282 Parish and Protest

The parish was the essential and ever present canvas on which most lives were painted in early modern England. We discuss how it changes, it’s harmonies and the context of protest

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And so here we are – my opportunity to introduce to you the English Parish. Listener, English parish, how do you do? English Parish, Gentle listeners, how do you do? Now I have to confess that my ignorance is pretty total about the relative importance of the Parish in the religious and secular lives of other European countries over the centuries, but I can tell you that it is a super important part of the English story, both from the point of view of the ordinary people, in which category I put pretty much everyone with the possible exception of the tippy top aristocracy, and from the grander, more highfalutin’ viewpoint of the formation of the modern English state, and let me tell you, you falute away as much as you like, you will get no higher in English history than the formation of the English state. At our current point in time, quivering in the morning dew like a young doe or buck on the pivot of the fundamental changes of the Early Modern age, Parishes go through a change of which you might weep about as cataclysmic, celebrate as invigorating and dynamic, but which everyone will describe as dramatic.

In fact the point has been made rather testily that the requirements of the Protestant reformation and the constant historical debate about said Reformation has rather over emphasised our view of the importance of the parish in late medieval days; we can be wont to forget all of the other apparatus of the medieval church, the corporate apparatus if you like of monasteries and nunneries, of chantries, hospitals, almshouses. But of course many of those will disappear or be changed by the reformation; and what remains most strongly are the parish, the parish as a pastoral centre, and as a centre of secular governance. The parish was the space where the drama of most peoples lives played out, both affected by its community and adorning it.

The parish network had grown out of the old minster network established in the early centuries of Anglo Saxon England, and developed their shape essentially to suit the needs of the nobility. As you may know if you are a shedcast member, nudge, nudge, wink, and if I may wink, late Anglo Saxon England and the Norman centuries saw the fissioning of the old large AS royal estates into a series of smaller manors, in order to endow, pay and reward the elite that supported the king and his kingdom. The new nobility liked having their own place, and they adorned the cake of their manor with the cherries of their ever grander halls and then castles, and their very own church and priest. As the church organised its dioceses and administration, these manors often became parishes as well, because it’s easier that way, and by 13th century the structure was largely settled, save for a bit of tinkering around the edges. They were formed then around the needs of the secular church, the parish church and minister sort of thing.

The late medieval parish was a rather more richly adorned entity than the early medieval version. One main reason for this was the concept of purgatory. As the concept sank its teeth into the psyche of society, investment and devotion followed, in the form of Chantry chapels with associated priests and clerks to pray for the souls of the dead and conduct services in the chapels of the church. Fraternities grew up around those devotions and chantries, which quite apart from their main purpose gave involvement in communal life for all, whether rich or poor, male or female. Alongside those fraternities might also be confraternities established by guilds, or corporations depending where you are. Alongside these of course are those more national and corporate institutions, like monasteries. With 9,000 parishes and around 900 monastic institutions, by no means very parish would have a monastery, but a significant number would, well 10%, and in addition monastic institutions were not tied to or bound by the parish, and might have relationships and ties with many. Together with the richly visual nature of late medieval catholic religion, what you have are churches which are often sumptuously and flambouyantly equipped, with both furnishings, and with people. We are not just talking about the village vicar and clerk of the village of Miss Read and Trollope, no indeed.

To return briefly to the debate of the morbundity or vitality of the late medieval church, although briefly, since we have probably done that to death now. One of the many things that helped us understand that actually, whatever its problems, the late medieval church remained vital and central in the localities, was the thing standing in plain sight – the lavish and widespread rebuilding and extension of church buildings. There is perpendicular architecture all over the place. All of this investment in religious stuff, fabric and people was helped by the conditions of the late 15th and early 16th centuries; [1]not very many people but relatively buoyant individual wealth. The better off had money to spend and they often spent it with great pride by beautifying their locality, in the form of the church most obviously, and through donations in their will when they died – whether donations for their soul to be sung maybe by the chantry priests at the parish church, or for the poor of the parish, or most commonly, for both.

