Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king

Brodie Waddell

Welcome to the 94th edition of Carnivaleque! Today we will be introducing you to a wonderfully motley menagerie of historical blogs and bloggers.

Finding any overall unifying theme is impossible with a collection of this sort, but there are a few key subjects that emerged from the nominations, each of which receives a section below:

  • The historian as detective
  • Bodily functions
  • A venerable criminal enterprise
  • Places, spaces and sites
  • Thinking about the historian’s craft

I think it is particularly interesting what’s not in the links below, namely kings and queens and ‘great battles’, the traditional material for popular histories. Not that political history and military history are entirely absent, just that they are approached from a different direction than usual. Although there are a few of gentlemen and noblewomen as well as a famous scientist, the vast majority of the nominated posts are focused on people who would have been largely excluded from textbooks written fifty years ago. What should we make of this? Is old-fashioned ‘top down’ history dying off? Or is it just that the type of people who read this blog and pay attention to Carnivaleque are predisposed against reading yet another story about Henry VIII and his wives or Charles I and his parliaments? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

However, before wandering into the carnival below, take a look at this truly heart-warming short animation that tells the tale of ‘the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, 1590’, a German werewolf. For more details, see the two posts at LOLManuscripts, but in the meantime, watch the video and be amazed.

Now, on with the show…

Continue reading

‘For yee lead your liues in great ignorance’: Puritan Ponderings on the Patchwork of Popular Belief

Jonathan Willis

What exactly did people believe in post-reformation England?  That deceptively simple question really goes to the heart of much of the ‘post-revisionist’ scholarship currently being generated by historians of the English reformation.  Whether the object of study is angels, the landscape, music or death, one underlying questions remains the same: what does this thing, this practice, this shred of belief tell us about the broader tapestry of post-reformation religious identity?  Tapestry is a reasonable metaphor – I’m going to refrain on this occasion from extending it too far, and talking about warps and wefts – but patchwork 3388735664_a77e48d15a_zis a better one, the term coined by Tessa Watt in her brilliant book Cheap Print and Popular Piety.[1]  Once or twice when teaching this I have actually taken to drawing an imaginary ‘patchwork’ on the whiteboard.  So what do we call the hypothetical individual, who believes he will be justified by faith but also thinks that if he doesn’t confess his sins he could be condemned to hell for them?  What about his wife, who sings metrical psalms and hates the pope but believes God to be physically present in the consecrated host?  And however we define such individuals, can we also reasonably group them together?  It is possible to recognise their difference, and at the same time claim they are one and the same?

So tapestry is OK, patchwork is better: palimpsest works pretty well too.  Tangentially, I wonder why so much of the metaphorical language we use to describe identity formation (there’s another one) is rooted in the everyday materiality of art and craft.  Our ability to label individual belief in the past seems inversely proportional to the amount we know about it.  I suppose that is a fairly natural state of affairs.  Complexity breeds complexity, and moulds certainty into uncertainty.  But the job of the historian is (I think) not just to (re-)present the past, but also in some sense to try to make sense of it.  So, for AG Dickens the majority of people in Elizabethan England were recognisable as Protestants; for Eamon Duffy they were perhaps traumatised Catholics; for Christopher Haigh, stiff-necked Parish Anglicans; for Judith Maltby, committed Prayer-Book Protestants; for Watt, their culture was ‘distinctively post-Reformation, but not thoroughly Protestant’; while for Robert Delumeau, the people of early modern Europe were probably not even thoroughly Christian.

I was reminded of the value of taking a step back from all of this the other day, while reading a treatise by William Perkins that I had never looked at in detail before.  Perkins,Picture1 probably most famous as the author of A Golden Chaine, and more famous still for the infamous diagram of salvation contained within it, was a prolific writer of theological and devotional tracts: the work in question is his The foundation of Christian religion gathered into sixe principles.[2]  The work begins with an address ‘to all ignorant people that desire to be instructed’, followed by a list of almost 30 erroneous ‘common opinions’ which Perkins goes on, throughout the text, to correct.  Reproducing this list in its entirety would be a little excessive, but let me pick and talk about a dozen or so points which seem to me to be particularly pertinent to the present discussion:

1 That faith is a mans good meaning & his good seruing of God.

3 That yee haue beleeued in Christ euer since you could remember.

11 That it is an easier thing to please God than to please our neighbour.

12 That yee can keepe the Commandements, as well as God will giue you leaue.

Taken together, these points seem to express a frustration at the laity’s lack of intellectual engagement with the concept of faith.  That is not to say that their faith was not complex, but it was certainly not structured in the reflective, self-conscious way demanded by men such as Perkins.  Ironically, it seems that Puritan divines would have preferred a little less fiducia and a little more credentia from the laity: a faith based less in instinct, trust and emotion, and rather more in knowledge and intellectual acceptance.  The most difficult (and therefore the most important) aspect of religion from the laity’s perspective was in striving to live according to the principles of Christian charity: God, in whom they had faith from their earliest years, was a comforting constant.  And yet many of the laity had a strong sense that it was ultimately possible to be good and to do good things, and that such behaviour was pleasing to God.  Elsewhere, Perkins also complained about those who felt that by reciting the Decalogue they were praying, and serving God.

