You are browsing the archive for Parish Research Today.

Open access to ‘Political Freedom’ collection

02/09/2016 in British Isles, Eastern Europe, Germany, Italian Peninsula, Media, officeholding and local government, Parish Research Today, The Alpine Territories

Front Cover Pic WebThe full text of the essay collection Politische Freiheit und republikanische Kultur im alten Europa (Vitznau, 2015) is now accessible online. Published last year to mark the bicentenary of the (temporary) restoration of the Swiss parish republic of Gersau in 1814, the volume includes studies of political freedom in Austrian, Swiss, German and Italian communities, thematic surveys of republican thought and constitutional conflict alongside two contributions in English: Ann Hughes on ‘Gender and Republicanism’ and Marc Lerner on ‘William Tell – The Material Culture of a Freedom Myth’. If you’d rather have a hardcopy, just drop me a line!


08/07/2015 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, genealogy and family history, households and the domestic environment, Italian Peninsula, landscapes and pilgrimage, Mediterranean, Other, Parish Research Today, Parish sources, preservation and memory, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories, towns and urban environment

When I visit the numerous churches and chapels in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland located south of the Alps, I am always struck by their extraordinary artistic and historical richness. One explanation is the flourishing of devotions and religious art which characterised most Catholic countries after the Council of Trent. This is certainly true especially in the Italian area, to whose cultural sphere the Ticino belonged (even though it fell under Swiss political control in the sixteenth century), but there are other reasons. In fact, a crucial further factor needs to be considered: migration. On the one hand, over the centuries, thousands of people associated with the building trades left their homes in the Lake Lugano region to practice their skills as architects, masons, master builders, stucco workers, stonecutters, sculptors and painters abroad. This phenomenon was generally seasonal and whilst staying in their villages, the artisans helped to build or embellish churches and chapels. On the other hand, many migrants associated with other professions donated substantial parts of their earnings to devotional and charitable purposes.

The migrants’ faith and generosity are still visible in many churches and chapels of these territories, particularly in the Pedemonte region, the Centovalli and in the villages surrounding the town of Locarno. Inhabitants of these places had migrated to different Italian cities – especially Livorno, Florence and Rome – for centuries. Exclusively men, they worked as porters (facchini), coachmen (vetturini), chimney sweeps and food-sellers (rosticcieri), to mention just a few professions. In Livorno and Florence they were even able to obtain the monopoly of the porterage trade.

The following pictures shall help to illustrate the impact of migration as it is still tangible today. (Click the thumbnails to enlarge the images.)

§ Figures 1, 2 and 3 – Chapel of S. Rocco (St Roch, 17th century) in the parish church of S. Maria Assunta (Assumption) in Tegna (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno)

On the balustrade of many chapels, and in one case even on a confessional box, we can often find the inscription “B.D.L”, an acronym which means “Benefattori di Livorno” (“Benefactors of Livorno”). The migrants active in Livorno gathered in groups and used to collect money for their parishes and brotherhoods.

§ Figures 4, 5, 6 and 7 – Chapel in Verscio (1740) (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno); and Our Lady of Montenero in Livorno (14th century)

References to migration and urban experiences also appear in specific devotions. In many churches of this region, even in small chapels deep in the forests, dozen of paintings depicting the Virgin of Montenero can still be found. Here we can see the original painting at Livorno and a very ‘rustic” copy in Verscio. The shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Montenero is located on a hill overlooking Livorno. The Madonna di Montenero, nowadays patron saint of Tuscany, was already widely venerated in seventeenth and eighteen-century century Livorno. In the chapel in Verscio, under the picture of the Virgin Mary and two further saints, we can see details of the port of Livorno (lighthouse and ships).

§ Figures 8, 9 and 10 – Parish church of S. Michele (St Michael) in Palagnedra (bailiwick and pieve of Locarno), Virgin of the Annunciation in Palagnedra (Lorenzo Cresci, altar piece, 1602) and Virgin of the Annunciation in Florence (fresco, 14th century)

A similarly imported devotion concerns the Virgin of the Annunciation of Florence. A copy of the famous and miraculous painting kept in the basilica of the Annunciation in Florence (fig. 8) can still been admired in the parish church of Palagnedra (fig. 9 and 10), a village in the Centovalli, also in the bailiwick of Locarno. This work of art was commissioned by migrants resident in Florence, as recorded in the inscription under the painting.