The parish is central to all this sense of Community pride, and pride of place was strong in this one. And that community showed itself in many ways. There was a very physical aspect to it; in the annual beating of the bounds for example, on Accession Day or Rogation day, the latter being the 25th April. The Parish priest would set out around the boundaries of the parish with the officials of the parish and importantly a cloud of small boys with willow twigs or birch, and they’d give the boundaries a good beating just in case they were thinking of moving. You chose small boys on the principle that they were incipient blokes and this is a patriarchal world as I may have mentioned half a billion times, and because then hopefully the collective memory will last longer, via those soon to be big blokes. It’s a tradition some still carry out today; it wobbled under the Edwardian Reformation, but just like the weebles, it merely wobbled but did not fall down, as Elizabeth took a more relaxed view of the whole thing. In common with many festivals of the year, the church was heavily involved and there were other activities or rights build around it; you might have a church ale at the end of it, begging might be allowed for the day, that sort of thing.

The church and parish were at the very heart of life. I have been frequently told that I cannot consider myself even to have placed my dainty slipper on the first step of the long and winding road to the status of historian until I have read the History of Myddle, by a chap called Richard Gough, who was essentially a wealthy peasant of the Parish, a Yeoman. Now Richard was writing in 1700, and so in a way his world is a long way from the late medieval one, and yet, there are many commonalities. Richard knows the fabric of his parish world in fine detail.  He runs it lovingly through his fingers and knows the texture of it without needing to see; the parish is his world, and yet he is connected through it to a more regional community as people move away or come and join, and also to the wider national community too and that’s important. It is indeed a good read, and will give you an entrance not just to 1700 England, but also the breeze of 1500 will kiss your cheek as well. Ricgard Gough, the History of Myddle.

Anyway, what was I saying central, yes central that’s it. The church lay at the heart of it all then, the church and its officials – principally the Churchwarden and his assistants the sidesmen. More and more there is and will be the village Constable. The churchwarden writes out his accounts and every year they are approved by the parish, which we’ll come to. The Parish chest contains all the written records of the village – those same accounts, deeds, inventories, legal agreements. The churchwarden’s accounts are almost a history of the parish in a way, their collective memory. The parish would keep costumes and instruments for the seasonal rituals and events; they’d organise such events, because they were an important source of fundraising, as well as fulfilling their actual specific function. And they provided a release for the tensions of the hierarchies of the time, but we’ll talk about festivities at some other time, I deem, so hold your horses on that.

The parish gave a role for various groups within society; for women, for example, the parish gave visibility, through things like attendance at church; it gave status, through the veneration of a range of female saints, and it gave involvement too; although women were denied decision making through the formal governance system, fraternities and guilds gave them a voice. The poorer members of the parish also had some involvement since giving was considered a condition of the well regulated parish, rather than being viewed as a generous and optional gift.

But the poor were also engaged with a specific voice – very often, they actually got to vote, because the parish was a deeply and increasingly political arena as well, and not just in that touchy feely sense, have you warned the boss that your forthcoming public presentation is going to reveal his cherished project as an arrant piece of nonsense sort of way. Real politics. Because, as you might tell from the foregoing, by 1500, the parish was no longer simply an ecclesiastical construct – it was a civil one as well, as the state began to intervene and demand things of the parish in terms of public administration. This will really get going post reformation, but even pre-reformation some parishes experimented with road and bridge repairs, and the Exchequer had tried on occasion to organise national taxation through the parish.[2]


As time went by public administration became an increasingly important part of the Churchwarden’s life. To illustrate the point; one study compared expenditure from early days of CWs accounts with the last pre-reformation set; what they showed was the expenditure on church fabric decreasing, and expenditure on administration and support increasing, so supporting the argument that secular administration was becoming a more and more important part of the parish’s role. Parish income could become fiendishly complicating, relying on investments, and land and by the mid 16th century litigation was frighteningly common. The Tudors did love a bit of court action. ‘So sue me’ was not a dismissal or challenge in Tudor days, it was simply a statement of the inevitable next step.

