and emancipation. The Land of Canaan, as Frederick Douglass noted, was taken to mean the North and freedom. When they could safely boycott or leave sermons that condemned theft, flight, negligent work, and insolence, the slaves did just that…. There is little doubt… that their religious beliefs were often a negation of the humility and forbearance preached to them by whites. Ex-slave Charles Ball noted that heaven for blacks was a place where they could be avenged of their enemies, and that the “cornerstone” of black religion was the “idea of a revolution in the conditions of the white and blacks.” [143]

James Scott quotes an angry outburst by Aggy, a house slave, provoked by the master’s beating of her daughter. “Thar’s a day a-comin’!” she cried, a day of rumbling chariots, flashing guns, flowing blood and retribution for all the blows and humiliations inflicted by whites. Scott comments: What is particularly striking is that this is anything but an inchoate scream of rage; it is a finely drawn and highly visual image of an apocalypse, a day of revenge and triumph, a world turned upside down using the cultural raw materials of the white man’s religion. Can we conceive of such an elaborate vision rising spontaneously to her lips without the beliefs and practice of slave Christianity having prepared the way carefully? [144]


96 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, p. 68.

97 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961, 1970), p. 29.

98 Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium, pp. 30, 33.

99 Ibid., pp. 37-39.

100 Ibid., p. 193.

101 Ibid., p. 253.

102 Ibid., p. 253.

103 Ibid., p. 254.

104 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, p. 125.

105 Cohn, op. cit., p. 255.

106 Ibid., p. 259.

107 Ibid., pp. 264 et seq.

108 Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, pp. 197-198.

109 Cohn, op. cit., p. 198.

110 Ibid., p. 199.

111 Ibid., p. 199.

112 Ibid., pp. 200-201, 203-204.

113 Ibid., p. 203.

114 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, p. 88.

115 Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 10.

116 Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 26-27, 35.

117 Ibid., p. 38.

118 Ibid., pp. 114-115.

119 Ibid., p. 6.

120 Ibid., pp. 48-49.

121 Ibid., pp. 51-53.

122 Ibid., pp. 163-164.

123 Ibid., p. 199.

124 Ibid., p. 165.

125 Ibid., pp. 245-246.

126 Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p. 41.

127 Ibid., p. 43.

128 Ibid., p. 45.

129 Ibid., pp. 46-47.

130 Ibid., p. 49.

131 Ibid., pp. 52-53.

132 Ibid., pp. 59-60.

133 Ibid., p. 66.

134 Hill, The English Bible in the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, p. 201.

135 Ibid., p. 209.

136 Ibid., p. 210.

137 Ibid., pp. 218-219.

138 Hill, The English Bible in the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, p. 167.

139 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, p. 294.

140 Ibid., p. 311.

141 Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 93-94.

142 Poul Anderson, Brain Wave (1954) <http://arthursbookshelf.com/sci-fi/anderson/poul%20anderson%20-%20brain
%20wave.pdf>, p. 32.

143 James Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 116-117.

144 Ibid., p. 8.

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One response to “Historical Examples

  1. The primary interest of the Roman Catholic Church was in life after death.

    Christians (whether Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox) believe in INDIVIDUAL salvation after this life (life after dead), not in “Collective Salvation” via building some sort of ideal society on Earth – via politics.

    Kevin also appears to be confusing individual property rights of small famers (“peasants”) and some some sort of collective property rights of “the peasants”. A bit like absurd “Digger” communes of G.W. (there was one of those about ten miles from where I am sitting).

    Serfs were held not even to, fulyl, own themselves – for example the only English Pope had to formally decree that serfs could marry without the consent of their “masters” (as some people denied this). At its height serfs made up a very significant percentage of the population of England, but this had shrunk to nothing long before servile tenure was formally declared unlawful in 1660 (in France various Kings took action against serfdom – but they were partly motivated by fiscal concerns, although they used pius Church language about the need for Christians to be free).

    As for land ownership – or “freehold” under a feudal system.

    This varied wildly over Europe.

    In some areas of Europe free holds were concentrated in a few hands. In other areas (such as Norway) small owner-occupy famers were the norm.

    Oddly enough in France before 1789 there were few serfs (and the courts ignored the serf status of those few people who were serfs) and most farm land was already owned (free hold) by the farmers.

    It was Prussia were serfdom was common in 1789 and also land ownership was highly concentrated – yet there was no Revolution in Prussia.