An introduction to A Collection of Ranter Writings, by Nigel Smith
‘The Ranters were a group of religious libertines who flourished in the three years following the execution of Charles I in January 1649. They believed that God dwelt inside them, as an inner presence whose authority was above all laws, and any organized church. Salvation existed here on earth, and any act was justifiable so long as it was performed under the working of the spirit. Sin was thus made to disappear. Allegedly, sensationally, they swore in the name of the Lord and, outrageously, practiced free love, a.k.a. communal sex beyond wedlock. The magistrates of Puritan England’s republic responded swiftly and effectively. The Ranters were duly silenced, punished and suppressed, with two new laws entering the statute books to do so.
The Ranter call for the sharing of goods and bodies, over and against what they saw as the propertied hypocrisy of the Puritans, was offered in vibrant street protest (‘i’th open streets, with his hand fiercely stretcht out, his hat cockt up, his eyes set as if they would sparkle out’) and on the printed page as a loud but artful series of prophetic denunciations. It was the time of constitutional meltdown, civil war, the trial and execution of the King, the Leveller movement, the utopian farming communes of the Diggers, and the rise of the Quakers, but even then the Ranters stood out.
Their writing and their practice involved no patient plan for an alternative future. It was driven by a need for immediate, forceful rejection of the customs and ways of prevailing conditions because those old ways were merely a compromised way of getting by. They wouldn’t do, and there must be an immediate noise of refusal. Ordinary life, they claimed, is lived as a betrayal of another truth that is being ignored or, what was worse, suppressed and even cruelly denied.
Sometimes politeness is just not good enough. It may be necessary to invent a kind of expression that enables an escape into a frame of being where life becomes more authentic and more just. The Ranters’ love of foul-mouthed subversive performance has generated ready comparison with the punk movement of the 1970s and its successors. Of late it has been used as a model for some of the printed protest in the recent Occupy movement. The Ranters have been seen as successors to the ‘Free Spirit’ mysticism of the Middle Ages, an attempt by pious lay people to assert a genuinely creative devotion, over and against the repressive powers of national (or international) churches and the state, powers that were at least disciplinary and at worst violent. The ‘orthodox’, sexually sterilized mysticism of the famous medieval mystics has been regarded as the revenge of the spirit for attempts to emancipate the body by the ‘Free Spirit’ lay mystics. The Ranters brought this sense of liberation to bear on the rigors of Calvinist discipline in mid-17th century England.
The Ranter tracts come then with a health warning.
To encounter Abiezer Coppe on the page is to witness quite literally the voice of God, or rather God and Coppe sharing a voice, denouncing inequality, poverty, lack of charity and the kind of selfish and shallow Puritan piety that causes these abuses:
‘For lo I come (saith the Lord) with a vengeance, to levell also your Honour, Riches, &c. to staine the pride of all your glory, and to bring into contempt all the Honourable (both persons and things) upon the earth, Isa. 23.9.
12 For this Honour, Nobility, Gentility, Propriety, Superfluity, &c. hath (without contradiction) been the Father of hellish horrid pride, arrogance, haughtinesse, loftinesse, murder, malice, of all manner of wickednesse and impiety …13 I see the root of it all The Axe is laid to the root of the Tree (by the Eternall, God, My Self, saith the Lord) I will hew it down. And as I live, I will plague your Honour, Pompe, Greatnesse, Superfluity, and confound it into parity, equality, community; that the neck of horrid pride, murder, malice, and tyranny, &c. may be chopt off at one blow. And that my selfe, the Eternall God, who am Universall Love, may fill the Earth with universall love, universall peace, and perfect freedome; which can never be by humane sword or strength accomplished.’
Coppe had a visionary experience lasting four days and nights, in which, after being abandoned by his family, and, so he apprehended, being in complete isolation, he returned to a womb-like state of primal innocence to confront hell, and divinity in the form of three brilliantly glowing hearts, with voices giving him his prophetic mission: ‘Go up to London, to London, that great City, write, write, write.’ So he did.
His tracts are a source of many voices, his proper humanist education in Warwick and Oxford giving him a facility to make prophetic drama out of these encounters. We hear the ‘plaguey holiness’ of adultery-fearing mainline Puritanism not least as a cautious inner feminine voice known as the ‘wel-favoured Harlot’; the Levellers whose mistake was thinking that they could prevail in an armed rebellion; deformed village idiots; a highwayman; groups of ill-clad, obsessively cursing Londoners; and, mostly in splendid and surprising marginal glosses, humanist literary authority replete with Latin puns and the startled, bathetic voice of a young Warwick scholar who cannot quite understand what has happened to him.
‘Behold, the King of glory now is come T’reduce God, and Devil to their Doom; For both of them are servants unto Me That lives, and rules in perfect Majesty: Though called God, yet that is not my Name, True, I be both, yet am I not the same: Therefore a wonder am I to you all, So that to titul’d Gods ye pray and call.’
Although their writings seem less startling, both Joseph Salmon and Jacob Bauthumley let that God within them banish sin. There’s no let up in the few private letters we have of Coppe, Clarkson and Salmon, also reproduced in this collection. They reconnected with the idea of a sustaining natural world, which is where God also lived and to which they would return at death. They re-imagined themselves as untainted, beautiful and wholly at one with their redeemer, Jesus, with whom they enjoyed a fulfilling mystical marriage. Other Ranter writings contain a theology embodied and celebrated by sexual intercourse. Orthodox theology and the social structure denied this and said people had to suffer in sin and subjection, but the Ranters had other ideas.
The Ranter ‘scare’ may have been bigger than the phenomenon it sought to suppress, and the stereotypes of the Ranter that it produced may have been far different from the real people and utterances whom we recognize today as the individuals who were labeled ‘Ranters.’ The number of Ranters may have been grossly exaggerated. None of this detracts from the extraordinary writings that survive as the Ranter pamphlets, and that are offered in this anthology, a new edition of a collection that was first published thirty-one years ago. A third of a century’s worth of further searching and reflection allows us to see these writings in a more accurately understood contemporary context and to appreciate their literary qualities more fully. The new edition has a somewhat different content, including a recently recovered lost tract, one that turns out to be most important for the history of the Ranters. Joseph Salmon’s Divinity Anatomized is printed for the first time since 1649.
Whatever the Ranters learned from their brief moment, those who wrote each did something extraordinary with the resources of the English language and the cultural reservoir that it had become by the mid-17th century. They invert, jest, make new certainties, new rhythms (sometimes falteringly, sometimes with impressive struggle), swear, channel God, see God’s hand in the events of their world, voice angels, and speak with the freshness of people who have finally, at long, long last, come to terms with themselves. Sin is gone: I can be who I am. It is altogether a remarkable verbal architecture and why they are worth reading.’
Nigel Smith is William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Princeton University. His books include Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (2010), Is Milton better than Shakespeare? (2008) and Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660 (1994).
A Collection of Ranter Writings: Spiritual Liberty and Sexual Freedom in the English Revolution is published this month. It is available to buy on the Pluto website, with 10% off. Click here to order.