But I was talking of politics. First of all the warning, which I should have issued at the start of this section – every parish is different, and all of this that precedes and follows is vile and extravagant generalisation. This is not a trendy or religious, every sperm is sacred type of thing, this is just a point of fact, localism was so much stronger then than it is now. So the way your parish was run would vary according to local customary rights, the quality and learning of your priest and churchwardens, whether your gentry was resident, the economic make up of your village, the topography of the region you inhabited. But for many parishes, the management of the parish was quite inclusive in late medieval and early 16th century England. For example; the churchwardens accounts of Bethersden, in 1525 Kent charged the sexton

To give all the parish a warning that the whole parish should appear together the 8th day of January that they might have a communication of how many kene belonged to the church of Betrysden, and also to have a perfect knowledge under what manner or form they were given to the church. [kene means cattle by the way)

So that sounds great – collective communication and wide involvement.  Now the more cynical in the world of professional historians, and there are cynical historians, question the reality behind this inclusive and collective language, i.e. is everyone really just going to look at the honcho who is most head and follow his lead? But such language it is all over the place – how to provide for the holy bread to be distributed after mass, contributing to parochial levies, attending audits and visitations. And there are remarkable examples of this parish democracy in action. In the 1530’s there was a debate about the clerks wages, a vote was taken, and 94% of the 33 households turned out and duly voted. The parish officers would be elected, Church wardens and sidesmen, and Constable. Being elected constable might be something of a nightmare, given that you were meant to keep order at chucking out time with nothing more than a croquet mallet and a stick of celery, but what the heck, your fellow parishioners had trusted you!

It is interesting to speculate what impact this, and the participatory aspects of local justice had on English political thought. It’s a long way in the future, but in the 1640s, the Levellers will produce some genuinely radical political thoughts, and it’s fun to speculate, possibly mindlessly at this stage, that this experience of local democracy helped form those ideas. There is the odd solid link; one William Walwyn for example, would be  part of the Leveller movement, and before things kicked off with the civil wars and all that, there he was in his local parish demanding and getting a complete review and reformation of said parish by the people of the parish. Just a thought, as once advanced by one Beat Kumin, now a prof at Warwick, and so a thought with more authority than I could give it.

Most of the time here at the history of England, we spend our time talking about vertical relationships. Most of the time it is these horizontal relationships in the parish that meant most to people and filled their minds, and as you can see there are many positives. It has been said that if there ever was a Merrie England, then it was now, now being the late 15th century and early 16th centuries. When increasingly individual wealth led to spending on the fabric of the parish, when the ritual year was attended by a wider range of games and festivals, when a wide cross section of the parish held real authority, and collectively their voice could be heard as well as the great families of the parish. People realised that collective institutions bestowed more power on local communities than most individuals could muster on their own.

There is a but coming, I know you can hear the but. In fact there are many buts, we live in a world full of buts in fact. Some of those butts relate to not getting carried away with the beauty of all of this, part of it is that where we stand now, mid 16th century, we are in the flightpath of change. To deal with the But. This varies a lot place to place. None of it removes many of the objections and complaints that would lie at the heart of the reformation; priests unable to say the liturgy, non- attendance at church, anti-clericalism, irritation with tithes, personal disputes. Late medieval society was not at home to Mr or Mrs Equality, or even the little equality children, it was deeply, deeply hierarchical. There can be no doubt that everyone knew who the really important people were among the church officers, and their influence would be duly larger. There are plenty of places where the CW themselves were a right little satan trying to boss the place and causing untold upset.

