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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: July 2017

1 - Mythologies of Empire and the Earliest English Diasporas

Summary

Our modern mythologies of empire and migration need to take into account the mythologies through which the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English perceived themselves and the world, myths that in succeeding centuries germinated in different forms throughout the English Diaspora. To understand early modern thinking we must surrender some of our modern preconceptions. We have abandoned charismatic prophecy as a method of political explanation. Sharing the Enlightenment belief in applying a scientific approach even to the mysteries of human emotion, we prefer opinion polls.

However, this chapter engages with a pre-Enlightenment society and political culture in which only the opinions of the powerful few mattered, a culture that possessed few political mechanisms for peacefully transforming the body politic. To the powerful, expectations of a different future could be defined in one word – treason. In such a society one of the few semi-legitimate pressure valves for expressing the hopes and desires of the mass of English people was a belief in prophecies of abrupt political change, either to recover a lost golden age or to perfect human society in preparation for the apocalypse. This chapter discusses some ways in which a prophetic sense of the future informed early ideas of empire and migration, because they were inextricably linked to the question of what it meant to be English in the sixteenth century.