Recent writing about human rights history focuses on the twentieth century. But in the 1640s and 1650s a handful of English contrarians campaigned for human rights by expanding on the language of ‘birthrights’ derived from theology and law. These campaigners did not invent human rights, nor can we place them in an intellectual genealogy leading to human rights today. Nonetheless, they began to imagine some key elements of modern human rights: as inherent and universal, inalienable and nonderogable. Such rights claims of the mid-seventeenth century offered a position from which to challenge the presumed primacy of sovereigns and their laws. The human rights of Gerrard Winstanley and his Digger companions differed from our own, resting as they did on a unique approach to biblical exegesis and on a mystical rationalism that modern historiography has a hard time explaining. Winstanley’s ideas focus on the community rather than the individual and are deeply concerned with human flourishing; they are unconcerned with laws and international institutions of the kind we now associate with human rights. Understanding these ideas reveals the human rights we do not have, especially for their insistence on universal access to food, clothing and shelter, the enjoyment of which Winstanley believed was entailed on all humanity by divine will.
Twelve friends of the late Mark Kishlansky reconsider the meanings of England’s mid-seventeenth-century revolution. Their essays range widely: from shipboard to urban conflicts; from court sermons to local finances; from debates over hairstyles to debates over the meanings of regicide; from courtrooms to pamphlet wars; and from religious rights to human rights. Taken together, these essays indicate how we might improve our understanding of a turbulent epoch in political history by approaching it more modestly and quietly than historians of recent decades have often done.
Paul D. Halliday, Eleanor Hubbard, and Scott Sowerby
Mark Kishlansky spent his life fascinated with politics. Early in his career, he mapped the rise of ‘adversary politics’ in the 1640s out of what he saw as a previously consensual political culture. He thus became a leading figure associated with ‘revisionism’ in seventeenth-century English history. Over time, Kishlansky’s interests drew him to the cultural history of politics, but he did not take the cultural turn. He operated with a grounding presupposition about humanness: that individuals’ choices matter, and in a monarchical society, no individual’s choices mattered more than the king’s. Taking monarchy seriously was the ultimate expression of Kishlansky’s central commitment: to understand past historical actors on their own terms. Doing so would revolutionise our understanding of politics. The essays in this book aspire to a paradoxical kind of historiographical revolution: one sparked by analytic modesty. As Kishlansky would have wanted it, they address particulars: practices and moments, authors and arguments that indicate the lineaments of revolution. Instead of wrestling with the hoary question of why a revolution happened in the 1640s and 1650s, they speak to how revolution worked. Taken together, they suggest the diversity of interest and ecumenism of method that reflects the state of the field and Mark Kishlansky’s own approaches to political history.