Early Modern Autobiography and Political Identity: The Case of John Lilburne (1614-1657)

  • Abstract:

    The English Civil Wars (1642-1649) were an era of intense political experimentation. English men of all social statuses ceased to identify as Stuart subjects and gained an active political role. At the same time, (auto)biography insinuated in the writing and reading habits of the English. Historians have largely neglected the richness of autobiographical writing, searching in it facts rather than individuality. On the other hand, literary scholars have wrenched the self-writer from its historical framework. This paper wants to fill the interdisciplinary gap by situating first-person narrative within its ideological construct. In order to do so, it will focus on the life and work of John Lilburne (1614-1657), charismatic leader of the Levellers, a faction pushing for the extension of religious tolerance and secular rights during the late 1640s. The public face of his movement, Lilburne embodied the Levellers’ ideas, eventually gaining the nickname ‘Freeborn John’. Surveying Lilburne’s published works, and in the particular The Legal Fundamental Liberties of the People of England (1649), where the author digresses in a fascinating account of his life, I hope to suggest that Lilburne made an extensive use of personal biography to make his supporters identify with the Levellers’ agenda. Through personification, Lilburne translated complex religious and legal theories into a comprehensible rhetoric that could be spread by word of mouth. Lilburne’s work highlights how identity-making processes were pivotal for popular politics during the English Civil Wars. Ultimately, this paper argues the centrality of autobiographical writing in respect of the historical process of identity-making. The different forms of self-writing that emerged in this period hint to the new centrality of the individual within society. They also represent an easy-access rhetoric that, if more extensively employed by the historian, could shed light on the politics of popular participation in Early Modern England.