These are two very good examples of religious and devotional transfers. Further evidence can be found in rural brotherhoods, where migrants followed customs and devotions they had come across in major cities.


Adamoli Davide, Fratelli per l’eternità. Storia delle confraternite nei baliaggi sudalpini in epoca moderna, PhD presented at the Université de Fribourg and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano, April 2014 (forthcoming).

Beard Geoffrey, Stucco and Decorative Plasterwork in Europe, London, Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Damiani Cabrini Laura, Seicento ritrovato: presenze pittoriche “italiane” nella Lombardia svizzera fra Cinquecento e Seicento, Milano, Skira, 1996.

Gambi Lucio (ed.), “Col bastone e la bisaccia per le strade d’Europa: migrazioni stagionali di mestiere nell’arco alpino nei secoli XVI-XVIII: atti di un seminario di studi tenutosi a Bellinzona l’8 e il 9 settembre 1988”, in Bollettino storico della Svizzera italiana, vol. 103, fasc. I-IV, gennaio-dicembre 1991.

Muchembled Robert (ed.), Cultural exchange in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006-2007.

Orelli Chiara, “Migrazione e mestiere: alcuni percorsi di integrazione nelle città lombarde e toscane di “migranti” dalla Svizzera italiana (secoli XVI-XVIII)”, in Meriggi Marco, Pastore Alessandro (ed.), Le regole dei mestieri e delle professioni, secoli XV-XIX, Milano, Franco Angeli, 2001.

Rüsch Elfi, I monumenti d’arte e di storia del Canton Ticino IV, Distretto di Locarno IV (La Verzasca, il Pedemonte, le Centovalli e l’Onsernone, Berna, Società di storia dell’arte in Svizzera SSAS, 2013.

Ermatingen – Europe’s Biconfessionality Champion

05/31/2015 in drink and sociability, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories, theology and church doctrine

Few parish churches can be more ‘remarkable’ than St Albin at Ermatingen in the Thurgau region of north-eastern Switzerland. Originally ruled by the abbot of Reichenau in southernmost Germany, the area became subject to the Swiss cantons in 1460. The latter acted as overlords with high jurisdiction, but the lower rights remained in the abbey’s hands (before they passed to the Diocese of Konstanz in 1540). Substantially rebuilt in the 1480-90s (main picture), the church boasts a fourteenth-century St Catherine chapel and a commanding view over the Untersee lake.

Ansicht v Hauptstr (Bausubstanz 1490)

In 1524, the newly appointed parson Alexius Bertschin introduced evangelical ideas into the community, whose majority soon converted to the new faith. This met with the severe disapproval of the Swiss governor at Frauenfeld, causing the parson to flee to nearby Konstanz (where the Reformation was also – briefly – successful, until Charles V forced its re-Catholicization). Yet after Bern had turned Zwinglian, Bertschin could return as an evangelical preacher in 1529 and two years later the Second Peace of Kappel (following Europe’s first religious civil wars) allowed parishes in the Swiss condominiums – including Thurgau – to practise two religions at the same time! Confessional minorities were granted protection, prompting some Catholic families to settle at Ermatingen. When the parish’s morrow mass benefice became vacant in 1536, the Abbot of Reichenau ensured that it would go to a follower of the old religion, making the new incumbent Hans Hopp effectively the first parson of the Catholic congregation. From that point until – startingly – today, St Albinius has been a Simultankirche, a church in which two confessional groups worship side-by-side. The situation fostered plenty of conflicts (the Catholics demarcated ‘their’ choir with a rail, the Protestants responded by hanging a curtain in front of it), but also co-operation on practical issues like fabric maintenance and eventually mutual acceptance. The most notable testimony to this co-existence is the early eighteenth-century font, which contains a Catholic (nearside on the left picture) and a Protestant basin!

Taufstein early 18 m kath (vorne) + evang (hinten) TeilAnzeigen Kath + Evang Kirchgde

Today, the church notice board is still divided into two confessional sections (right), the list of parish incumbents is arranged in parallel columns and the timing of services remains staggered: in odd months, evangelical worship starts at 9 am, with the Catholics meeting at 10.30; in even months, the order is reversed. When I visited on a sunny May Sunday, the sexton kindly removed the cover from the font and explained its peculiar design almost in passing, if clearly with some pride. During the mass, seven young women were confirmed by a Catholic canon, followed by a drinks reception outside the church and family meals at the nearby Eagle, an early modern inn first documented in 1590 and serving excellent Müller Thurgau white wine from local vineyards. Some places just seem to have it all.

