After a lifetime of scholarship, a diligent academic tracks down the archive of an obscure religious sect – the Muggletonians, a heretical splinter group that came into existence during the ferment of the English Revolution. The archive has been kept intact throughout the centuries, held secure in the back rooms of Bishopgate pubs, surviving industrialisation, the Victorians, the firebombing of the Luftwaffe. Even better, the academic discovers that the archive, now relocated to Kent, is in the possession of the last living Muggletonian, one Philip Noakes.
Immediately we know where we are, and we sigh a contented sigh. It’s Jose Luis Borges, or a disciple. It’s a comfort read, an intellectual hall of mirrors that’ll tease us and be over in a few pages. And E.P. Thompson is a skilled emulator:It was a strange situation. Mr Noakes himself was the last repository of a 300-year-old tradition. He conversed with me freely about Muggletonian practices and doctrine. He frequently said: ‘We believe’ – and yet one could not point to another believer.
‘Almost salivating, the professor is taken to a store room wherein lie 82 apple boxes. Here at last is the archive. “Eighteenth century bindings appeared, and manuscripts, as well as holograph songbooks. I confess that the light was so bad that, when we came to the last box, with trembling fingers I lit a match.” After some persuasion, and hastened by the onset of old age and ill health, Mr Noakes agrees to let the collection be lodged in the British Library. It’s the triumph of the professor’s career. The story even ends pleasantly: ‘All is sweetened by the recollection of the kindness shown to me by Mr Noakes. It was indeed a privilege to have been taken into the confidence of ‘the Last Muggletonian’.
There’s only one, small, detail. E.P. Thompson was a distinguished historian and never, to my knowledge, wrote a short story in his life. The Muggletonians were every bit as real as the Ranters and the Quakers. William Blake’s mother was one of them. So out the window goes Borges – because every word of The Muggletonian Archive is true.
From Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, The New Press, 1993