the digger years


Christopher Hill, to whose memory these volumes are dedicated, had a lot of time for Gerrard Winstanley. The Digger leader figures prominently in all of Hill’s major works on the revolutionary years of the seventeenth century, and in particular in his classic study, The World Turned Upside Down. That book examined the “other revolution”, the one that “might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic”. On this view, Winstanley emerges as something of a hero, an embodiment of the radical potential of the 1640s: the Diggers, said Hill, “have something to say to twentieth-century socialists”. The World Turned Upside Down is a book, and an image, that continues to exert a considerable hold over those interested in the countercultural potential of the revolution, as even the most cursory web search reveals. Revisionist historians, by contrast, have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes. In Winstanley’s case, this led to an emphasis both on the strangeness of his thought for twentieth-century socialists and on the fact that he was a Digger leader only briefly in a long and, in many other ways, very respectable life.

more from Michael Braddick at the TLS here.