Information courtesy of the church guide, community website and a little field work; pics: BK; for the wider context see R. Head, ‘Fragmented dominion, fragmented Churches: The institutionalization of the Landfrieden in the Thurgau 1531-1610’, in: Archive for Reformation History 96 (2005), 117-144.

Clerics and Witchcraft, Part Two

02/11/2015 in British Isles, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

In my first blog entry, we looked at some examples of clerics who warned of the evils of witchcraft and magic, and also met Richard Napier, a cleric who preferred to heal victims of witchcraft and other patients through performing natural magic in the name of God.  However (and perhaps more interestingly), not even members of the Church were safe from magic and witchcraft accusations!  Gilbert Smythe, the minister of Swithland in Leicestershire brought a complaint against Christopher Moncke in 1620 for public slander and for accusing him of being a sorcerer and forsaking God. Moncke also accused Smythe of breaking of his wife’s arm and the reason for his son cutting his own throat, and that Smythe and his three sons were felons.  Smythe further claimed that by slandering him by petition to the King, the mayor of Leicester, the circuit judges and the people of Mountsorel, Leicester and London, ‘hee hath adventured my lyfe goods and reputation thereby and the undoinge of my wife and famylie which lyve by my breath’.  Moncke brought a counter-complaint, noting that he had attempted many times to solve a crime against him, and ‘has been put off by various great men’, as the judges apparently did not look at his case with any degree of seriousness:

The premises considered the faithful Justices of the County of Leicester dare not deale with Gilbert Smyth his approved pilfery, foreknowne periury, suspected sorcery and murther least money and freinds should lull the Judges asleepe as in the County of Darby they have beene and laughed to scorne by the favorites thereof.

Meanwhile, Thomas Johnson, the curate of Cranwell, Lincolnshire was indicted in 1603 at Spalding Court of Sewers, for acting as a wise man, and for administering ‘physic’ to sick people without a licence.  He was also accused of using witchcraft, charms and conjuration, calling up spirits, and deceiving the poor so that he could find stolen goods and foretell the future.  In doing this, he was not fulfilling his religious duties in instructing the people and youth of Cranwell in the North Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, on the articles of faith as laid down in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement.

Some clergymen and physicians were known to practice as cunning-folk, mostly to increase their incomes.  In 1606 the Royal College of Physicians intervened to stop the Reverend John Bell from writing words on a piece of paper to treat fevers, and in 1637, the vicar of Fleckney, Leicestershire, was accused of making charms to treat toothache.   Non-conformist clergy were also accused, as in the case of Nicholas Gretton of Tamworth, cunning man, astrologer and leader of a Lichfield Independent congregation in 1654, who ‘was there discovered to be a fortune teller, or an Inchanter, a Wizard that tells people lyes for mony’.

George Fox was born in the strongly puritan village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire, (now known as Fenny Drayton), and, given to ‘wander[ing] around the Midlands’ in his early youth, he became the acknowledged founder of the Quaker movement after his ‘enlightenment’ in 1647, at the age of twenty-three.  Attempts by some ministers and justices to accuse Quakers of witchcraft led to George Fox himself being denounced as a witch or sorcerer, who rode around on a large black horse converting people to Quakerism by holding their hands or touching their foreheads.  The meeting places of the Quakers, in woods, commons and in houses ‘most solitary and remote from Neighbours, situated in Dales and by-places’, stimulated speculation and fear.   The strange noises that could be heard emanating from their meeting-places, and the trembling and shaking of the Quakers during their meetings were associated with Satan and demonic possession.

Other cases, adding to our narrative on the clergy, include that of the vicar of Cawnton, Nottinghamshire who was convicted of sorcery in 1472 at Southwell Minster, and was compelled to resign.  Additionally, the minister of Hope, Derbyshire, a Mr. Jones, gave a woman, distraught after hearing a warning in the Communion service against profane livers, an ‘amulet, viz. some verses of John i written in a paper to hang about her neck, as also certain herbs to drive the devil out of her’.  The role of the clergy, particularly in rural communities after the Reformation, often combined both ministry and medicine, with sometimes little difference compared to the methods of the local cunning folk and healers.

