Introduction: Reappraising early modern radicals and radicalism

Hessayon, Ariel and Finnegan, David. 2011. Introduction: Reappraising early modern radicals and radicalism. In: Ariel Hessayon and David Finnegan, eds. Varieties of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English radicalism in context. Aldershot: Ashgate, 000-000. ISBN 978-0-7546-6905-0 [Book Section]

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Radical was originally a word relating to a root or roots which, by the early modern period, was used particularly in philosophy, astrology and philology. Hence radical moisture (‘humidum radicale’) was understood to be the ‘natural moysture’ or ‘fundamental juyce of the body, whereby the natural heat is nourished and preserved, as the flame in a Lamp is preserved by oyle’. In astrology a radical question was one put forward when ‘the Lord of the ascendent, and Lord of the hour are of one nature and triplicitie’. Similarly, philologists divided the letters that made up Hebrew words into root and functional letters, the radical or radix being the essential and permanent part of the word form. By extension, radical also signified origin and hence fundamental qualities inherent in the nature or essence of a person or thing. As Conal Condren has observed, however, radical only became a political term associated with thorough or far-reaching political and social reform towards the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, it was apparently not until autumn 1819 – shortly before Lord Byron thought radical might mean uprooting – that ‘radicalism’ was coined by Jeremy Bentham. Nor was it a univocal word for within a decade radicalism meant not only the political views characteristic of radicals but thoroughness of method as well. Condren’s point was that historians aim to know the past as it really was, whereas anachronism manifestly ‘specifies the past as it really wasn’t’. Accordingly, he stressed that ‘we need to be particularly fastidious about our interpretive vocabulary’. Jonathan Clark goes further, regarding radicalism as an early nineteenth-century neologism applicable to ‘a fusion of universal suffrage, Ricardian economics and programmatic atheism’. As Glen Burgess notes in a recent debate on radicalism and the English Revolution, the work of both Condren and Clark may be characterised as a sceptical or nominalist approach: radicalism did not exist until it was named.

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23 Nov 2011 09:23

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29 Apr 2020 16:22


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