REED all about it – Part I: Fiddling at the Church Ale…

Jonathan Willis

This wasn’t originally going to be the first utterance of this particular newly-sprouted head of the many-headed monster, but Brodie’s recent musings ‘On the merits of dust‘ and the lively debate it sparked set me to thinking about one of my favourite short-cuts to a treasure-trove of brilliant archival material, the Records of Early English Drama series. REED (for short), for those of you who haven’t come across it, is an international project with its home at the University of Toronto. Since 1975 they have published almost thirty edited volumes bringing together collections of transcribed documentary material relating to drama, secular music, and community ceremonial and entertainments from the middle ages until the middle of the seventeenth century. Organised variously by city, county or region, these reassuringly sturdy big red books would be a handsome edition to any library or bookshelf (no, I’m not on commission), and even better many of them are also available to download in PDF format, perfectly legally(!), through the Internet Archive website. This is a top-notch published collection of manuscript material, gathered from record offices up and down the country, which is not only available in university libraries but also on your laptop, desktop or tablet.

‘All well and good’, you might say, ‘but what has this got to do with me?’ Early English drama is a rather narrow area of enquiry, albeit a fascinating one. But the diverse nature of the sources used makes the REED volumes an absolute goldmine for all sorts of incidental information. Take this case from the Deposition Book for Salisbury Deanery included in the Dorset and Cornwall volume of REED [1], which I stumbled across while looking for material relating to the capacity of music to sow the seeds of religious division in communities. The examinations of two husbandmen, Thomas Howlett and Geoffrey Phipper, together tell a sorry (and slightly amusing) tale of a clash between two very different religious cultures at a church ale in Bere Regis in 1590.

The gist of the matter is that Thomas Whiffen (a minstrel) was fiddling at the church ale, when Mr Woodknutt (the local vicar) came up to him ‘and disliked (as itt should seeme) of his playinge’. Whiffen put up his instrument, and that might have been an end to it, until Thomas Ffawkner/Ffawconer (one of the churchwardens) asked Whiffen to play again, with a promise that he ‘would aunswere itt’. Woodknutt called to another member of the parish, Harry Gerrard, for backup, and to witness Ffawkner’s words. Gerrard was clearly possessed of a fiery temperament, and at this point in the proceedings turned to Whiffen and ‘vttered and spake these wordes, viz he might haue byd away and not haue come there a fidlinge like an arrant knave he might better have byd att home a making of spleetes and bottoming of seeves like a cuckolde knave then to come here a troblinge of the parishe.’

REED (and perhaps history) does not record the outcome of the case, but Gerrard’s defamation of Whiffen was clearly motivated by something: either a clash of religious and festive cultures, a reaction against the dubious social status of the itinerant musician, or perhaps a personal animosity. The difference of opinion between Woodknutt – the vicar of Bere – and Ffawkner – one of the churchwardens of the parish – is also tantalising. REED is certainly not a substitute for stepping into an archive (dusty or otherwise), and it is both a strength and a weakness that it offers a very selective sample of material, but it does give us a sense of what was going on all around the country whilst also fitting in with some of the broad, thematically constructed topics that many of us work on from time to time. Finally, and on something of a tangent, I’d love to know if other people have come across insults involving the ‘making of spleetes and bottoming of seeves’…

[1] WRO, D5/22/2, ff 47v-48v, in Records of Early English Drama: Dorset and Cornwall, ed. Rosalind Conklin Hays, C.E. McGee, Sally L. Joyce and Evelyn S. Newlyn (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1999), pp. 123-5.

6 thoughts on “REED all about it – Part I: Fiddling at the Church Ale…

  1. I do enjoy a bit of subversive fiddling! So much so, the banner we chose for the blog (up top) and now my avatar (to the left) include a fiddler who is threatening enough to have a pistol waved at him.

    More seriously, thanks for highlighting REED. I knew that they’ve been doing great work, but I didn’t realise it was all online. My only complaint is that they end before the late 17th-century, the period I’m currently working on. Of course, if they continued to 1700, then they almost certainly would have already found all of the ‘Norwich Entertainments’ I’ve been posting about, which would have taken some of the fun out of it.

    – Brodie

  2. Thanks Brodie – I must have seen that banner dozens of times without properly looking at it, and I’d never really noticed the fiddler before! It is a shame that REED doesn’t span the seventeenth century, but as you say, it’s nice to know that there are still some hidden gems lurking undiscovered in the archives for the later period.

    REED is a wonderful resource though, and I’m hoping to post on them again at some point. It’s tailor made for UG and MA dissertation students, but I found it really useful for my PhD as well. Having already trawled around the country looking at churchwardens’ accounts in numerous country record offices, I didn’t fancy doing the same again, looking for occasional musical needles in humongous haystacks of legal and other records. The increasingly relaxed attitude of many archives towards digital photography is a big help in these situations, but in my experience it’s still not consistent across the board.

  3. Enjoyed this post, thanks Jonathan. Do the REED resources work in the same way as the Quarter Session Record transcriptions, in that they tend to give summaries of charges, individuals involved and punishments, but sometimes leave out the depositions? I recently went down to Somerset to chase up some QS references from their Record Office’s published QS books, and was astounded at the difference in detail from the ‘transcribed’ copy to the manuscript version. Just speculating whether the missing outcome of this awesome faith-based fiddling episode is not in some way related to the detail attached to the REED resources. I’ll definitely check them out for Bristol though.


  4. This tale brought to mind a case I encountered in the Somerset quarter sessions records. One day in early December 1656, Glastonbury man Walter Hamlin was at an inn in the nearby village of Wedmore when the innkeeper set upon him, and with the help of a number of other patrons ‘burned his fiddle’ and beat him about the head ‘with a flagon pot’. Again, further details are elusive, but I’m tempted to lean towards reading this as an instance of religious and festive cultures clashing. Given the date it was a time of highly charged cultural conflict (see Bernard Capp’s new book on ‘England’s Culture Wars’ of the 1650s), and perhaps the innkeeper and his heavies had reforming sympathies that underpinned a violent objection to Hamlin’s frivolous fiddle playing. If so, the burning of his fiddle would certainly have carried a powerful symbolism.

    – Mark

  5. Pingback: Blogging and the Day Job: Tales from the Blarchive | the many-headed monster

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