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The Ranters and their sources: the question of Jacob Boehme’s supposed influence

Hessayon, Ariel. 2014. The Ranters and their sources: the question of Jacob Boehme’s supposed influence. In: Vittoria Feola, ed. Antiquarianism and Science in Early Modern Urban Networks. Paris: Blanchard, pp. 77-101. [Book Section]

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Since there is extensive literature on the Ranters it is curious that little has been said about the Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme’s possible influence on their ideas. Concentrating on the printed texts rather than manuscript letters and reported speech, several scholars have drawn attention to the Ranters’ understanding of the nature of God, good and evil; the significance of dualism in their thought; their use of paradox and combination of opposing properties such as light and dark, flesh and spirit; as well as their pantheistic speculation cum nature mysticism. Literary experts, moreover, have followed those contemporaries who remarked on the Ranters’ elevated language by focussing on typography, genre, imagery, mimicry, parody, vocabulary and modes of address. Together with these generally acute observations there have been several intriguing though seldom adequately documented assertions concerning certain Ranters’ unacknowledged debts to Boehme. What these commentators have highlighted is a problem not restricted to the Ranters: can Boehme’s unmediated influence be distinguished from the wider tradition of theosophic and prophetic writing that he epitomised? There is no mention of Boehme in the extant writings of those individuals whom sensible historians agree to have been onetime Ranters: Jacob Bothumley, Lawrence Clarkson, Abiezer Coppe, Joseph Salmon, Thomas Webbe, Andrew Wyke, and the anonymous author of A Justification of the Mad Crew (1650). Nor did contemporaries connect the Ranters with Boehme. Regularly demonised as a lustful, ungodly crew given to all manner of wickedness they were frequently perceived as a horrible, monstrous sect. Some condemnations were modelled upon and positioned within a long line of anti-heretical writing that stretched from Paul, Epiphanius and Augustine to Luther and Calvin. Intemperate, alarmist and often inaccurate, their purpose was to represent doctrinal and behavioural errors as inversions of truths so as to facilitate their extirpation. Constantly alert to precedents, several polemicists also provided the Ranters with a distinctive identity and genealogies that variously linked their blasphemous doctrines and abominable, filthy practises to a range of ancient and near-contemporary heresies. Yet unlike the Quakers, with whom they would be lumped together, there is a significant silence concerning the Ranters’ alleged descent from the teachings of Paracelsus, Valentin Weigel and Boehme. And for good reason, since with one notable exception Boehme’s influence on the Ranters was negligible. That exception, however, was significant. For Abiezer Coppe’s ‘An Additional and Preambular Hint’, which was written as a preface to Richard Coppin’s Divine Teachings (1649), demonstrates in the marginal annotations a familiarity with Behmenist terms. Nonetheless, Coppe’s interest in Boehme appears to have been brief, perhaps only extending to the duration of his known involvement with John Pordage, rector of Bradfield, Berkshire. For nothing Coppe wrote after September 1649 can be said to indicate deliberate use of expressions and ideas particular to Boehme. Despite contemporaries not associating Boehme with the Ranters, one would have expected the Teutonic Philosopher to have had a greater influence on their writings. There are, for example, fascinating resonances of Sebastian Franck’s The Forbidden Fruit (1642) in one of Joseph Salmon’s texts and possible hints of Nicholas of Cusa in Lawrence Clarkson. All the same Boehme’s unmediated influence on the Ranters was unimportant. There are several possible explanations. Firstly, by the time of the Ranters’ demise the bulk of Boehme’s writings had still to be published in English translation, though it is noteworthy that the radical London bookseller Giles Calvert issued works by Clarkson, Coppe, Coppin, Salmon and Boehme among others. Secondly, besides Coppe the Ranters were not university trained scholars so perhaps they found Boehme’s writings inscrutable or unsuitable for their purpose.

Item Type:

Book Section

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

History

Dates:

DateEvent
2014Published

Item ID:

18589

Date Deposited:

21 Jun 2016 09:45

Last Modified:

11 Jul 2018 08:41

URI:

http://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/18589

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