With this post, we are happy to welcome Professor JM Smith, Geographer of the Human Spectacle, as a regular contributor to the Orthosphere. Dr. Smith has contributed a few guest posts, and has often commented here perspicuously. Regular visitors will be familiar with his wry, rapier wit. His interest in and knowledge of the intellectual history of the West since the late Middle Ages will, we trust, add a new and rarefied note to our construction of a traditionalist diapason. KL
Nowadays, a rant is a tirade. It is an unchecked outburst of anger, umbrage and bile. Sour old men rant in broken-down armchairs. Delirious vagrants rant on dirty sidewalks. Defeated professors rant in somnolent lecture halls. To us, today, a rant is a squall of impotent rage. It is a loud, bitter, and pathetic gripe.
This was not always so. When the word first appeared around 1600, to rant was to talk wildly, but one could rant out of happiness or grief as well as anger. The grieving Hamlet is said to have ranted beside Ophelia’s grave; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the ranting character is a jovial and bombastic innkeeper. At that time, to rant was to speak without meaning—to vapor, to burble, to boast. But it was not, or was only incidentally, to complain. Ranting was empty talk. It was not, as now, empty threats. It took in more than the sputtering that accompanies the shaken fists of sour old men, delirious vagrants, and defeated professors.
We must bear this semantic slippage in mind when we read about the seventeenth-century religious enthusiasts who were called Ranters. These Ranters were not angry. They did not commandeer street corners to castigate passers by. They most often capered in the streets, burbling about “joy” and “love” and “bliss.” Ranters were the mooncalves of early-modern England. If you met one today, you would call him a hippy, and a dippy hippy at that.