Saturday, November 23, 2013

Voices from the past

The Voices of Morebath, Eamon Duffy

The subtitle of this book is "Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village."  When I came across it at Half Price Books, it instantly appealed to me on several levels.  It is the history of a community over more than 50 years, covering the different phases of the Tudor Reformation, based on church archives, from a small village in Devon.  When I was in high school we lived in Devon for several months, in a small village, while my father was on a teaching exchange at the University of Exeter.  I don't know that we ever went to or through Morebath, in our rambles around Devon.  After reading this book, I'd like to visit someday.

The Tudor period was one of my areas of focus in college, though this book made it clear just how much I have forgotten in the years since.  I have never been lucky enough to work with archival documents from that era, though I have seen them in museums.  At Hatfield House a letter with Elizabeth I's signature was on display, which gave me goosebumps.  This book is based on a set of churchwardens' accounts, kept by Morebath's parish priest, Christopher Trychay, from 1520 until his death in 1574.  Eamon Duffy argues it is his voice that makes Morebath's accounts unique:
There are more than two hundred surviving sets of churchwardens' accounts from Tudor England, but none of them like Morebath's.  Almost everywhere else these accounts are what they sound like - bare bones, dry records of income and expenditure.  The Morebath accounts contain all that, but they are packed as well with the personality, opinions and prejudices of the most vivid country clergyman of the English sixteenth century, and with the names and doings of his parishioners.  Through his eyes, or rather through his voice, talking, talking, talking - for he wrote these accounts to be read aloud to his parishioners - we catch a rare and precious glimpse of life and death in an English village.
Duffy uses the Morebath records to introduce us to Morebath itself, to its priest Sir Christopher (I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that Catholic priests in England before the Reformation were called "Sir"), and to the people who made up the parish.  He uses the accounts to show a small community with close ties, centered in the church, particularly in the different "stores."  These were groups within the parish, one each for the young men and women, others dedicated to the Virgin Mary or other saints like the local Devon saint Sidwell.  The stores helped maintain the church through flocks of sheep communally raised, contributions, and community celebrations called "ales," which were the main source of funding in the year.  Parishioners were elected as wardens of the different groups on a rotating basis, women serving as well as men, and even the younger girls in the "Maidens."  All these groups provided an accounting at least once a year, which Sir Christopher recorded in the accounts, often in the words of the wardens themselves.

Morebath weathered the changes that came under Henry's reforms fairly smoothly, if a bit reluctantly at times.  Trouble came however during his son Edward's reign, which brought much more abrupt changes, including at one point the prohibition of church ales.  With the veneration of saints condemned, the "stores"  disbanded, the communal sheep flocks dispersed, and the parish lost its major funding sources.  As tensions over the changes mounted, Morebath sent five young men to the siege of Exeter in 1549, part of a rebellion that was convulsing the west of England.  The armed uprisings ended in bloody defeat for the rebels; only two of Morebath's are known to have returned home.  The accession of the Catholic Queen Mary relieved Sir Christopher if not to all his parishioners, but only a few years later her death brought Queen Elizabeth to the throne.  Here again, as under King Henry, priest and parishioners conformed to yet another series of changes in religious life, sometimes dragging their feet a bit, as when they hid vestments and images of the saints that had been removed from the church.  Duffy suggests that priests like Sir Christopher, who accepted the changes whatever their personal convictions, helped their parishioners to do so as well and moved the English Reformation forward, especially in Elizabeth's reign.  That isn't to say there weren't problems, especially over money.  Parliament under all of the Tudor monarchs passed levies to raise funds for war, with Scotland, France and Ireland. Without the money from the "stores," Morebath had to scramble to pay its share, selling everything they could from the church.  Eventually they were forced to rely on contributions from the wealthier parishioners.  Duffy shows how the lack of funding from the "stores" hurt the parish, and he argues that their loss weakened the community's bonds.

This was a really interesting, engrossing book.  It was not a quick read, and I was sometimes a bit lost among the villagers, their stores and flocks.  I really had to concentrate and pay attention, more than I usually do in reading for pleasure, but it was well worth the effort.  At times I even felt a sense of dislocation, moving from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first.  I particularly appreciated Duffy's succinct and balanced overview of the English Reformation.  In the end, I was sorry to read about Sir Christopher's death, which closes Duffy's account, and I found myself wondering how Morebath fared in the centuries that followed, and who lives there today.  I also found myself contrasting this book with another that I read recently, Jill Lepore's Book of Ages, also based on one individual's years of personal accounts, written 200 years after Sir Christopher's.  Both are social history, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary people, which in the past have been overlooked by historians focused on kings, statesmen, generals and popes.  Of course, one of the problems in chronicling "the short and simple annals of the poor" is that they tend to leave fewer records behind them.  The people of Morebath were lucky to have Sir Christopher as their chronicler.

I have to say, reading about the Tudor era brought the Lymond Chronicles very strongly to mind.  Of course, I'd have to get any re-reading done before the Triple Dog Dare kicks off on January 1st.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!