According to popular memory — and much modern historiography — the Civil War was a period characterized not only by military conflict and rebellion but also by a luxuriant variety of various types of social and political radicalism. It was a time, self-evidently, when institutions and values were called into question; when groups of Levellers, Diggers and Ranters roamed the land; when utopian visions and extremist beliefs threatened the very foundations of society. Such is the world that is movingly portrayed in Christopher Hill’s classic study, dating from the early 1970s, The World Turned Upside Down.1 More recently, however, the subject of Civil War radicalism has provoked a vexed and tendentious historiography. ‘Revisionist’ scholars have rejected Hill’s influential notion of a popular, demotic phenomenon that heralded the secularization of society as an anachronistic and overly sympathetic view. For Revisionists, radical belief was a marginal concern in the mid-seventeenth century and was entirely religious in both its origin and its aims.2 Yet, arguably, neither perspective provides an adequate approach to the subject. Indeed, the existing conceptualizations of radicalism offer distorted or unnecessarily restricted views of both the impact and the diversity of the radical ideologies that were unleashed by the Civil War. It may be timely, therefore, to rethink our approach to the phenomenon.
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