Acts of Letting and of Creation

In the years 1649 and 1650, a number of land occupations were made in England. Groups of political dissenters popularly called “Diggers” organised together to farm underused land. This period, after the decapitation of King Charles and before the Commonwealth collapsed into dictatorship, witnessed a great flowering of enthusiasm and experimentation.
The Diggers saw three broad kinds of land: wild nature, which was the woods, marshes, rivers, and other parts of land that were not used for farming; proprietary or enclosed land, surrounded by hedges and walls for the use of land-owners, handed down by the law of the eldest son and deriving, ultimately, from conquest; and a third category – common land, areas of land which had complex systems of traditional rights of use attached to them. Such rights were always partial, but might include for instance: the right to pasture animals, gather fallen firewood, harvest rushes or willow branches, or to gather fruits, berries and nuts. In other words, rights to the commons were always specific. What the Diggers proposed was to maximise the use of the commons. They proposed that such land be given over to be a common treasury to all the people, to be improved, to be farmed and to be the place for the siting of storehouses of food and raiments open to all those that labour.

Much of the existing commentary on the Diggers and wider currents of rebelliousness during and following the English Revolution focuses on reconstructing their political thought and marking their social actions.1 But it is also interesting to note how fights over food, land and the creation of a society, as well as the very meaning of these things being (as they were, at least temporarily) liberated from ‘kingly law’, are partly carried out through various processes of ‘letting’. ‘Letting’ was a means of bringing something into play, not by fighting for it, butsimply by allowing its own inherent powers to take their course. . Causation was deferred or rendered unnecessary, ends were achieved, or achieved themselves, without any necessary means. Acts of letting were kinds of inaction, the knowing allowance of something without direct responsibility. As well as the clear use of reason, argument, and direct action in the classic anarchist sense, in the episodes and events of the Digger movement there are a number of ways in which indirect action occurs through various processes of letting.

In terms of the actions of the forces arrayed against the Digger settlements there was a straightforwardly conservative and quite corrupt, use of violence and the system of law. Often these occurred as direct intervention, but they also functioned by establishing the means by which something may arise ‘by chance’. Thus the residues of inaction, of letting something occur, are mobilised as action. Local landlords used various means for the destruction of the Digger’s efforts. Alongside several direct violent assaults (interestingly, on one occasion, some of the men involved in an attack wore women’s clothes – another displacement of action as well as identification) and the breaking up and stealing of clothes, shacks, tools and animals, other means were used. One such means was the use of the courts, the resolution of which was to fine the Diggers ten pounds each, and thus make their few cattle and any other property subject to seizure for the payment of this large unpayable sum. Such a liability resulted in the Diggers having to move to a new site in Cobham. Whilst the courts were thus mobilised as a ‘neutral’ means, more indirect approaches included the deliberate loosing of cattle onto the Digger’s eleven acres area of barley to munch up and trample the shoots. The cows naturally broke up and ate the plants. All was an ‘accident’, a residue of inaction, but a large portion of the crop was ruined. Letting functions to absolve power of responsibilities whilst achieving its ends. Equally, villagers were given quantities of tobacco and wine and incitement to boycott the settlement. The boycott of the Diggers, an act of letting which requires some organising was enforced by a Lecturer (preacher) hired by the parson, intended to make sure that they were left to their own devices as far as the possibility of any trading went. Letting, rather than absolution, is here an act of isolation. Letting, the coming into activation of residues, can thus be an act of malice as much as of memory, of the draining out of possibility as much as in the delight in the becoming of what had been assumed to be merely a remainder.

For the Diggers, the interplay of kinds of letting had two key aspects both of which operated in a different register. In a text called “The True Leveller’s Standard Advanced” they called upon their contemporaries, to “Take notice that England is not a free people, till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour in the commons, and so live as comfortably as the landlords that live in their enclosures.”2 The crucial problem they were trying to tackle was how to find a way for people to eat and thrive after the formal declaration of a much-contested commonwealth. The form the rights to the commons took had to change to reflect the exigencies of their times, to become modern. Instead, following the return to kingly law, the commons were subject to another form of modernisation: that of enclosure.
More importantly for the Diggers, a further form of letting, letting as it occurs at the scale of, or despite, human intention, is also implied in their vision of the world. The growth of plants, the earth’s feeding of the people, is simply part of Creation: something that is not ownable because it is a force of nature, a manifestation of the spirit, that spirit which they saw also as reason. Creation is a present power active in all things, not a one-off act. Creation is what is alive and released in the dispersal of seeds. By taking up spades and manuring and planting the land Diggers were simply letting further creation come to pass. The seeds of barley (and those of wheat, rye, parsnips, turnips and beans that were also planted in the settlements) with their capacity of fructiferousness, their affordances of food, nourishment and further planting are allies to, and embodiments of, these acts of creation. As confirmation of the power of this act of letting, barley continues to be harvestable on George Hill, the first of the Digger sites.3

Matthew Fuller

1 See e.g.: Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, radical ideas during the English revolution, Penguin, London, 1975; David W. Petegorsky, Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War, Left Book Club, London, 1940; David C. Taylor, Gerrard Winstanley in Elmbridge, Appleton Publications, Cobham, 2000. See also the film, Winstanley (1975) directed by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo.
2 Gerrard Winstanley, ‘The True Leveller’s Standard Advanced’, (April 20th, 1649) in, Leonard Hamilton ed., Selections from the Works of Gerrard Winstanley, The Cresset Press, London, 1940, p.40.
3 The Digger Barley project is a small distribution of barley seeds harvested from George Hill. Packets of seeds and information are available to take from the Manifesta7 exhibition at the Alumix plant in Bolzano.