logo

http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes and David Loewenstein (eds.). The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. 2 vols. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-19-957606-7. 616 pp. Hbk. £208.

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben

[1]  Gerrard Winstanley is one of the best and one of the least recognised prose writers of the seventeenth century, and this superb edition of his work will do much to establish its value. Over the course of the last decade, literary critics have been paying increasing attention to writing of the civil war period. The scholarship is now burgeoning. The Cambridge Companion to Writing of the English Revolution (2001), edited by Neil Keeble, is shortly to be followed by The Oxford Handbook of Literature and the English Revolution (2012), edited by Laura Knoppers, and these general accounts provide overarching contexts for detailed case studies, with some of the most useful work being completed by Naomi Baker, Tim Cooper, Jerome de Groot, Ariel Hessayon, Edward Holberton, Neil Keeble, Nicholas McDowell, John Rogers, and Nigel Smith, among many others. There is no shortage of high-value scholarly activity. But — at least until the appearance of the new Winstanley edition —we have continued to lack properly edited critical texts for many of the major writers of this period. Take Abiezer Coppe as an example: his work now appears in the Norton Anthology, but the most comprehensive editions of his literary output continue to be found in important but sometimes less accessible anthologies and reprints (see Hopton 1987). And the small number of textual editions that do exist are often dated. Before the publication of the text under review, for example, the most recent selected edition of Winstanley’s writing had been published in 1944 (Hamilton 1944). For these reasons, and many others, the new Oxford Winstanley should be welcomed. The decision by a major university press to commit to a project of this scale and complexity is an important signal of our growing awareness of the significance of the remarkable body of literature produced during the most tumultuous decades of early modern British and Irish history.

[2]  But it might be that a case should be made for the value of Winstanley’s work. Winstanley was the premier spokesperson for the Diggers, a society of Christian communists that appeared, apparently from nowhere, in the spring of 1649, just months after the regicide, and which disappeared soon after. In part, the sudden emergence of the movement, and the panic it generated, which was almost in inverse proportion to the size of its membership or the longevity of its impact, illustrates something of the shock that gripped large sections of English society in the aftermath of the second civil war and its shocking conclusion. There had been little to suggest to observers of Winstanley’s life that he was about to proclaim a heroic age of human ideals. As Mark Kishlansky memorably put it, Winstanley was ‘a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions’ (Kishlansky 1996: 196). For his period of radical activity was contained. In the immediate aftermath of the worst period of food production in the seventeenth century, Winstanley published a maelstrom of apocalyptic denunciations of the social and political status quo. Developing a radical political theory from an allegorical reading of Scripture, his writings in the period 1648 to 1652 demonstrate an extraordinary ability to transform existing literary genres to reflect the new conditions of millennial possibility. His articulation of Christian communism advanced in the face of the great English hunger, and proposed a combination of supernatural and horticultural means to address the crisis of food supply. Winstanley had received a series of divine communications by ‘Vision, Voice, and Revelation’ that had convinced him that existing social conditions were about to be overturned (II. 11, and see Badstock 1991; Baxter 1988; Burgess 1987; Gurney 1994). ‘Prophecies are now fulfilling,’ he insisted, and the social, economic, religious and horticultural conditions of Eden were soon to be restored (II. 3). Eden had been planted on common land, Winstanley argued, and those who sought to turn England into a second Eden by widening the usage of common land would ‘not strive with sword and speare, but with spade and plow and such like instruments to make the barren and common Lands fruitful’ (A Letter to the Lord Fairfax and his Councell of War, II. 52, 49). His endeavor was ‘no otherwise, but to improve the Commons, and to cast off that oppression and outward bondage which the Creation groans under, as much as in us lies, and to lift up and preserve the purity thereof’ (A Letter to the Lord Fairfax and his Councell of War II. 44). But the return to Eden would not just be evidenced by the move beyond monarchy that the nation had so recently witnessed — it would also be marked by a move beyond private property. ‘In the beginning of time,’ the authors remembered, ‘the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the Lord that was to govern this Creation,’ and ‘Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes’ (II.4). Therefore, they argued, ‘the Work we are going about is this, To dig up Georges-Hill and the wast ground thereabouts, and to sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our Brows’ (II. 10). Although simple in character, these actions would bring freedom to ‘poor inslaved English Israelites,’ and their shortly expected exodus would symbolize their movement into paradisiacal plenty and the eschatological renewal of nature. (II. 12). ‘Let Israel go free,’ the authors exhorted (II. 18–20). Winstanley’s writing is certainly important, therefore, both for its own sake and for its influence on major canonical writers, including Andrew Marvell (see, for example, Gribben 2012).

[3]  This edition of Winstanley’s works should advance the reconfiguration of our understanding of ‘Renaissance,’ both in terms of geography and canonicity. Even by English standards, Winstanley was a northerner — he was born in Wigan. And his writing illustrates the unique condition of the writing that emerged in a northerly expression of the great religious crisis that consumed Europe throughout the Thirty Years War. Winstanley’s work is not humanistic — though Nicholas McDowell’s account of The English Radical Imagination: Culture, Religion, and Revolution, 1630–1660 (2003) has worked hard to establish in the critical consensus a recognition that ‘radical’ writing could be constructed on the basis of humanistic scholarship — but it does draw upon and reconfigure the classic texts of the Western tradition. That sense of literary indebtedness is superbly documented in this edition, prepared by three of the finest scholars working on the literature and history of the mid-century crisis. The two volumes are produced to a very high editorial standard, with carefully edited texts retaining the typographical specifics of the early printings being followed by scrupulous and learned annotations.

[4]  Of course, what the burgeoning scholarly and pedagogical interest in civil wars writing now requires is an anthology that will combine the high editorial standards of this text with a broad and generous selection of writing emanating both intellectually and geographically from across and perhaps even beyond the parties involved in the conflicts. Such an anthology, representing the visionary and ecstatic alongside the humanistic and scholarly that were manifested on multiple sides in the British and Irish conflicts, would be a powerful statement of the unique contributions made to the northern renaissance. In such an anthology, as in this deeply impressive volume, the voices of the mid-century crisis might finally be able to speak for themselves.

Trinity College Dublin, December 2011

Works Cited

Badstock, A. 1991. ‘Sowing in Hope: the Relevance of Theology to Gerrard Winstanley’s Political Programme’, Seventeenth Century 6 (1991): 189–204

Baxter, Nicola. 1988. ‘Gerrard Winstanley’s Experimental Knowledge: the Perception of the Spirit and the Act of Reason’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 39 (1988): 184–201

Burgess, John P. 1987. ‘Biblical Poet and Prophet: Gerrard Winstanley’s use of Scripture in The Law of Freedom’, Journal of Religious History 14: 269–82

Gribben, Crawford. 2012 [forthcoming]. ‘Millennialism and the renewal of nature: Thomas Fairfax, the Diggers and Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”’, in Enigma and Revelation in Renaissance Literature: Essays in Honour of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, ed. by Helen Cooney and Mark Sweetnam (Dublin: Four Courts)

Gurney, J. 1994. ‘Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham’, Historical Journal 37: 775–802

Hamilton, L, (ed.). 1944. Gerrard Winstanley: Selections from his Works (London: Cresset Press)

Hopton, Andrew, (ed.) 1987. Abiezer Coppe: Selected Writings (London: Aporia Press)

Kishlansky, Mark. 1996. A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 16031714 (London: Penguin, 1996)

McDowell, Nicholas. 2003. The English Radical Imagination: Culture, Religion, and Revolution, 1630–1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press)