Winstanley and the Diggers, 1649-1999 edited by Andrew Bradstock (Frank Cass) Although the Diggers made only a brief appearance on the stage of history, their vision of a society based on common ownership of the land and its fruits continues to inspire many in the present day. This volume, occasioned by the 350th anniversary of their occupation of St George's Hill in Surrey in April 1649, reflects the latest scholarship on them and their leader and main theorist Gerrard Winstanley. Among the themes explored in these essays are the power and continuing influence of Winstanley's writings, his ideas on `civil liberty', the economic and political background against which the Diggers operated, their treatment at the hands of their opponents, their attitude to women and the family, and the role of the Bible in their thinking. A number of the essays also explore the extent to which historical research can enable us to gain a clear picture of the movement and the figure of Winstanley himself. Written by experts from a variety of disciplines, this is a landmark volume in seventeenth-century studies.
One of the great ironies about the Diggers' attempt in 1649 to re‑make the Earth as a "common treasury" is that the site they chose to begin this task is now as enclosed a piece of land as it is possible to conceive. The home of rock stars, TV presenters and other assorted millionaires, St George's Hill, Weybridge, is one of the most exclusive private estates in England, a sort of British counterpart to Los Angeles' Beverly Hills. Those who delighted in the Diggers' downfall, in their failure to stop the rich from "bagging and barring up the treasures of the Earth", could scarce have imagined how total that failure would ultimately turn out to be.
That the Hill bears no trace of its earlier communist settlers is therefore none too surprising: there is no plaque or memorial, no "Everard Avenue" or "Winstanley Way", no "Diggers' Fairway" on the beautifully manicured golf‑course.' Yet if the Hill's present dwellers had been only vaguely aware of its historical significance before 1999, in the course of that year they were quickly projected up a steep learning curve as in April the nearby towns of Walton and Weybridge hosted a rally, conference, exhibition and march to honour the anniversary of the Diggers' occupation of the Hill, and in the same month a not entirely symbolic re‑staging of that event took place on the Hill itself. The efforts of the latterday Diggers to re‑enact the past, which included turning the soil, planting crops and erecting temporary shelter, were not entirely appreciated by their involuntary hosts ‑ this time not Francis Drake MP but the North Surrey Water Board ‑ though the latter did go to some trouble themselves to ensure no historical detail would be missed by seeking the termination of their stay at the earliest opportunity. Within two weeks the new Diggers were off the Hill, though with the aid of some benign media coverage (the like of which Winstanley could only have dreamed) they had made public again the issue on which the original movement made its stand, the inequity of the practice of buying and selling for private gain that which "[iln the beginning of time the great creator Reason made ... to be a common treasury", the Earth.
That this issue had been raised in this way, that the Diggers were not only being remembered but read, discussed and taken seriously at the end of the twentieth century, would have astonished their original opponents and detractors. So short‑lived were their communities at George Hill' and later Cobham, so total their defeat, and so quick to fade into obscurity their leader Gerrard Winstanley, that few who observed them at the time would have imagined their being talked about 350 days after their demise, let alone 350 years. If they were accorded a degree of fame (or notoriety) in their day, the Diggers seemed destined, after the brutal destruction of their venture, to be mere footnotes to the grander historical narrative being fashioned in the 1650s by the army, Parliament and Cromwell. Yet (to anticipate a point made by Nigel Smith in this volume), because Winstanley wrote, and did so with such clarity, passion, originality and courage, fie continues to inspire his readers, and engage them with both his ideas and his digging, all these years after his heroic failure.
The legacy of those whose work has revived interest in him and his movement this century ‑ Firth, Gooch, Bernstein, Berens, Petegorsky, Sabine, Hill' and some of the contributors to this volume ‑ is that he and they are more written about, researched into and discussed today than at any other time in the last 350 years. In the last 60 years ‑ to take the appearance of Petegorsky's study and the Sabine edition of Winstanley's works as a watershed ‑ literally hundreds of articles, papers, books, theses, songs, films, plays and (more recently) websites
inspired by the Diggers have appeared in every corner of the globe, such that any attempt at a comprehensive bibliography is almost certainly doomed to failure.' Considering so little is still known about them, that they flourished for barely a year, and that some of their writings lay undiscovered for more than 300 years, the influence and popularity of the Digger movement has been truly remarkable.