In addition, things were changing anyway with or without the reformation. One of these was the increasing differentiation made between deserving and undeserving poor. This is something usually associated with the post reformation, but as with many aspects of daily life charged to the account of post reformation England, the process was already underway. It is under the Yorkist kings that the concept of deserving and undeserving poor first begins to appear, and by differentiating between worthy and unworthy recipients, the foundation was laid for the violence of the response to the 16th century surge in population and poverty. We have mentioned the increasing secularisation of parish administration, and along with that are the signs of an increasing power of oligarchies – where it was always the most wealthy and powerful members of the local community who were elected to become the officers. In 1522-3, a body of five men administered affairs for Morebath parish; at Halberton, six men were elected to carry out the work of the parish. This is a small step; often these bodies remained elected by the whole parish once a year. But more frequently, these would be from the same families every year. And they would be from those families that occupied the front pews of the church; because there’s another change which is usually associated with much later, the arrival of box pews in church, and the allocation to specific families. That is a growing feature of the late middle ages.

That kind of brings us up to the point of the reformation, which would of course have such a dramatic effect on religious life; and on secular parish life too, which we will continue to explore in the future; for the moment we’ll take the story to where we are, mid century ish.

You will not be surprised to learn of course that religious life in the parish was deeply affected, in ways both large and small; the changes to the liturgy; to the physical space of the church, with the dramatic and colourful images whitewashed and removed, rood screen torn down, altars stripped. With the communion table set up in the centre of the church around which the congregation would gather together in line with the principle of greater participation at the heart of the protestant reformation, with the bible in English available to all and set in every parish church, with the interactive drama of the service in Cranmer’s Book of Common prayer, and the more frequent communion, taken in both kinds. These are the day to day changes that would have affected people’s everyday experience, and we have probably discussed them more than enough. To create a summary, the way music changed seems to me to be, rather crudely maybe, a useful metaphor. Where once the congregation in larger churches would once have heard a choir sing complex and beautiful polyphonic music, music with lots of voices with complex harmonies, after the reformation outside of the cathedrals those choirs would largely be gone; but the congregation would be participating, but in the much simpler mono phonic singing of psalms. You can grade me on the effectiveness of my metaphors.

I have also talked a lot about the reactions to the reformation on an individual level, so again I don’t propose to go into it again in great detail here. I have talked about the big outbursts of rage against the reformation – the Prayer Book rebellion in Cornwall, the Pilgrimage of Grace; but the majority of responses were parish by parish, it’s here where the reformation was implemented piece by piece through the 16th century. Priests and Churchwardens in their Parishes reacted in many different ways; often, they were reluctant to respond, and forced into action by the visitations particularly under Edward, on occasion even burying the beautiful objects they loved in the hope of better times. Rather less frequently they might be zealous in their adoption of the new rules. The same applies in reverse under Mary, though the impression again is that progress in replacing the lost artefacts of the old religion was swift. There is also a large swathe of dutiful conformity; one study by Caroline Litzenberger looked at St Michael’s church in Gloucester, and recorded a dutiful, and expensive, compliance with the constantly changing edicts. St Michael’s appears to have been a parish whether the concern of the Churchwarden was to make sure they provided a consistent and vital centre to the religious life of their city[3] whatever the p[articular changes coming in, and there were probably many of those. And then there’s a sort of avoidance, a ‘don’t bother me just trying to keep the authorities off their back’. So here’s a nice example from the churchwardens of Suffolk. You may know that there was quite a fuss about vestments under Edward, with some demanding that ministers should be wearing very ordinary clothes, to avoid the appearance of the catholic, priestly intercessionary role; the argument foccsed on the use of the Surplice. Clearly in this example Suffolk they did want to comply, but did not want to cause trouble either. They reported to their Archdeacon that ‘the minister does not usually wear the surplice, nor does he refuse to wear it’ [4]which is an impressive peace of diplomatic speak to avoid answering a question.

