Labour History Review

E.P. Thompson, Shirley, and the Antinomian Tradition in West Riding Luddism and Popular Protest

Labour History Review (2021), 86, (2), 187–214.

Abstract

The novelist Charlotte Brontë and the historian E.P. Thompson both claimed that the Yorkshire Luddites of the 1810s were Antinomians, descendants of the seventeenth-century radical Christian sects who claimed, as Christ’s elect, that they were not bound by the (moral) law. This article follows a thread that links Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (in which he made this claim) with his later study of William Blake, Witness against the Beast, which, far from being just an esoteric study of an esoteric figure, uncovered an antinomian tradition that linked the radicalism and protest of the ‘age of reason’ with the seventeenth century. In doing so, it revisits the relationship between Thompson and religion, still an underexplored aspect and too overshadowed by his polemical attacks on Methodism. Having sketched this antinomian tradition, the article then turns to Brontë’s novel Shirley, which recounts the Luddism of the West Riding, and situates it in the context of Thompson’s antinomian tradition, exploring why Brontë chose to present the Luddites as Antinomians. The final section tests the hypothesis of Brontë and Thompson that Luddites may have been Antinomians through a case study of Luddism in the West Riding and the place of religious enthusiasm in working-class protest and culture in the early nineteenth century.

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Author details

Roberts, Matthew