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An Afternoon Talking about Medieval and Reformation Parishes

Recently, on 24 June, I went to the annual mini-conference of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, held at the Guildhall in Exeter.  This year’s theme was Late Medieval and Reformation Parishes, to reflect the theme of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s next forthcoming volume, Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, edited by Dr Joanna Mattingly.

North-side-of-Stratton-church-with-19th-century-vestry.-Photograph-by-Alexis-Jordan.
North side of Stratton church with 19th-century vestry. Photograph by Alexis Jordan.

There were two papers, by Joanna Mattingly and Clive Burgess, a historian of medieval parishes based at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr Mattingly talked about the churchwardens’ accounts from Stratton, in north Cornwall, and gave a taster of what will be in the book. The Stratton accounts are comparatively unusual in that they span the Reformation without a break.  Stratton is also unusual because several different types of documentation survive from the parish. There are two different sets of accounts relating to different parts of the parish’s activity – the High Cross, or churchwardens’ accounts, and the General Receivers’ accounts which give an overview of the parish finances as a whole. There are also documents and maps relating to a court case in 1583.  This allows us to see information which is normally missing from conventional churchwardens’ accounts.  Talking about this rich material, Dr Mattingly described the progress of the Reformation in Stratton, as the parishioners bought new Protestant service books and resisted having their carved wooden rood loft demolished (ultimately unsuccessfully). Alongside this activity, the everyday maintenance of the parish church continued, as churchwardens collected rents and paid for equipment, repairs and cleaning.

In his paper, Clive Burgess also highlighted the importance of the Stratton accounts. He emphasized that most work on medieval and Reformation parish records so far has examined either large urban areas such as Bristol and London (the focus of his own research), or small rural villages, such as Morebath in north Devon, which is the focus of Eamon Duffy’s 2001 book, The Voices of Morebath. Small towns, such as Stratton, are comparatively under-studied. Dr Burgess also gave an overview of the late medieval church to set the Stratton accounts in a larger context.  Here he stressed in particular the amount of money which medieval laypeople spent on their parish churches.  They paid for building works, altars, chantries and equipment, in exchange for being commemorated and prayed for.  There were many reasons for this, including the doctrine of Purgatory (which held that prayers could help the souls of the dead), and the fact that after the Black Death a combination of circumstances meant that many parishioners had some disposable income to spend.  He argued that medieval religion was essentially communal, and that late medieval parishes were one expression of this. Wealthy parishioners gave generously and in exchange, the less wealthy were expected to pray for them.  One of the changes which took place in the Reformation, according to this view, was a shift to a more individualistic view of religion.

Overall, these two fascinating talks helped to bring the complex religious changes in this period to life, as well as highlighting the amount of unpublished source material waiting for studies and critical editions.

The Devon and Cornwall Record Society was founded in 1904 to transcribe and publish local records, and to promote local historical studies and genealogical research. Its publications cover many aspects of the West Country’s political, social, religious, economic and maritime history. For more information and details of how to join, please see their website.

Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, by Joanna Mattingly (Devon and Cornwall Record Society new series vol. 60) will be published by Boydell and Brewer in spring 2018.

Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History

 

Thomas Cromwell: a man for our seasons?

At the opening and closing the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall I was asked to share my thoughts on Thomas Cromwell with presenter Simon Bates on BBC Radio Devon’s ‘Good Morning Devon’ Breakfast Show. Hilary Mantel’s novels have challenged the conventional casting of the familiar Reformation drama making Chancellor More the grim-faced obstacle in the path of our new hero, ‘Mr Secretary Crumwell’.

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The Wolf Hall phenomenon, of course, owes much to the general appeal of the Tudors and a fair number of the 3 million viewers that switched on to the TV adaptation were drawn purely by the promise of witnessing once more the marital melodrama of Bluff King Hal. Yet the summons to Wolf Hall has resounded far further than any other of the recent retellings of Henry’s serial monogamy. For those that profess to select their reading from the Man Booker shortlist, Philippa Gregory is generally a guilty pleasure to be left on the holiday cottage’s communal bookshelf. But Mantel’s books have returned historical fiction to the Paperwhites™ and Book Groups of these Readers of Literary Novels and to the Public Critics – the Frostrups and the Naughties – who guide them. Part of it, of course, is her painstaking authenticity. As an early reviewer trilled, you can almost scent the damp wool of Cromwell’s cloak as he steals across the outer court of old Austin Friars, and the Readers of Literary Novels need to know that their fare has been lovingly prepared through long hours in the BL reading room. But the root of Mantel’s success, I suspect, lies not in her careful recreation of an old reality but in her subtle fashioning of a new one; for what might at first appear to be simply another strain of the timeless chant, ‘divorced-beheaded-died’ – which the self-conscious literati would spurn – in fact recasts the story to fit the historical imagination de nos jours. Mantel’s Tudor England is no stock-image of that generic ‘past’ which we want served up in colour and drama but not in detail. No, these Tudors have been photo-shopped to suit our new historical aesthetic; above all, to satisfy our ultra-relativism.

So it follows that neither one nor t’other Boleyn girl is now our hero, still less Lord Chancellor More, a man whom Mantel seems on the brink of mocking for his Brownian ‘moral compass’. No, it is Thomas C. who must be the man for our seasons. Thomas of the troubled childhood, the victim of an abusive father for whom he harbours hope of formal justice into middle age; Thomas of the exemplary work-life balance, as likely to be found working-from-home and even contemplating home-schooling his clever daughter than to play the monarch’s minion. The case for home-schooling, of course, is as clear as day to the auto-didact Thomas, the University-of-Life man whose internship with Wolsey propels him further and faster than the smug graduates which surround him. Thomas is a man of new science, not old books, a champion of the communications revolution coming with the printing press, now poring over the tablet-sized page-proof of Tyndale’s dangerously Smart Testament. Thomas learns quickly the truth of our preferred clichés about politics and public life, the greasiness of the pole, the venality of those that make the climb, and that money and sex that always drive them. These each serve to make Thomas a recognisable, sympathetic figure but what brings him wholly onside is that in his progress to Wolf Hall he exposes the always narrow, often wicked world view of the old establishment. This is the view represented not only by Wolsey – the figurehead of a hierarchical church securing privilege and sustaining inequality through fear and superstition – but also by the urbane More, whose Christian Humanism is equally if not more insidious since it cloaks a creed of cultural and social elitism in the promise of Utopia. Here, curiously, as well as a Thomas Cromwell-for-our-time, Mantel would seem to want to breathe new life into the oldest Tudor myth of all, of the Reformation as a definitive step towards the rational, liberal uplands of the modern world.

Now, you might well say that it hardly matters if through the doors of Wolf Hall we glimpse a grotesque distortion of the Henrician Reformation: these days surely it is something that only animates us academic historians, and every other reader and viewer will be well satisfied as long as Anne does lose her head at the appointed time, with the right sort of weft showing in her worsted cloak. Well, maybe so. You might also be inclined to argue that bringing Thomas and his world closer to our own can only be a good thing: empathy and relevance should not be dismissed, otherwise, before long you will be in danger of questioning the spectacle of ceramic poppies outside the Tower. But if we continue in this direction, isn’t there also a danger that we will narrow our historical imagination to the point of closure? If that happens, it won’t only be our understanding of something with apparently such low stakes as the Reformation that will be in peril. We must cultivate the curiosity – and at the same time, perhaps, suppress the instinctive self-obsession – to explore a world whose views on childhood, family, education, work, technology, and the power of ideas – were far removed from our own. In looking on the past it is high time we rediscovered the virtue of difference.

James Clark

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