7 That, if anie be strangely visited, hee is either taken with a Planet, or bewitched.

This I think is a useful reminder that popular belief was not straightforwardly Christian: it contained a mixture of folklorish, traditional, pagan and other elements.  In this sense it was a true patchwork.

13 That it is the safest, to doo in Religion as most doo.

14 That merry ballads & bookes, as Scoggin, Beuis of Southampton, &c. are good to driue away time, & to remoue hart quames.

20 That drinking and bezeling in the alehouse or tauerne is good fellowship, & shews a good kinde nature.

Popular religion in the broadest sense was above all a communal activity, not an individual or even a family or household one.  The reformation did not fundamentally change this, except perhaps amongst those who were the most literate in the new religious language.  Even then, perhaps all it did was change the nature of the society with which those individuals of advanced faith sought to surround themselves.  Good religion was to be expressed in good fellowship and good cheer, as much in the alehouse as in the church, as much with a lusty ballad as a reverent Psalm.  ‘Hart quames’ for most people were to be banished with a merry ballad, not meditated upon as a means to repentance and the enrichment of a saving faith.

9 That a Preacher is a good man no longer than he is in the pulpet. They thinke all like themselues.

 18 That yee know al the Preacher can tell you: For he can say nothing, but that euery man is a sinner, that we must loue our neighbours as our selues, that euery man must bee saued by Christ: and all this ye can tell as well as he.

 17 That a man which commeth at no Sermons, may as welbeleeue, as he which heares all the sermons in the world.

 16 That a man neede not heare so many Sermons, except he could follow them better.

28 That a man need not haue any knowledg of religion, because he is not book learnd.

Finally, from the perspective of both the clergy and majority of the laity, a wide gulf existed between the two.  The reformation certainly contributed to a widespread anti-clericalism, that is to say, an opposition to the clerical pretensions of the new godly graduate clergy.  Complicated sermons were for educated people: the unlearned had nothing to gain thereby, because they already grasped the essentials of the faith: that all men were sinners, must be saved by Christ, and had an obligation to be charitable to their neighbours.  This was all well and good as far as it went, but of course for Perkins and others there were nuances, complexities, caveats and implications without which these broad truisms were worse than meaningless.  Such intellectual religion was unpopular in all senses: it was not for the great mass of people, who could profit more from each other’s good fellowship than a lengthy diatribe from the pulpit.

FoundationThe thing I’d like to draw from all this is that occasionally it is possible to lose sight of the wood for the trees.  While it can be extremely interesting to interrogate popular belief in minute theological and intellectual detail, it is not always the most productive path to follow (there are of course many, many exceptions).  For, by doing so, we can end up unwittingly forcing a resolutely anti-intellectual form of belief into a (for want of a better word) Perkinsian framework, and thereby doing it some violence, and just a little injustice.  We must remember that popular belief was both simple and complex, both patchwork and quilt.  It may be made up of innumerable diverse fragments, but it also had simple key priorities and a clearly defined basic form.  Each quilt may be unique, but quilts are also recognisably the same: a quilt is a quilt, and not a cushion cover, or a wall-hanging.  Identity is full of contradictions, but not all contradictions have to be resolved.  We each of us probably live with a series of competing and contradictory impulses and beliefs held in a kind of creative tension with one another, and the people of early modern England were probably no different.


[1] (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), p. 327.

[2] And it is to bee learned of ignorant people, that they may be fit to hear sermons with profit, and to receiue the Lords Supper with comfort (1591), STC2: 19710.

