Beyond the Archives

10/20/2014 in British Isles, Parish Research Today, preservation and memory

Wymondham Abbey

I’ve taken a break from the archives: initially to finish writing my thesis and currently to intern at Norwich Cathedral as a parish heritage adviser, a strange feeling after spending the better part of three years traveling to England to spend as much time in archives as I possibly could. Bound by the limitations of studying medieval parish life while based in an American university, I never took for granted my visits to the record offices of England that held the records necessary to write my thesis. When I finally received the funding I needed to remain in England for several months to conduct full-time research, I prioritized the archives, dividing my time between the Norfolk Record Office, TNA, British Library, as well as record offices in Essex, Dorset and Wiltshire—perhaps not the most glamorous type of research according to some but for me an adventure. And yet, I admit that I also longed for human contact—a longing to talk to people about grassroots parish life, to see what I could learn from them that I couldn’t learn from archives. I wanted to spend time not just examining their churches and their documents but also experiencing community life that purported to carry on the same traditions as their medieval predecessors. So, once a week, I arranged to meet with parishioners who were active in the churches I was researching for my thesis on medieval monastic-parochial conflicts. And from there, I ventured into the world of ethnography, seeking to understand how parishioners understood and imagined their medieval past and how their perceptions have influenced how medieval parish history has been passed down to us.

Medieval history and ethnography seem an unlikely combination, yet a combination that can bring new voices into the academic conversation about parish life, past and present. Endeavoring to understand how parishioners understand themselves and their communities’ histories—including the antiquarians and local historians who have written those histories—sheds light on the history that has shaped public and academic perceptions of the English parish church and community. What does the medieval past mean to parishioners today who actively care for and worship in these medieval churches, and how do they identify with that past? I first came to these questions in the second year of my PhD studies as I sought to narrow down my thesis topic, faced with the challenge of deciding how best to approach grassroots medieval religious practice when churchwarden accounts for Norfolk were few and far between. Frustrated with the paucity of documents available in the States to get me started on a topic that would eventually require on-the-ground research, my supervisor suggested a rather unorthodox method of finding my topic: sifting through boxes of his collection of English parish church guidebooks. I spent an entire day sat on the floor of my study, surrounded by these guidebooks, my excitement growing from my realization that these taken-for-granted books provided precisely the human element I was looking for in the English parish church—the belief that these parish communities’ identities had roots in the past, roots in the fabric of their medieval churches, and these present identities were relevant to my historical research of the medieval past. The topic that emerged from this day of guidebook research was the function of conflict in creating parish community identity and collective memory. Beginning with medieval monastic-parochial conflicts and the churches that emerged from parishioners’ success in their riots against monks, I continued with an exploration of antiquarian and current parish histories that point to these conflicts as defining moments for their current building and community. Most rewarding about this research is how it resonates with people today, whether or not they have any knowledge of medieval monastic-parochial life. When I explain my thesis to churchgoers of various denominations in England and the United States, they almost always have a story about conflict over church space and embellishment—whether over the color of the carpet, the type of wood used to build the new altar, or pew cushions. And such conflicts did not entail mere quibbling amongst the decorating committee, but often resulted entire factions leaving the church. Indeed, the relationship between the church building and its community is not only potent but also enduring in grassroots religious life, a relationship that is quite evident in the pamphlets and booklets available in parish churches throughout the UK.

Returning to the ethnographic work I conducted when I was researching my thesis, I have begun to reflect upon what role I might have in shaping parishioners’ corporate conventions when I interview them about the relationship between their medieval and modern past, and am even more curious about this role as I currently assist parishioners in writing historical texts for their guides, not to mention when I choose which information from probate records to transcribe or the details from medieval documents I choose to present in public lectures about local history. Indeed, exploring the different ways parish churches’ medieval pasts are conveyed to the public also brings to the fore the academic’s role in complicating these histories and processes. Exploring a church’s history amongst those who are highly invested in it has allowed me to observe today’s parish communities—their practices as well as their relationships to the space of the church and its history—from the vantage point of the documents that record their medieval past. Whether or not medievalists are aware of this role, when we enter a church for the purposes of observing its medieval space, we cannot help but encounter a living, breathing, active parish church and community, whose everyday practices and experiences influence how we understand and encounter its medieval past. Apropos is Professor Robert Orsi’s study Between Heaven and Earth, in which he explains that scholars of religion explore “a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures together.” In the process, we become entangled in the networks of past and present through regular interactions with parishioners and their church’s history, and we inhabit this religious environment in palpable ways. During my visits to Wymondham’s parish church, I have researched to the sound of children singing during their weekly Noc Noc Club meeting as well as to the sound of the organ playing for an afternoon funeral. I have spent two hours wandering the aisles of the church with the chief steward as he narrated its history in great detail, and once managed to convince the Master Ringer to take me on a tour of the fifteenth-century west bell tower. And on one occasion, after I had explained my project to a churchwarden, he then asked the archivist to distribute details of the medieval conflict to the stewards so that they could explain it in detail during their tours. To be sure, by blending archival research with ethnography and even heritage consultancy, I am not just studying a church’s history and the shaping of that history, but I am, quite unintentionally, becoming a part of that shaping process. Even more, as historians of the parish, our very presence in these places of worship and heritage, and the work that we produce and disseminate, is likewise part of the shaping process of local perceptions of the past.

Kristi Woodward Bain, PhD (Religious Studies/Medieval History, Northwestern University)
Parish Heritage Adviser, Norwich Cathedral

1 response to Beyond the Archives

  1. Hello Kristi – your article is of interest because our medieval church needs a new booklet. It would be good to revise the approach taken, any ideas welcome, perhaps you could advise some reading material? or any booklets that have been innovative. Perhaps explaining space, procedures or articles still in use today which have medieval origins, thank you Jill Tompkins.

Leave a Reply