Thoughts from the South

Well, I've decided that the best way to approach this most special of blogs is to discipline myself to weekly posts. These will be published every Thursday, usually at around 3pm in the afternoon.

The collective name for this series of posts will be 'Thoughts from the South', as that is what they are and that is where I am, although sometimes assuredly I shall be in other parts of the country, or even other parts of the world.

Those who want more frequent, miscellaneous updates should still check out my old blog. But my presence on this blog will be limited to these weekly letters.


Thoughts from the South
Thought No. 1
Chronic Anachronism

During my final year at university, I took a course called 'Radicalism in the English Revolution' or 'RITER' as some of us called it. We learned about a veritable Babylon of fringe groups, who suddenly found themselves with a voice following the breakdown of censorship and social order during the 1640s.

Some called for relatively moderate things, like the abolition of the bishopry or the extension of franchise. Some were rather more absurd.

Amongst this absurd category were the Ranters, who can essentially be called 'spiritual-anarchists'. They believed that God was present in all things, and that there was no more holiness in the scriptures than there was in, for instance, a dog, or an apple. They argued that 'sin' was essentially the product of the imagination, and that no single authority had the right to define or defend against it.

Furthermore, these notions of sinlessness and freedom from higher authorities extended into their personal lives. The gutter press of the period (which had been fairly active since the 1620s) widely reported the depraved, sexually immoral behaviour of the Ranters, amongst whose accused crimes were adultery, fornication and bigamy.

It's no surprise that these Ranters were ritually portrayed as a threat to the established order. Of course they were by no means the only radical group of the time, but they were perhaps the most singularly anti-establishment of any of the radical groups of the time - they didn't just question the establishment, they questioned the very idea of 'establishment' itself.

All very modern. Refreshing, even! No surprise, then, that when asked whether they would "have been a Ranter", many, yea, the vast majority of my classmates put their hand up. Because hey, we're students aren't we! We're modern and hip and open minded. And we certainly would have been 360 years ago too!

My hand was not amongst those raised - instead it remained on my pen, resting by my notes.

It wasn't so much because I was against the Ranters, of course, but rather that I had actually considered the conditional aspect of the question. "would you have been a Ranter?". Naturally, I didn't know the answer to such a question.

Why the uncertainty?

For a start, let's assume I was kicked back 360 years into the past. The year is 1649 and the world has been turned upside down. England's throne is vacant, while Cromwell's armies tread over the countryside, rooting out the remaining rebels.

Once I get used to the fascination of being historically transplanted into this weird and colourful age, my mind turns to the more essential things. Where am I going to sleep? When am I going to eat? What am I going to do?

Assuming I was dropped off in some rural area (as most of England was at the time) I would probably search for a farm or an inn which could accommodate me. I would hope my hosts would believe my story about 'being from the future' without having to report me to the church authorities as a heretic. In any case, I would have to eventually make myself useful, as I doubt they would have looked too kindly on a foppish, vain 21st century layabout laying about without lifting an early-modern finger. Accordingly, I would be found some sort of function, employment or purpose with which I might assist myself and my hosts. I join them at church, I have meals with them, I contribute to the welfare of the house. If all things went to plan, within a few months I would become a productive member of the household and family and my distinct disability of being a time-tourist will become only a footnote on the parchment of my life.

Suddenly I come across some literature. Fortunately it is in printed form and so I do not have to come to terms with 17th-century script - credit the boom and democratization of the press during the 1640s. The material I see before me is not a book or a bible but a pamphlet. It tells me that the family that I am part of is an artificial and arbitrary sort of institution, based on the myth of Adam and Eve, and that there is no need for me to be enslaved to one. It tells me that the church I have been going to is corrupt and self-serving, the sermons I have listened to are meaningless and devoid of faith, and that there is as much holiness as the chair I am sitting on than there is holiness in the scriptures. They tell me that the Mosaic Law, the observance of the Ten Commandments is unnecessary, and that ignoring these laws will not have an adverse effect on our chances of achieving salvation - for only in ourselves can we find salvation. There is nothing intrinsically 'wrong' in murder or theft or adultery or in disregarding your parents, the Sabbath and even the privacy of your neighbour's wife.

I sit back and digest this recipe for anarchy, and contemplate on the fact that all their suggestions, while playful enough in themselves, were no longer simply a historical curiosity to me. They directly referred to my own world and to my own reality - my family, my church and my social order.

Suddenly I feel a strange sensation in my chest. The world around me starts spinning violently and all becomes a blur. All the while I remain sat on my chair, my hands gripped to the wooden armrests.

Things start to come to a rest. I find myself once again in that classroom in the year 2009. Suddenly the Interregnum world I had grown accustomed to has vanished, and here I am once again, a 21st-century man in a 21st-century world. I am pretty dazed at my new/old surroundings, but somewhat relieved.

"So," asks the professor, shuffling his glasses with his thumb and forefinger "how many of you would have been a Ranter?"

A host of hands are raised to the air.

My hand remains firmly on the armrest.


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