REED all about it III: Some musings on music and the micropolitics of Sabbath-breaking in Jacobethan Lancashire

Jonathan Willis

One sunny afternoon last July, the University of Birmingham’s Edgsbaston 295393_10151929538030109_359375196_ncampus played host to some rehearsals by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.  Cellos, violas, tubas and trombones were scattered liberally throughout the Arts Building, and the history department itself played host to the trumpet section.  Hearing (fainter) strains of music in the department is not an uncommon occurrence, as there are student rehearsal rooms in other parts of the building.  This is usually quite enjoyable, even if it occasionally adds a melodramatic quality to meetings or supervisions.  Whether at work or home, we have all probably at some stage encountered some form of music which has permeated our environment uninvited.  Sometimes, as with the NYO or Birmingham’s budding undergraduate virtuosi, this can be an unexpected source of pleasure.  But in other situations, it can be distracting, disruptive, or downright offensive.  Uncleanness, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously observed in her 1966 work on Purity and Danger, is ‘matter out of place’.[1]  In the same way, musical sound in the wrong spatial or chronological context can easily cross the rubicon of taste and order and become a provocative and clamorous noise.  If this is still true in the sound-proofed, double-glazed, cavity-wall insulated, noise-cancelling-headphone-wearing twenty-first century, then it was even truer in the sixteenth, where both welcome and rogue sounds must have travelled with much greater volume, clarity and conspicuousness. Continue reading

A seventeenth-century Christmas: mince pies, jollity and witchcraft

Brodie Waddell

Between the large stack of papers to mark and an increasingly nocturnal ten-month-old, the planned post on microhistory has had to be postponed until the new year. However, the season calls for at least one celebratory tribute to the peculiarities of early modern Christmastide. The case of Oliver Cromwell and the mince pies has already been discussed at length elsewhere, so I suppose I’d better share another serendipitous discovery from the archives.

This time of year had long been a season of charity and hospitality. As Ronald Hutton has shown, the Twelve Days of Christmas were an occasion for feasting but also giving. He quotes Thomas Tusser, the sixteenth-century poet-farmer:

At Christmas we banquet, the rich and the poor,
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door.1

The ‘better sort’, ranging from well-off villagers to the richest nobles, showed their generosity by inviting neighbours to dine with them and by giving alms to the poor. Or at least that is how it was supposed to work.

But a court case from Devon suggests that the season was not always so jolly. Here it seems a failure of seasonal good spirits had dire consequences. Sarah Byrd of Luppitt, testifying in 1693, tells the story: Continue reading

Norwich Entertainments – Part V: Ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee

Brodie Waddell

The people of late seventeenth-century Norwich did not get their entertainment solely from hairy children and pieces of plays. They also amused themselves with the ever-growing numbers of printed works that were pouring from the presses at that time.

In June 1680, for example, the Norwich Mayor’s court ordered that ‘Twoe Ballad singers haveing Lycence to Sell ballads, pamphlets small bookes & other bookes Lycensed from the Office of the Revells have leave to doe soe until Monday senight [?seven-night]’.1

Ballad entitled ‘An Excellent New Sonnet On the Goddess Diana and Acteon’ (c.1725-69). EBBA.

Title-page of a chapbook titled ‘The Life and Death of Fayr Rosamond’ (1755). SF.

These balladeers were just two of the hundreds that traipsed through the city streets and country lanes of early modern England, singing to advertise their wares. The exact contents of a peddler’s sack could be very diverse. In addition to all sorts of petty trinkets, they sold tales of drunken sailors, royal mistresses, industrious spinsters, and much else besides. Often these were in the form of broadside song sheets, but they might also be ‘pamphlets’ and ‘small books’, sometimes called chapbooks, written in prose to provide merriment or salvation for the price of penny or two. Margaret Spufford and Tessa Watt, among many others,  have discussed this ‘cheap print’ in much more detail, noting that ballad-sellers were often condemned by the authorities as vagrants. But in late seventeenth-century Norwich at least they seem to have been welcomed by both the townspeople and city officials.

Rather more unusual, however, was the license issued to a man a year earlier. In November 1679, the court declared that ‘Lawrence White is allowed to reade & sell Pamphlets on Horsebacke untill Wednesday next’.2 Continue reading

REED all about it – Part II: Angelic sheep-stealers, iconophobia, and the unaccountable longevity of ‘Merry England’?