Indeed, this volume itself bears testimony to the Diggers' contemporary popularity, arising as it does from a conference held in Weybridge and Walton to commemorate the original George Hill oc=occupation. This event, which took place against the background of the "second" occupation with which it enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, drew more than 200 participants from the UK, North America and the continent, who enjoyed, in addition to seven of the papers included here, a screening of the film "Winstanley" (with talkback led by Kevin Brownlow, the co-director, and Miles Halliwell, who played the eponymous hero); music from singer/songwriter Leon Rosselson, whose many compositions include the legendary "The World Turned Upside Down" about the events of 1649; readings from Winstanley's writings by members of the cast of the film; a work‑inprogress report on the new edition of Winstanley from its three editors; and addresses by the veteran British Labour politician Michael Foot ‑who quoted from the Hamilton edition of Winstanley given to him by George Orwell ‑ and environmental activist and journalist George Monbiot. The venue for the second day of the conference was St Mary's Church, Walton,
which has strong connections with the Diggers: m 1649 some of their number were illegally imprisoned there, and on another occasion, as a contemporary newspaper report puts it, "[o]ne of their number getting up a great burden of thorns and bryers ... thrust them into the pulpit ... to stop out the Parson."5 The reenactment of this latter episode during the conference was, though dramatic:, entirely symbolic, the present‑day incumbent having proved an enthusiastic host of the event.
Given the occasion for these papers, it would be tempting to claim that they mark a watershed in Digger scholarship, but this scholarship is now so diverse that no one volume, certainly of this modest size, could ever claim to set down such a marker. Yet this is not to play down the value of these essays, representing as they do the latest thinking by scholars who have been in the forefront of research into Winstanley and his milieu in recent years. In so far as some of the main foci of this research have been Winstanley's life, background and influences; the identity of the other signatories to the Digger tracts; the significance of Biblical imagery and allegory in Winstanley's works; the role of the silent and unknown women in the Digger movement; and the influence of Digger writings in contemporary and subsequent political discourse and activism, these essays are clearly responding to current questions in the field. In addition, the broad range of disciplines informing the various contributions here literary theory, biblical studies, historical analysis, women's studies, local history ‑ reflects the remarkably eclectic nature of Digger studies at present, and the extraordinary fecundity, depth and originality of their writings. Things have clearly moved on from the days when it was thought necessary to apologise for studying the radicals of the mid‑seventeenth century: now the attention paid to them by scholars, and the quality and quantity of their output, matches that long enjoyed by their more "illustrious" contemporaries.
These essays fail into two very general and non‑discrete categories, historical analysis and textual criticism. In the first of the more broadly historical pieces, Cerald Aylmer sets out the context of the Digger project, and offers, inter alia some reflections on why, despite operating in one of the last periods when a revolutionary situation of a traditional, rural, kind could have developed, the Diggers were ultimately unable to realize their vision. Then James Alsop, who over the last twenty years has done perhaps more than anyone, to broaden our knowledge of Winstanley as a person, pulls together all of his research on this theme to offer a`response to the question "Gerrard Winstanley: What Can We Know of His Life?" Picking up this question, and drawing upon his specialist and unrivalled local knowledge, David Taylor focuses on Winstanley's (and some of the other Diggers') connections with Cobham ‑ the origins of which are brought into question in a postscnpt to this essay by John Gurney. By suggesting that Winstanley's father‑in‑law, William King, may not have been living in Cobham in 1643, Gurney raises the intriguing possibility that there were other factors drawing the Digger to the town following the closure of his business venture in London, possibly contacts already established with radicals in the region. Gurney's findings raise fresh questions about the origins and development of Winstanley's ideas.
Nigel Smith's concern is to demonstrate how vital was the pen as well as the spade to the Diggers' project. Though Winstanley appears to play down writing as no substitute for action, "the life of all", he did not give up writing until after he had stopped digging ‑ though what he was effectively able to do, Smith suggests, was "dig" on the page as well as in the ground. If in this Winstanley proves himself a radical among radicals, in his views on gender roles he was decidedly more conservative, never seriously challenging, at least in print, the received wisdom of his day regarding the (inferior) status of women in society. As Elaine Hobby demonstrates, while there are occasional hints in the Diggers' pamphlets that their argument for equality might extend to women, this is never fully worked through though many women contemporaries of the Diggers did themselves powerfully challenge traditional gender demarcations.
That Winstanley abandoned his project after barely a year was, of course, due largely to the attitude of his opponents, and John Gurney explores the dynamic between the Digger colonies and the local townspeople both at Walton and Cobham. Building on his earlier seminal work, and drawing both on contemporary sources and Winstanley's own writings, Gurney notes how, sensing a degree of local support for the Diggers at Cobham, the gentry there sought to characterize them as enemies of the state and provoke the government into taking action against them ‑ a task made easier once Winstanley publicly claimed his right to dig on Crown land.
