Jihadis of the 1640s

Submitted by Anon on 20 February, 2005 - 3:52

Dan Nichols reviews “blood on our hands: the english civil war”, Channel 4

Channel Four’s programme on the English Revolution broke new ground in its portrayal of a nation at war with itself. It was based around letters from the period and featured actors playing the roles of those who had written the letters.

The programme’s approach certainly had an impact. It brought home just how destructive the conflict was and how much people suffered. It also highlighted the role that “foreign fighters” from North America played in the conflict. A lot of Puritan settlers apparently returned to their home country for the conflict (including seven out of the nine students attending the fledgling Harvard University), and preached a more radical, revolutionary interpretation of the war.

The idea that people from what is now the US provided the “jihadis” for the English Civil War is extremely ironic.

However, the above example also shows up one of the main weaknesses of the programme. It tended to see the conflict too much through modern eyes. Thus England in the 1640s was compared to Bosnia in the 1990s, and the Puritans were portrayed as merely religious fanatics.

What the programme ignored was that in the 1640s, ordinary people could only express their political views through religious language, as most people had only read one book, the Bible. Therefore, the nascent bourgeois found expression through a religious movement, rather than a modern style political one.

Indeed, even the more radical Levellers used religious language to express themselves. This made them quite different from today’s religious zealots, who deliberately turn their back on secular politics.

But, still, the programme did succeed in bringing the conflict to life, unlike Tristram Hunt’s spectacularly awful series of three years ago.

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