Whatever the reaction of the parish and its inhabitants, one clear impact of the reformation was to increase the potential for conflict over the religion – in which of course the story of the  Parish would reflect the story of the nation, which is to once more emphasise the importance of the parish for understanding the lives of most people I think. Some priests would find themselves in conflict with their own congregations for negligence…or in conflict for excessive zeal. This is a feature which does not go away; a vicar in Wiltshire in 1686 for example, found himself in trouble with both the profane and the passionate dissidents. One day he came back to his porch to find it

‘Shamefully polluted with human excrements…to the near quantity of a barrowfull, which they had laid against a door and also filled the keyhole’.

Little tiny but gross. But I am quite interested in the mechanics of collecting a barrowful of human excrement. I hope maybe the shades of our Wiltshire vicar will feel a little mollified by the fact that his pain is still remembered and sympathised over all this time later. Spare him a thought in your day ahead.

There is some debate about the impact of the reformation on participation and power in the parish, and we start again with the howl of pain that accompanied the destruction of 30,000 parochial chantries in 1548, the end of confraternities; 20,000 chapels; half of the 500 almshouses closed. There’s no doubt that there was a significant impact on the jobs available for members of the parish, and particularly for women and poorer households with the loss of the confraternities; over the reign of Elizabeth, the trend towards the oligarchy of the better off was enhanced. This has been at the heart of the historiography of the death of Merrie England. However, there are some other factors to bear in mind. One was that greater stratification of parish society was an existing trend well before the reformation, which we have discussed a little. Secondly, it is difficult to underestimate the importance of Population growth in the second half of the 16th century, and the turmoil this creates; including the early appearance of the economic and social freedoms and polarisations of capitalism. The point is once again that as far as social change is concerned, religious Reformation is just one piece of the puzzle.

And then in other ways, more opportunities for involvement appeared; as the 16th century wore on, new jobs were created in the parish as the state began to intrude more into Parish life. For example, In 1555, all parishes were required to appoint a surveyor of highways; two years later they acquired the responsibility to provide and maintain weapons for the militia. The Constable, armed with his croquet mallet and stick of celery would be transformed into local administrators for the local Justice of the Peace. More parochial charities would be formed, and of course the reform and enhancement of the poor law would require a Supervisor of the Poor. When all is said and done, though, the super summary is that the politics of the parish tended towards the concentration of power into smaller elites as 16th Century turned into 17th century, with the appearance in some parishes of the closed vestries, citadels of power of the well-off. As time goes on, there begins to be an increasing sense of separation between elites and the poorer household. The language changes, with the creation of a language of identity that separated the elite from what they termed the vulgar sort. A culture of politeness will take hold with which the poor are sidelined, and attitudes from elites to poor become more of condescension and even fear. Which we’ll come back to when we get there, just giving you a sneak peek of the delights in store for you all.

If the late medieval and 16th century world began to see the creation of greater social hierarchies, what did that mean for the poorer household? First of all it’s important to be wary of a simple definition of hierarchies into the economic, of a difference between rich and poor; just like your neighbourhood wherever you are, there are currents and eddies of enormous complexities, based on gender, family, age, social status, economic stats, religion and all. Economic or social status was not the be all and end all. For example, if we go back to the example of the village of Highly, the jury of the Manorial court drew on participants all across the social range; interestingly, the office of churchwarden was held at various times by a servant and cottagers, as well as the yeomen. Essentially you can see that access to offices was quite open. In Chester, the hierarchy was reflected in the pews in the church, and there were more hierarchies more deeply extended than Highly, as you might expect in a town with a greater population, but they were also more clearly defined. Offices however, were still broadly distributed across social groups.

Nebulous concepts of neighbourliness were also important, a concept which recognised reciprocal obligations whatever your status; those that failed to meet the standard like Richard Bowerhouse ‘an unquiet and turbulent person among his neighbours’ should accept reproof, and like one Cheshire villager declare themselves willing

‘that all such matters be laid away so as they might live in love and charity as becomes good Christians to do’[5].