The significance of the religious imagery and biblical citations in Winstanley's writings has exercised scholars for many years, and his frequent metaphorical references to the Diggers as "Jews" appear particularly suggestive. In her chapter Claire Jowitt examines these references, and notes that, although writing against the background of improved relations between Englishpeople and Jews, Winstanley's interest in Jewishness is in the main historical. Though "Jewishness" was often considered the antithesis of "Englishness", the experience of the Jews as recorded in Scripture provides, for Winstanley, a powerful metaphor for the situation and aspirations of the Diggers. Another feature of Winstanley's writings is his tactic of appealing directly to those in power to recognize their common cause with "the people", and in exploring this theme Warren Chernaik compares the Diggers with Milton and leading Levellers, with their stress on the right of "free born men" to "speak free" to those in positions of authority. If Winstanley and his contemporaries change tack somewhat in their later works, offering more of a lament for a loss of liberty than advice and counsel, this might, Chernaik suggests, be a consequence of their consciousness of defeat and recognition that the earlier convention of direct address had begun to break down.
Next Jim Holstun breathes fresh life into the debate about the supposed intellectual relationship between Winstanley and Marx, arguing that the point is not whether either or both men were in any sense "marxists" or "winstanleyans", but that both were communists. Marx famously rejected the label "marxist" for himself, and appeared to believe that the Russian mir might be the medium for an immediate transition to advanced communism without the "necessary" intervening stage of proletarian immiseration; and Winstanley, Holstun suggests, developed a materialist theory of history as class struggle, and envisaged the transition from oppressive enclosures to his communist utopia occurring through a dialectical process. Anticipating an objection that a comparison of Winstanley with Marx might lead to a "secularizing" of the former's ideas, Holstun argues a strong affinity between Winstanley, Marx and present‑day liberation theology ‑ a theme picked up and developed in the final essay by Chris Rowland. In his approach to the Scriptures, Rowland argues, Winstanley is close both to the later visionary William Blake and members of basic Christian communities in present‑day Latin America, since all are concerned less to unlock the "meaning" of the Bible with the tools of scholarship and learning than to develop a new prophetic language to enable the text to speak to and interpret the reader's own context. In particular, radicals will want this language to provide a critique of hegemony and oppression, though as Rowland stresses, picking up a leitmotif of this whole volume, none will be satisfied with interpretation if it is not attended by action.
Research into Winstanley and the Digger communities seems certain to continue apace, not least since (as this collection clearly demonstrates) each new contribution to it, while appearing to respond to one question, will leave others in its wake. Despite the best efforts of Alsop, Taylor and others, our knowledge of Winstanley's life still consists of little more than tantalizing glimpses, and there is still a vast amount of work to be done on the men and women who joined him in digging the commons, both in Surrey and elsewhere.' The story behind his apparent drift back towards religious conformity against the background of at least some intermittent dialogue with the Quakers also needs to be teased out ‑ not least in the light of what we are discovering about the practice of "occasional conformity as does the riddle now posed by Gurney about the basis of his connection with the part of Surrey which he began to dig. The fruitful results of reading Winstanley against other thinkers and activists ‑ attempted in the last three chapters of this volume and in earlier work by Hill, Kenyon, Dawson and myself' ‑ might also stimulate further such activity. A highpoint in Digger scholarship, and a major stimulus to further research, will be the publication within the next year or two of a new edition of the entire Winstanley corpus edited by Ann Hughes (Keel'), Tom Corns (Bangor) and David Loewenstein (Wisconsin‑Madison). Though we have been well served by the Sabine, Hamilton, Hill and, most recently, Hopton editions of the tracts,' the appearance of a comprehensive, scholarly edition, incorporating the early writings in full as well as those discovered since Sabine, is massively overdue. The editors, and Oxford University Press, are to be commended for their vision in conceiving, and hard work in executing, this project.
"Let my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted, and thoughts run in me, that words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act thou dost nothing."' Winstanley's reflection on his literary endeavours, taken from the preface to his WatchWord to the City of London and the Armie and emblazoned boldly on a banner hung high at all the anniversary events in 1999, was the most quoted of his statements at the commemorative conference ‑ an irony not lost on speakers and participants alike. And here are yet more words ‑ or words once spoken now presented in more permanent and accessible form ‑ to add to the millions already produced in expounding, explaining and excoriating a man who saw only limited value in the written word. What he would make of them, or of our attempts to remember him and his movement, we cannot know, but perhaps his mind would still not be at rest if he thought our interest in him extended no further than merely discussing his vision of making the Earth once more a "common treasury". Might he want to ask our generation, as his contemporary John Bunyan asked theirs, "were you doers, or talkers only?"
insert content here