Jonathan Willis

Last month I wrote a REED-related post about a minor scuffle at a church ale in Bere Regis in 1590, but this time I would like to highlight a more significant and well-known case, to my mind one of the real gems of the REED material: the controversy surrounding the performance of the Whitsun plays in Chester during the early 1570s.[1]  There was a rich history of sacred drama in Chester going back at least as far as the late fourteenth century, including plays to celebrate Easter, midsummer, and Corpus Christi.  By the sixteenth century, it was held that the ‘old and Antient Whitson playes’ held annually in the city were ‘first made Englished and published by one Randall Higden a monk of Chester Abbey, and sett forth and played at, and by the Citizens of chester charge In the time of Sir Iohn Arneway Knight, and Major of Chester Anno 1268’.[2]  In 1571-2 the plays were still going strong, and detailed guild accounts give a fascinating insight into both the performances themselves, and the degree of time, effort and resource which went into their preparation.  The Smiths, Cutlers and Plumbers’ Records for that year recorded 3d for equipment (a ‘touyle’), 1s 4d for casting costs (‘seekinge our players’), and 7s 8d worth of beef to sustain them ‘for our genrall rehearse’, along with two whole cheeses and spices for the meat.[3]   An amateur dramatics group, like an army, evidently marched on its stomach, as payments for bread over three separate rehearsal days totalled 4s 10d, and to quench the assembled thirst there was 10s worth of ale and 9d of small ‘beare’.  Alongside the players, payments were also made to musicians and minstrels, as well as 4s 2d ‘to the clergy for the songes’, implying a close relationship between the professional religious institutions of the city (quite possibly the choir of Chester Cathedral) and the amateur efforts of the trade guilds. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Norwich Entertainments – Part III: A medieval royal mistress in the 17th century and beyond

Brodie Waddell

In December 1677, the Norwich Mayor’s Court granted Elizabeth Soane a licence ‘to make shew of a Motion Called Fayre Rosamond until further order’.¹ Now here, finally, we have a clear reference to a well-known story. This play or ‘Motion’ must have recounted the life and death of one of England’s most famous royal mistresses, a surprisingly crowded field.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Fair Rosamund’ (1861), modelled by Fanny Cornforth (source: National Museum Cardiff via Wikimedia Commons)

‘Fair Rosamund’ was a woman named Rosamund Clifford (d. 1176?), a mistress to Henry II and subject of innumerable legends. Various tales claimed that that the king built a palace and labyrinth at Woodstock for her, that she was mother to an Archbishop of York and the Earl of Salisbury, and that she was poisoned by the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Sadly, none of these seem to be true.² Continue reading

Football and its enemies

Brodie Waddell

This is really a topic for my co-blogger, Mark, who actually follows football and knows something about its history. I’m sure he’ll speak up to correct me if I say anything too absurd.

Football has a long history in England, having been played in one form or another for at least a thousand years. The most famous medieval example is the Shrovetide match at Ashbourne (Derbys.) which continues to today. These were often very rough games with few rules:  broken bones were common and the whole parish might join in.

‘Mob football’, reportedly drawn in 1721 and depicting Crowe Street, London.

In the early modern period there were increasingly regularised matches, but there was also plenty of sporadic opposition from the authorities. They were sometimes associated with social protest, particularly riots against the enclosure or ‘improvement’ of common lands.

Heather Falvey (a fellow Hindlite) has come across some interesting cases of ‘rioting under the guise of football’ from the fifteenth century onwards, many taking place in the fens. In early 1699, for example, ‘an estimated 1,100 rioters attacked drainage works and enclosures in Deeping Level, just north of Peterborough’, having originally gathered ‘Under Colour & pretence of Foot ball playing’. And soon after, someone posted a notice inviting local people to ‘a Foot Ball play & other sports’ at the nearby village of Whittlesey, which the authorities believed was simply a cover for more unrest.¹

My own encounter with football at Whittlesey in the archives is sadly not quite so politically-charged. Instead, I came across it whilst trying to figure out how local people used manor courts in the early modern period. Trawling through the records of the court leet of the manor there, I came across the following order, dating from May 1759:

Whereas great Complaints have been made to the Jury of this Manor against a great Number of Young Persons who for some time past have practiced playing at Foot-Ball on the Market-hill whereby they have not only greatly damage the Slate-covering of the Market-Cross … by Climbing upon the said Roof to recover the said Ball; but also some of the Windows of the Adjoyning houses have been broken by their violently forcing a Ball against them And also have greatly obstructed the passage on the said Market-hill, by rendering it very Dangerous and unsafe for People, and especially for Women and Children to pass or Walk on the said Market-hill whilst such a Number of inconsiderate Persons were there rudely at play, Therefore in order to prevent the like irregularities for the future we do whereby Order that if any Person or Persons shall at any time … Kick any Ball to play at Foot-ball … on any part of the said Market-hill, such Person or Persons shall forfeit … 2s 6d²

Naughty boys breaking widows with an overeager kick of the football is hardly as dramatic as hundreds of people smashing up the fences of hated enclosers. Still, I rather like the idea that youth ‘rudely at play’ can turn a quiet street into ‘Dangerous and unsafe’ terrain. It’s also a useful example of the point I tried to make in my article on manor courts (gated; ungated): their records are packed full of weird and wonderful incidents and historians of early modern England should not dismiss them as decaying relicts of the middle ages. Finally, the attempt by local authorities to stamp out any trace of unregulated fun in the lives of ‘Young Persons’ has a shockingly contemporary ring to it.