It is an important, ever present concept; but it would be difficult to argue, though, that the idea of neighbourliness trumped the realities of power, status and position; rather it moderated reactions to conflict and the extent of that conflict. But it sat aside a more powerful concept, that of custom. Custom my old friend, we have come to speak with you again, for I guess it is something that has raised its handsome head constantly, and a good thing too. Do you remember at work all those extraordinarily tiring people who announce that the phrase ‘but we’ve always done it that way’ is a bad phrase and to be avoided? That if you dare say such a thing you will be cast into outer darkness along with Lister and Rimmer? Well, next time someone says that, you may pipe up and tell them huh, ‘it’s a good job you’re not living in the 16th century, you’d really suck there’. How effective that will be as a put down line I am not prepared to say, but if you do try it, I would love to hear how it went. I mean, really. Anyway, my point is that custom, we’ve always done it this way is a good thing in the 16th century. And the less powerful knew that custom was one of their most powerful allies in the never ending battle against the rich and powerful. The constant presence of courts in peoples’ lives – there are loads of them, as we will come to – meant that, as I have previously mentioned, folks were thoroughly well versed in their use. And villagers would often challenge their betters in the court if they flouted what they believed to be local custom. That was often difficult to establish, because rarely was it written down, but tellingly, when it was accepted, it was usually a trump card. When it was successfully deployed, the evil innovator and stealer of souls, who of course these days are called the Middle Classes or the Bourgoisie, embodiment of all that is wrong with the world, would be required to slink back to their fetid lair. Fetid, there’s a word. For and example At Wigston in Leicestershire 31 copyholders fought their lord at law. They insisted that their customary tenure allowed them to buy their holdings. The case went on for 21 years, yes, 21 years until eventually one day said landlord threw up his arms and flounced, finally allowing the tenants to buy their darned holdings, see if I care. And there was much rejoicing, and again presumably much ale.

Challenge and resistance might not be as dramatic as going to court; it might be passive, or dumb insolence, which as every teenager knows is a highly effective tactic. One morning then, when a bright new landlord took possession of a group of manors in Yorkshire and Northumberland, they sent out surveyors into the countryside to discover what the land was like, what customs applied, rents paid and so on. To their enormous frustration, the surveyors were received with silence and avoidance, and could find out nothing. Resistance could be more overt. Let me take you to Osmington in Dorset, where the villagers were in furious dispute with their landlord. One morning when the landlord left his house, he was confronted by a clear and resent understanding of his tenants opinion of him, and what they would like to do with him. They had erected the gallows outside his house. In defence of custom, then, many villagers viewed the agents of economic and religious change as dreadful innovators, and the work of ‘rich men’, and ‘Gentlemen’ [6] and however we emphasise the complexities of parish politics and the different groups, it’s hard to deny that one constant theme was very much about kicking against the hierarchy.

On that line, there is a healthy historiography about the bright thread of popular resistance to authority and in defence of the rights of the common man which runs through English history, and a fine historiography it is. However it is sadly also true to say that the association between popular revolt and radicalism is not strong before the civil war. I mean it is there; we might think of John Ball and his ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, when was then the Gentleman’; we might think of the complaints of the people of  Lincolnshire when deserted by their Gentry in the early days of the Pilgrimage of Grace. And where we stand then, around mid-16th century, we are nearing the end of a very turbulent period of popular rebellion, with the Commotion Time of 1549 in particular,



so you might look at me strangely when I say that radicalism was not a strong part of popular history to the point. But my point is that a notable feature of all sorts of popular rebellion, including the Commotion Time and Pilgrimage of grace, is actually just how conservative they are. Despite the ever increasing fear among the better off of the ‘many headed monster’ of the poor, in fact the majority of rebellions and lesser resistance was about stopping innovation, returning to the way things were, about the primacy of custom, and the way we have always done things. They owed a lot to what E P Thompson would refer to as a ‘moral economy’ in reference to 18th century food riots. In the views of most people, decisions should be fair, should in accordance with law and in accordance with custom. When these rules were transgressed by those in power and rebellion occurred, articulations of these moral laws and customs were drawn up by the rebels, like the Mousehold articles in Norwich, and the demands of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Rebellions are conducted with great orderliness, every effort taken to curb excesses, and strenuous attempts made to stress that they meant no violence to the rights of the monarch, who had simply been badly advised.

