Monthly Archives: February 2014

US History and Gerrard Winstanley

First, a little on teaching U.S. history. It is surprisingly easy. As a well worn survey course, there is a very clear path for teaching it. Despite my earlier reservations, I am enjoying teaching it. The material seems to affect the students far more deeply since it is not so far removed from them either geographically or temporally. My students have generally been stunned to learn about some of the utterly awful things that the U.S. has done and have really engaged with some of the material. I think I may have gone too far last week with a source about abandoned and murdered babies in New York. Even I had a hard time getting through that one. I haven’t seen my students since then, but I will bet that they will have a lot to say on it. I wonder if this is what it is like teaching a nation’s history in that nation. Would it be like teaching English history in England?

I am proceeding with learning about Winstanley.  He is fascinating.  I have read a good amount of secondary material on him—but there is so much that I have barely scratched the surface—and am currently working my way through Law of Freedom. There isn’t too much in the way of utopian literature from this period, but this one merits a read.

My paper is taking shape in my head.  I am planning to discuss Joachim of Fiore a little bit to see his larger historical plan.  Then I am going to show its continuing relevance in the Radical Reformation through Thomas Müntzer and one of his printers, Hans Hergot. Both have distinct Joachist leanings.  What will be useful here is to start considering the utopias laid out by Fiore, Hergot, and Winstanley. I still don’t know too much about Fiore’s other than some broad outlines, but Hergot’s and Winstanley’s show some similarities.  Most importantly, both have retained clear government despite believing that they were part of the age of the Holy Spirit in which equality and freedom would reign.  I will mostly focus on the concepts of equality and freedom presented in these works.  Winstanley is particularly fascinating because his version of freedom allowed for a totalitarian government.  Something that seems to come out of both sources is that freedom means having freedom from economic dependence.

Here are some observations that I made about Winstanley so far, most of which I have not seen others discuss, but some that I have.  Overall, I have started to view him as a version of Carlo Ginzburg’s Menocchio.  He appears to have cobbled together his philosophy from different things he has heard or read. He frequently makes use of concepts or words particularly popular in the late 1640s (like “no respecter of persons” and saluus populi, suprema lex).  I think he may have been an Arminian, or at least he was not a fan of predestination.  I’m not sure where he would have picked this up, but he may not have believed in heaven or hell.  He picked up some Baconian philosophy and appears to have some knowledge of developing reforms in natural philosophy. He was a big fan of understanding God through his “second book.”  I could probably dig up more, but I am guessing that this was the result of his haphazard education, as others like James Alsop have remarked upon, and a tendency to be, as Winstanley described, one who “keeps his thoughts to himself” while searching for answers.

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