Why the 17th Century (Still) Matters: On Jonathan Healey’s “The Blazing World”

Ed Simon reviews Jonathan Healey’s “The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603–1689.”

By Ed SimonAugust 31, 2023

Why the 17th Century (Still) Matters: On Jonathan Healey’s “The Blazing World”

The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603–1689 by Jonathan Healey. Knopf. 512 pages.

GO INTO ANY kindergarten in the United States, and despite the warnings about children’s brains being scrambled by smartphones and iPads, you’ll still hear it—“London Bridge is falling down, / Falling down, falling down, / London Bridge is falling down, / My fair lady.” Perhaps the children link arms in an arch to imitate the cantilever of that ill-fated bridge, or maybe they perform the verses with altered lyrics, but the nursery rhyme is far from extinct. “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” “Jack Sprat,” “Three Blind Mice,” and so on are part of the collective unconsciousness of the Anglophone world, anonymous remnants of an archaic past that endure deep within the recesses of our psyches.


Of course, everything has a history, and “London Bridge Is Falling Down” is no exception. The earliest traceable printed reference to the lyric comes from an anonymously attributed English comedy of 1659 entitled The London Chanticleers, printed a year before the collapse of the Puritan Interregnum, the Restoration of Charles II, and the reopening of the theaters, though in all likelihood the song is much older. Regardless, “London Bridge Is Falling Down” and its ilk are hardly the only ephemera of folk culture preserved in the amber of print during the 17th century.


I was thinking about the 17th-century songs we all know in relation to Jonathan Healey’s insightful new overview, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603–1689, wherein he astutely argues that “[b]y the end of the century, a new world had arisen.” In the same way that engineers think of God as an engineer, while artists posit that the Almighty works in words or music, in paint or ceramics, there is an insularity in my agreeing with Healey, a fellow scholar of the 17th century, about the necessity of that distant age. And yet, over the course of The Blazing World (borrowing its name from Margaret Cavendish’s seminal 1666 novel), the author makes his brief well. Healey describes how, by the end of the 17th century,


[t]owns were reborn as social hubs, […] boasting coffee houses, theatres and concert halls. Trade was now the mainstay of economic life in a thriving market economy. Consumption was conspicuous and rampant, while motive power was increasingly coming from coal. Plague was gone; executions were far less frequent; the witch trials were all but over; and you were much less likely to be prosecuted for illicit sex.


The 18th century is so often seen as the main event, as “The Enlightenment,” but its precursor is the moment of real action that made everything that followed possible, a gloaming period between Renaissance and modernity. In England, the century began with Queen Elizabeth on the throne, intimations of that quasi-medieval “Merry Old England” everywhere still in evidence, a realm of maypoles and morris dancers, green men and gargoyles, while by 1700 you could grab a cup at a coffeehouse, buy a newspaper, and read about squabbling political parties. Somewhere in there, the modern world was birthed. It just took several hideous civil wars (or “revolutions,” depending on your politics) marked by obscure religious disagreements for that to happen. Past generations of scholars have, for this very reason, taken to classifying the 17th century under the inelegant banner of the “early modern period” rather than the Late Renaissance, though I sometimes wonder if we’d be more apt to say, in imitation of other faddish ways of periodizing, that it was the “Very Long 17th Century.” Perhaps just now is when it’s coming to its conclusion.


“The echoes of seventeenth-century England are still with us, in our society,” writes Healey. “We, too, are living through our own historical moment in which a media revolution, social fracturing and culture wars are redefining society and politics.” If it’s true that the past is a foreign country, the 17th century can feel like the way station, the interzone between an alien kingdom and that which is familiar. What’s remarkable to anyone who has been enmeshed in the complexities of that period—the hermetic theological disputations, the bizarre political arrangements, the erroneous scientific theories—is how less alien the end of the century can appear.


Not that such shifts were always for the positive. Indeed, extrapolating from Healey’s observation, it’s notable how many of the consequences of the 17th century still mark our lives today. Modernity may have been born during this century, but it also saw the elucidation of those literalist idolatries of soul-denying scientific positivism and religious puritanism, the propagation of colonialism, the firm establishment of the transatlantic slave trade, and the beginnings of the market worldview that may indeed still condemn us all and usher in the apocalypse that pamphleteers long warned of. The “motive power” burnt from coal seems less utopian in our far-warmer days of the 21st century. From the statue of 17th-century English slave trader Edward Colston being torn from its pedestal and thrown into the harbor at Bristol during those convulsive summer months of 2020 to those ancient Antarctic ice cores demonstrating to climatologists how the beginnings of industrial production during the 17th century ended the so-called “Little Ice Age” and ushered in the Anthropocene, this is a period that has stretched far beyond the years 1601–1700.