So there is a commonality across most forms of resistance whether a local enclosure riot or a large scale protest such as 1549. But it would equally be wrong to view the rebels as purely innocent, pure and clean seekers after the revealed and obvious truth. First of all, custom was rarely clear and simple – it was fiercely contested. Secondly, people were perfectly capable of popping a smidge of self interested innovation into the pie. It’s a bit later than our period, but in 1621, the copyholders of Durham fought against the miners of Newcastle. Their claim was of a rightful resistance to the innovation of mining against their customary manorial rights. However, mixed in there was also an entirely innovatory claim to their monopoly of transportation rights of coal in their lands. Under the radar, custom was evolving, and it was not just the rich and powerful who were capable of exploiting that for their own gain.

Given the weakness, then of the instruments of coercion of the Tudor state – no standing army or police force for starters – you might well wonder why on earth there wasn’t simply an explosion of rebellions, especially against the background of increasing dearth for a large section of the population as the number of poor grew, as we have discussed earlier. Especially since, as you are hopefully beginning to see, that there is a sort of political space emerging in the parish. The phrase political space is one used more commonly in later Elizabethan and the 17th century national context of the growth of pamphlets, and ballads and chap books and other commonly available forms of public communication. But at the parish level it’s a consciousness that’s already beginning to grow, so why did people not exercise that joint power more than they did? And in fact the movement was away from popular rebellion. Although there are events in Elizabeth and Jacobean England, they are much smaller and there is nothing of the scale of Commotion time or PoG. The answer is a mosaic. As I have mentioned, although the poor vs elite narrative seems a common thread, there were others where loyalties and values crossed and trumped such a boundary. The moral education and restraint of the young was one, religious allegiances was another. There were common cultural ties such as the expectations of neighbourliness, and the culture of deference, the habit of participation inherent in the parish offices and systems, or indeed the distractions of shared festivals. The availability of forums like the manorial or church court allowed a non violent route to express dissent.  And the poor knew that they could also play and manipulate hierarchies, though by doing so they implicitly strengthened them, and participated in them. So by accepting the hierarchies, those further down the scale could successfully negotiate concessions; in 1534 for example, Henry VIII was forced to withdraw his forced loans; on local levels, enclosure might be moderated or stopped.

Plus, the economic changes were removing some of the mechanisms to rebellion, and this, popped at the end of the episode might well be the biggest emerging change of all. Robert Askew, leader of the pilgrimage of Grace, was a lawyer. Robert Kett of the Commotion Time in 1549 East Anglia was a yeoman, a better off member of the village. All through the rebellions of late medieval and early 16th century England, it was the middling sort that initiated and lead riot and rebellion. Their identity was often strongly on the side of the villagers, they felt a powerful responsibility to lead. This changes; the yeomanry and middling sort begin to identify with the social elites. As the 16th century grew older, as wealth among landowners grew, as the opportunities of capitalism began to appear, the middling sort began to be no longer willing to lead in that way anymore – they had too much to lose, and indeed too much to gain. This has impacts on all sections of society, and changes attitudes among poorer members of society. It’s a story maybe for the 17th century, but there is a corresponding move for wage labourers towards self reliance and independence, the spirit of provide and of make shift and mend. Greater social mobility would deliver benefits as well as challenges for the poorer members of the parish, and that spirit of independence and individualism would be a feature of English rural attitudes constantly remarked on by contemporaries. But that is for another day.