Signs that can be found almost anywhere in England that might otherwise offer the possibility of a good casual football match.

I did, however, come across one case of football-related rioting during some recent archive-grubbing. In 1676, the Daventry Borough Assembly voted to pay for the charges of

the prosecution of such persons as have beene guilty or abbetting those persons that did concern themselves in playing att Footeball or in the Mutany or disturbance that did arise thereupon³

Without any context, it is not clear if this is an instance of social protest ‘under the guise of football’ or simply a case of seventeenth-century football hooliganism. Whatever the circumstances, the burgesses of Daventry saw a threat.


¹ Heather Falvey, ‘Custom, resistance and politics: local experiences of improvement in early modern England’ (PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2007), pp. 356-7. For earlier and later examples, see ibid., pp. 360-2. She also discusses the connection between rioting and football in her ‘Voices and faces in the rioting crowd: identifying seventeenth-century enclosure rioters’, The Local Historian, 39: (2009), pp. 148-9

² Cambridgeshire Archives, 126/M70, unfol. (May 1759).

³ Northamptonshire Record Office, ML 106, f. 34.

The Devil’s Church

Mark Hailwood

Early modern moralists were quick to condemn alehouses as ‘nests of Satan’, or as ‘the Devil’s church’ – places where impiety and irreligion were rife. The reality, as I will be demonstrating in my book, was that alehouse-haunting and godliness were not necessarily incompatible features of early modern life.

Whilst many ministers perceived themselves as locked in a ‘Battle for the Sabbath’, competing with the local alehouse to put bums-on-seats (or rather bums on pews and ale-benches) during Sunday services, the majority of parishioners seem to have found no great problem – or contradiction – in using their Sundays to congregate both at church and at the local drinking hole. Two diaries from relatively devout Christians—the Yorkshire yeoman Adam Eyre, written in the 1640s, and the Lancashire mercer Roger Lowe, written in the 1660s—both detail routine behaviour of stopping off for drinks either on the way to, or the way back from, a sermon or service. When faced with the seemingly existential choice between church and pub, the most common response was… both.

In fact, religion was a common topic of conversation around the ale-bench, and it is a couple of particularly striking examples of such exchanges that I want to share here, and invite your thoughts on.

The first took place on a December morning in 1656, in a Nottingham alehouse. William Bradshaw, a felt-maker, was discoursing with his companions about food and drink, when the conversation turned to what scripture had to say on the issue. Bradshaw said that ‘there was a saying in scripture that our Saviour fed 5000 men with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, which was as arrant a lie as ever was spoken’.

Jumping forward to 1681, and to the Somerset parish of East Pennard, near Glastonbury, the vicar of the parish, Mr Alisbury, was drinking in an alehouse with Joshua Swetnam, a local farmer. Their discussion came on to the subject of the Old and New Testaments, whereupon Alisbury offered his view that ‘they were not good but were both false and that there was not a good book but the common prayer book’.

We have two expressions here of unorthodox religious belief – but how unorthodox were they? Was Bradshaw’s denial of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand an instance of truculent plebeian cynicism, demonstrating a healthy dose of mistrust of authoritative discourses? Or was this felt-maker ‘pushing the envelope’ of Protestant theology, taking the official Protestant distrust of the possibility of contemporary miracles to its extreme, and denying the possibility of any of Christ’s miracles? And what about the vicar Alisbury’s rubbishing of both the Old and New Testaments? Was he just a confused drunkard (he did have a reputation for imbibing) who failed to see the contradictions in his statement, or was he simply a ‘hotter sort’ of ‘Prayer Book Protestant’ who exalted the book above even the Bible itself? Would his view have been shared by some of his parishioners, or were these the ramblings of a lone voice?

I’d love to hear from religious historians here – do these views chime with any of the broader trends in religious debates in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, or are these isolated outbursts of unorthodoxy whose origins will remain obscure?

There is a broader question about popular religion at stake here I think – what we might call, after Ginzburg’s famous ‘The Cheese and the Worms’, the Menocchio question – do discoveries such as these help historians of popular culture to tap into hidden veins of belief held by ordinary people, or do they represent the unrepresentative, and lead us up the garden path?