Sunday, November 19, 2006

Muggletonian beauties

In one of the appendices to Witness Against the Beast, his study of William Blake, EP Thompson describes a meeting in the late 1970s with a fruit farmer from Kent named Philip Noakes. Noakes was the only living member of the Muggletonians, a radical Protestant sect which developed in the heady aftermath of the English Civil War and struggled to survive persecution and ridicule during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Muggletonians were dualists who believed that good and evil battled constantly within the souls of humans. Evil had been placed in the human soul when a snake raped Eve in the garden of Eden; good had been restored, partially at least, when God impregnated the 'virgin' Mary. The Muggletonians were one of the forces of good; the British state and the monarchy were tools of the Devil. Thompson was convinced that some of the strange imagery of Blake's poetry and art could be explained as manifestations of Muggletonian doctrine.

Thompson helped Noakes, who was elderly and in poor health, move the Muggletonians’ priceless three hundred year old archive of antique books and illuminated manuscripts from the storage space of a furniture shop in Kent to the British National Library. His account of his dealings with the recalcitrant believer is both affectionate and wistful. ‘There was not the least bit of the crank or fanatic in his manner’, writes Thompson. Nevertheless, “It was a strange situation...Mr Noakes frequently said ‘We believe’ – and yet he could not point to another believer...Mrs Noakes (while sympathetic) was not herself a believer, and it seemed that Mr Noakes was indeed the last Muggletonian”.

Thompson may have empathised with Philip Noakes' dilemma. In a rapturously received guest lecture to Columbia University students in the revolutionary year of 1968, he had resisted assimilation to the trendy 'new' New Left of the time, preferring to put his tongue in his cheek and declare that 'Along with William Blake I am a representative of that obscure English tradition...known as Muggletonian Marxism'. A decade later, when he was guiding the Muggletonian archive to safety and working in earnest on what became Witness Against the Beast, Thompson really had become a truly isolated figure on the left, clinging to his belief in an English tradition 'socialist humanism' in the face of a certain amount of ridicule from a younger generation of leftists who were more interested in Althusser and guerrilla war in the Third World than William Blake or the Chartists.

If you fancy reviving Muggletonianism, you might want to pay a visit the swanky George Glazer Gallery in New York. They have some 'Muggletonian Celestial Prints' for sale, no doubt at exorbitant prices:

A series of six astronomical engravings in tones of blue, white, yellow, and green, intended to demonstrate that the earth is at the center of the universe, based on planetary charts drawn by Isaac Frost, an artist and scientist associated with a Victorian sect known as the Muggletonians. They were printed by George Baxter, who employed his innovative oil color printing technique that permitted subtle gradations for a glowing effect and engraved by Chubb & Son, London...

Isaac Frost was a scientist and prominent member of the sect in the mid 19th Century who was instrumental in the refinement of the Muggletonian's astronomical theory, as represented on these prints. They were originally published under the title Two Systems of Astronomy, 1846 and were likely circulated only to members of the sect.

The engravings (sorry for their small size here - they're larger on the Glazer site) may not be good astronomy, but they are undeniably beautiful. I wish Edward Thompson had been able to get his hands on them and guide them into a public gallery.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a set of these Muggletonian prints that I got from another dealer, and they are some of the most exquisite prints I've ever seen. I love looking at them. I may not be religious, but some of the Muggletonian religious beliefs make sense, esp. if you don't believe in all the trappings that Catholicism is prone to. However, those celestial prints are incredible. I'm just glad to be able to fully enjoy my set.

7:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am descended from Muggletonians, my cousin has these prints in the original bound version. They are stunning.

9:32 am  
Anonymous Generic Viagra said...

Maybe the most strange album I heard in this year? where did you get this stuff?

9:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are incredibly beautiful prints. Fortunately they are still available from a few dealers.

8:13 am  
Anonymous Another Muggleton said...

Hmm, perhaps we're related?

4:51 pm  

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