Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Ranters Run Amok and Other Adventures in the History of the Law"

Leonard W. Levy, Ranters Run Amok and Other Adventures in the History of the Law (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000).

Before his death in 2006, Leonard Levy was one of America's foremost legal historians. Levy wrote on a variety of topics, and was probably most famous for his books on early American constitutional history. Two of his books (Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy and Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred From Moses to Salman Rushdie) remain the most comprehensive sources on how blasphemy law evolved from its earliest incarnations to the 20th century.

Levy's 2000 book Ranters Run Amok and Other Adventures in the History of the Law is a collection of miscellaneous essays about a variety of topics, including the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, and more. Two of the essays may be of interest to blasphemy scholars.

The book's first and longest essay is a nice history of the Ranters, a mid-Seventeenth Century English sect. The Ranters were a motley collection of hedonistic religious seekers who professed a variety of doctrines which mostly seemed to center on the idea that there is no such thing as sin and that, therefore, traditional social expectations relating to chastity, sobriety, frugality, etc., need not be observed. It's not surprising that Ranter practices (public drunkenness, vulgarity, and sexual activity) caused extreme consternation in English society. Although blasphemy was prohibited in England prior to the coming of the Ranters, the group was seen as so obnoxious by Parliament that special blasphemy laws were crafted to target the group's doctrines (pp. 33-34). A full history of blasphemy in England would be incomplete with a discussion of the Ranters, and this essay displays an admirable use of primary sources and engaging prose. I haven't compared whether or how much this essay adds to the information on the Ranters provided in Levy's other books on blasphemy.

Another essay "Harvard University Press, et al., v. A Book", is something of an odd duck. Essentially, it's a chronicle of the struggles Levy had with Harvard University Press and peer reviewers over whether his books on blasphemy were of sufficient quality to be published. Although initial contracts had been signed between Levy and the Press, the Press and its reviewers did not give a greenlight to the manuscript, which led Levy into a long and enervating (to the reader) attempt to change their minds. He wasn't successful, and the books had to be taken elsewhere. Unfortunately, Levy doesn't come across in the best light here, as his constant back-and-forth with editors and peer reviewers makes him seem defensive, bitter, and stubborn. Anyone who has had experience dealing with the peer review process can understand how exasperating it can sometimes be, but this essay would have been better off remaining in a diary than in a collection of essays. The main area of dispute between Levy and his reviewers centered on his work on blasphemy as it relates to the trial of Jesus, so only scholars specifically interested in that particular issue might have any reason to seek out this essay.

No comments:

Post a Comment