Conference Report: Early Modern Political Thought and Twenty-First Century Politics, 16th May 2018

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend an evening workshop at the Lit & Phil Library, Newcastle. The goal of the session was to explore what early-modern thinkers had to say on the themes of popular mobilisation, toleration, environmentalism and exile and what their insights might add to contemporary political discussions. The workshop was organised by Dr Rachel Hammersley, Senior Lecturer in Intellectual History at Newcastle University, as part of her British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship. The four speakers were John Rees (author of The Leveller Revolution), Ann Hughes (Keele University), Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths) and Gaby Mahlberg (author of Henry Neville & English Republican Culture in the Seventeenth Century).

All the speakers have very kindly given permission for audio recordings of their papers to be included in this blog post. Please click the media player to listen to each paper in its entirety. 

John Rees began the session with a discussion of the concept of democracy in the English Revolution. He focused especially on the Putney Debates in 1647, which saw commanders of the New Model Army meet with regiment representatives and Levellers. It was here that a draft of the Agreement of the People was debated, a manifesto which proposed freedom of religion, the frequent convening of new Parliaments and equality for all under the law. It also featured a call for a representative government, with Thomas Rainsborough arguing that no man should place himself under a government he had not voted for. Calls for near universal male suffrage were met with fierce criticism by Henry Ireton and Oliver Cromwell, who believed it would result in social anarchy and a deliberate attempt to take property and wealth away from the rich. The debates concluded with the understanding that a modified version of the Agreement, approved by a committee chosen mainly from the ranks of the Army’s officers, would be the basis of any future constitutional settlement. Such a plan was eventually derailed due to the breakout of the second Civil War in July 1648.

Rees argued that such debates concerning the limits of democracy have not abated even in more recent times. He pointed to the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 as proof of this, which gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. Prior to this act only women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications could vote. Rees suggested that a fear of the potential negative consequences of democratic representation and equality for the Establishment was not unique to the seventeenth century and is still very much a contemporary struggle.


The second paper, given by Ann Hughes, concerned the concept of religious toleration. Hughes reminded the audience that while religious toleration was a controversial and disruptive idea in the seventeenth century, it is also not a universally accepted concept in the modern world. In the seventeenth century the much more prevalent concept was that of ‘charitable hatred’ towards religious error and difference. Such ‘hatred’ towards religious difference was theorised as ‘charitable’ due to the fact that the conversion of those erring would avoid later damnation. Yet the 1640s and 1650s witnessed growing arguments for a much wider toleration of those seeking to form their own religious gatherings, known as congregationalists, and an acceptance of religious difference. Presbyterians such as Thomas Edwards believed such toleration to be a ‘gangrene’, a concept taken from 2 Timothy 2:17, spreading and growing within English society, one which would result in ecclesiastical and social anarchy. Others, such as John Milton, believed otherwise. His Areopagitica (1644) argued that Christianity was naturally fragmented into divisions and that when combined together these different parts formed a true gathering of Christ’s faithful:

Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city. What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill deputed care of their religion into their own hands again …

Yet these are the men cried out against for schismatics and sectarians; as if, while the temple of the Lord was building, some cutting, some squaring the marble, others hewing the cedars, there should be a sort of irrational men who could not consider there must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built. And when every stone is laid artfully together, it can not be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every piece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderate varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportional arises the goodly and the graceful symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.

Hughes concluded by drawing on the work of Alexandra Walsham and quoting from her Charitable Hatred (Manchester, 2009). Reflecting on Walsham’s comment that tolerance was ‘socially possible but not yet ideologically acceptable’ (p. 279), Hughes proposed that this conclusion may have been the wrong way round- that toleration in the 1640s and 1650s became ideologically acceptable to some, but was rejected on account of the effects it would have on a Christian society more generally.


The third paper in the panel was given by Ariel Hessayon, who explored how extreme weather in the seventeenth century could be linked to wider periods of crisis. In showcasing these links, it was argued that historians should take climate change, temperature and weather more seriously in their analysis of events. Hessayon pointed to recent successful attempts at this in print, citing Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale, 2014) as an example. Hessayon continued on to explore the ‘little ice age’ of the seventeenth century, proposing that food shortages and the high cost of living may have been a factor in the formation of the Diggers or ‘True Levellers’, a communal group which sought to exist by farming common land. Led by Gerrard Winstanley, the group occupied public lands that had been privatised by enclosures and dug them over, pulling down hedges and filling in ditches, to plant crops.

Hessayon admitted that the sources for climate change and weather conditions can be decidedly sketchy and conceptualised these sources into two categories; natural archives and human archives. Human archives included letters, chronicles, diaries and newsbooks, all of which were poor evidence of climate due to the relative judgements they contained. They were very useful guides to extreme weather events however, which they often noted in great detail. Hessayon also reminded the audience of the religious signification placed on extreme weather events, with seventeenth-century observers using the Bible as their main source of information on such events. As a result, natural disasters, harvest failures, plagues and eruptions were often believed to have been sent by God to punish sin. Hessayon also suggested that such narratives remain today, pointing to those who believe climate change is punishment for the modern sin of capitalism.


The final paper of the workshop was given by Gaby Mahlberg on the subject of exile. Mahlberg began by discussing the concept of exile itself, arguing that it was normally an involuntary measure used by individuals whose lives or beliefs were under attack. In order to summarise the feelings of dislocation and loneliness exile could bring, Mahlberg turned to the twentieth-century German poet Bertolt Brecht’s poem Thoughts on the Duration of Exile: 

Don’t drive a nail into the wall,
Throw your coat on the chair.
Why plan for four days?
You will return tomorrow.

Leave the small tree without water.
Why plant another tree?
Before it grows as high as a step,
You will be glad to get away from here.

Pull your hat down tight when someone passes by!
Why browse a foreign grammar?
The letter that calls you home
Is written in a familiar language.

Mahlberg detailed the experiences of two republicans in exile, Edmund Ludlow and Algernon Sidney. Ludlow had been a pivotal figure in the Interregnum, signing the warrant for Charles I’s execution. As a result, he was not protected under the Pardon, Indemnity and Oblivion Act (1660) which issued a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the Civil War and Interregnum, with the exception of a select few directly involved in the execution. Ludlow fled and eventually settled in Switzerland, where he was accepted and protected as a religious refugee. Sidney’s exile was slightly different- he was already on the Continent when Charles II returned to the throne in 1660. Because he had previously defended the execution of Charles I, Sidney was forced to stay abroad, exiled in Rome but still scheming to remove the house of Stuart from the throne. He later returned to England but was implicated in the Rye House Plot, a scheme to assassinate Charles and his brother James, and was himself arrested and eventually executed.

Mahlberg concluded with a number of important insights that seventeenth century examples of exile could provide in contemporary discussions of exile, asylum and immigration. These included a reminder that no one left their home without good reason, that common causes and beliefs were often more important than nationality, and that exile left a permanent mark and often changed people in a multitude of different ways.


Overall the workshop was well attended by both members of the public and scholars from local universities. All the papers proved thought-provoking and gave unique insights into the links between past and present on the topics of democracy, toleration, environmental crisis and exile.