[1] Burgess, c ‘Time and Place’ in Burgess & Duffy Eds, The Parish in Late Medieval England p9

[2] Kumin, B ‘Time and Place’ in Burgess & Duffy Eds, The Parish in Late Medieval England p105

[3] Litzenberger, C; ‘St Michael’s Gloucester, 1540-8 – the cost of Conformity’ in French, Ed ‘The Parish in English Life 1400-1600’ pp230-249

[4] Wrightson, K; ‘The Politics of the parish in EM England’ in Griffiths Ed ‘The experience of authority in EM England’ p28

[5] Wrightson, K; ‘The Politics of the parish in EM England’ in Griffiths Ed ‘The experience of authority in EM England’ p18

[6] Wood, A ‘Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in EM England’, p9

8 thoughts on “282 Parish and Protest

  1. Hello David,
    This podcast was such a lovely gem. I listened to it while walking my dog through our parish. It might even topple the Bridge at Montereau – one of my absolute favourites:).

    Best wishes.

    1. That is so lovely of you, thank you for taking the trouble to let me know. It does worry me that the byways of English society will lose people who’d like more of the politics, so I am very glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Lovely, as always. Am enjoying the foray into the life of the people before the monumental task of taking on Herself.

    I’m not sure the music metaphor worked, though. Well, as a metaphor, but not based on the actual development of music in the churches.

    My thinking is that at most churches the general unwashed went to, there wouldn’t be choirs and polyphonic music. Too expensive. They might have music in the form of the priest chanting a psalm, but with little to no congregational participation. With the reformation, the simple monophonic English congregational singing you described would have come.

    In the churches of the high-falutin’, choirs and polyphony were there and likely stayed there, with maybe some of the monophonic added for liturgical purposes.

    Which is a wordy way of saying that the transformation of the metaphor probably didn’t happen, because they were taking place in different locations.

    Or something like that. What do I know, never having read the History of Myddle? 🙂

    I found an interesting article on music and the reformation that talks about some of this. It shows that the English Reformation took the middle path between the Lutherans and the Reformed Church of Calvin and company. http://www.breakpoint.org/2017/11/the-reformation-and-music/

    Anyway, thanks for all you do and bringing this up so this retired choir director/composer could wander through his church music byways for a little bit

    1. Hi Jon, and thanks for the article link which I enjoyed. I suspect you will know much more than I, and yes it’s a rather imperfect metaphor. I agree many rural churches of course would never have had such choirs and there is a strong tradition of polyphonic music that continues in English cathedrals. Does it work better to might say then that complex music was frowned on during the English reformation and became less widespread; while psalms sung by the whole congregation became more common?

  3. Hi again David! And thank you for another excellent, enjoyable episode! I just love (LOVE!) how you combine serious research and deep thought with such an accessible, personable presentation! Anyway, you mentioned the role of the parish church in local festivals and dramatic types of presentation. In the book “Time’s Anvil”, Richard Morris traces a connection between the Reformation, with its related suppression of such activities, and the development of Elizabethan theater. Using parish life as a lens through which to understand the larger society is brilliant – I look forward to your piece on family life! (BTW, have you considered gathering all your podcast transcripts and publishing them as a book or books?)

    1. Hi Susanno, and thank you! One of the most interesting things I read was that Elizabethan Reformers didn’t exactly dislike theatre; it’s just that they grew to think that religion was not a suitable subject matter for theatre. And so as a consequence, theatre was at once restricted from covering religious themes; and liberated from a straitjacket allowing it to expand it’s range. That for me was one of those ‘lightbulb’ moments!
      Thanks for the book reccomendation – I will look it up!
      I have thought of a book, but honestly, I don’t have any special insights that would warrant it really. And after I read Robert Tombs’ book, ‘The English and their History’ I am doubly convinced, because it is so good. I think podcasting is my medium! Anyway, thanks again for your kind comments, and glad you are enjoying the podcast!

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