Because of the congruencies between that period and today, and because it could be provocatively argued that we’re reaching the conclusion of our very long 17th century, entering a brave new world of postmodernity, post-postmodernity, post-liberalism, post-reality, post-humanity, it’s understandable to take stock of that revolutionary era. There have been any number of single-volume introductions that have long served general readers. Michael Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (2008) and Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain (2006) supply detailed introductions, and admittedly serve as doorstoppers that keep the players in the Putney Debates straight and chart the various loyalties of James Graham, the First Marquess of Montrose. However, in terms of really taking the events of the civil wars—the Battle of Marston Moor and the Second Battle of Newbury, Charles I upon the scaffold of Westminster and the protest of the True Levellers at St. George’s Hill—and placing all that historical data into a comprehensive social, political, and cultural account, one volume remains paramount, even as it turned 50 last year.


No more pertinent and insightful book has yet to be written on the subject, including Healey’s, than Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972). As a work of scholarship and synthesis, The World Turned Upside Down supplied a much-needed narrative to the 17th century as a shifting period that offered utopian potentials, which distressingly never came to fruition. Surveying the motley of dissenters who emerged from the relative anarchism of the 1640s, extinct groups like the Levellers and the Diggers, the Muggletonians and the Ranters, the Seekers and the Familists (as well as our extant Baptists and Quakers), Hill imagined “another revolution which never happened,” discerning “shadows of what this counter-culture might have been like.” In his imagined alternative history, such radical groups could have gestated a world “[r]ejecting private property for communism, […] the mechanical philosophy for dialectical science, asceticism for unashamed enjoyment.” Part of the story of the 17th century is precisely why such paradisiacal things didn’t happen.


Hill operated with one epistemological arm tied behind his back in the form of a reductive materialism, but such is the want of even the brilliant Marxist. An advocate for history from below, Hill’s own prejudices against the numinous still made it impossible for him to fully take those whom he wrote about at their word concerning religion. According to him, all of that God- and Bible-talk was something that men like Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard used to bring the proletariat along with them, when in reality they were men of a profound and genuine faith, as strange as it might seem to us. Ironically, nobody less than “God’s Own Englishman,” Oliver Cromwell, agreed more with the atheist Hill when he claimed that “[r]eligion was not the thing […] contested for,” while that steadfast materialist Thomas Hobbes, rather, wrote that the war was “nothing other than the quarrelling about theological issues.”


Healey, benefiting from two generations of a humanistic critical “turn to religion,” admits in The Blazing World that religion was always “intertwined with [the] wider project of social order.” When considering the debates of the 17th century—whether in broadsheets or on the battlefield—so much of the vocabulary is rarefied to the point of incomprehension to us, all those Calvinists and Arminians arguing about soteriology and Christology. Secularism during the 17th century was the child of exhaustion; ultimately, the arguments between various schismatics and the orthodox, which propelled the violence of the civil wars, rendered a latitudinarian settlement that, if it didn’t look agnostic, at least countenanced a distinction between ecclesiastical and civil affairs that was the origin of disestablishment. Liberalism, a particular species of Protestant heresy, was the fruitful result. Reading Hill’s classic, it’s easy to get the sense that he viewed a certain critical vanguard in the 17th century as being crypto-liberals disguised as religion sectarians, so that they were basically us. He was correct in the conclusion, but the argument is backward. The reality is that we’re really crypto-religious sectarians disguised as liberals. The 17th century never ended—we just changed the uniforms.


Liberalism is an ideology that is both broad and inchoate. More a humanistic attitude than a sect, liberalism presumes certain things about the role of the state, the sovereignty of the individual, and the necessity of the market, all of which have increasingly been challenged from both right and left as the biome undergoes a collapse started 400 years ago. All those concepts emerge from the post-Reformation theological disputations, which animated the English civil wars and made the 17th century among the most intellectually fruitful in Western history, and every single one of them, from the role of the individual to the freedom of the market, is challenged by the technological success and disaster of our current moment. Notably, if, during the 17th century, religion was simply politics by other means, then today the converse is true; partisanship now is clearly sectarian. And if the 17th century was bedeviled by heresies marked by the narcissism of little differences, then today we’ve got a dizzyingly equivalent number of schismatics.


Instead of Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchy Men, and Barrowists dissenting from the official church, we now have the dirtbag left and the alt-right, the woke and the anti-woke, tankies and national conservatives, DSA red rose Twitter and red-hatted MAGAts, all dissenting from the Church of Neoliberalism, whether from the left or right. Just as the English Civil War marked the final eclipse of the medieval mind and the convulsive emergence of modernity as if from the head of Zeus, so today we sense the guns of Edgehill again on the horizon. Four hundred years of history separate us from the start of the 17th century, that strange and distant epoch of romantic Cavaliers and stern Roundheads, of regicide and civil war, of natural philosophers and alchemists and metaphysical poets circumscribing the universe in a sonnet. But, as foreign as that lace-collared and buckle-shoed period of antique history may seem to us, we’re still very much in that moment, even as it passes. After all, the first songs we learn from our teachers and parents came off of printing presses at Aldersgate, Holborn, and Old St. Paul’s, their genesis all but obscured even as the words remain omnipresent.


The 17th century may be done, but we are not done with it.


¤


Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and a staff writer at The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.

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