Consequently, the same accusations of magic and witchcraft applied to the ministers as well as the lay communities.  Even charges of petty sorcery served on the clergy, as we can see above, were brought before the ecclesiastical courts.  The need for assistance when faced with illness or loss provoked a search for whoever was deemed able to provide such solace – whether this was a witch, a cunning man or a man of God, and whatever methods they used to provide some comfort, was often not important.



Leach, Arthur Francis, Visitations and Memorials of Southwell Minster (London, 1891), p. 15.

Lincolnshire Archives, Sessions Papers, Spalding Sewers/460/1/6.

Lincolnshire Archives, Diocesan Court Papers 58/2/70.

Reay, Barry, The Quakers and the English Revolution (Hounslow, 1985), pp. 7, 70-71.

Stocks, Helen (ed.) & Stevenson, H., Records of the Borough of Leicester, 1603-1688 (Cambridge, 1923), pp. 193-94.

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971), pp. 311, 328-29.

Wood, A. C. (ed.), ‘The Nottinghamshire Presentment Bills of 1587’, Thoroton Society Record Series, XI, A Miscellany (1943), p. 22.



Clerics and Witchcraft, Part One

02/08/2015 in Blogs, British Isles, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, the clergy

My area of academic research concentrates on magic and witchcraft in the early modern English Midlands. Both personally and academically, and as a born-and-bred Coventrian, I have always been interested in local history, witchcraft, magic, folk customs, paganism, religion and the unorthodox within Warwickshire and the Midlands, hence the geographical area within which I have focussed my attention. I also like to visit the Midlands parish churches my ancestors worshipped at, as part of my family history research, and visiting churches and cathedrals generally as I have a fascination with ecclesiastical architecture and enjoy taking photographs documenting my visits, concentrating particularly on doors and porches.

Church of St. John, Copston Magna, Warwickshire (Pic: Paula McBride)

Church of St. John, Copston Magna, Warwickshire (Pic: Paula McBride)

The main objective for my research is to redress the lack of evidence for magic and witchcraft in the Midlands within existing secondary sources, in comparison with the extensive volumes of information available for the Home Counties, the South of England, and Scotland.  For the MA by Research in History, which I completed in September 2014, I concentrated on the Midland Assize Circuit areas of the Midlands – Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire. Due to word count limitations and the number of cases I was finding, my original plans to write a full history of witchcraft and magic for the Midlands regrettably had to be reduced, and so the study concentrated only on the areas of the Midland Assize Circuit, leaving around half of the Midlands still to be researched.  I now intend to broaden my investigation through further study including research on the Oxford Assize Circuit areas – Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, and some parts of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, depending on the county or assize boundaries of the time. My recent research has shown that, with only half of the Midlands researched so far, and if one is prepared to look hard enough for the evidence, there are a surprising number of cases for magic and witchcraft.  One of the exciting questions I hope to look at further is the involvement of the clergy in witchcraft and magic, as accuser, healer and even accused.

Our first vicar, Humphrey Michel, of Horninghold, Leicestershire, was ‘a staunch Tory, a closet Jacobite, a scourge of the local dissenters’, and often presented who he deemed to be ‘moral offenders’ at the local church courts.  Michel also believed wholeheartedly in the existence of witches, and discussed the problems of witchcraft in his diary.  In June 1709, he recorded the swimming of two witches, Mary Palmer, a cripple, who ‘though bound hand and feet, did not sink but swim [sic] before the said company’, and Joseph Harding, who ‘sunk immediately like a stone before them all’.  Other entries include a woman named Goody Ridgway who had ‘in all probability’ been bewitched to death, and Michel had also accusingly noted the strange behaviour of ‘a wench of the widow Barlow, a supposed witch’, who ‘went out of the church when I had named and read my text, Deut Chap 18, where is the word “witch”’.

Sir Richard Newdigate, a lawyer from a family of wealthy landowners in Arbury, Warwickshire, attended a sermon at Fillongley a few miles away, given by Josiah Packwood.  In the sermon, the minister denounced members of the congregation for seeking help from cunning men, as this action of seeking remedy itself constituted witchcraft.  Newdigate carefully recorded the preacher’s advice in his diary, on how to counter the arguments of  ‘those that seek to witches for remedies’, including advising those tempted that help should be sought only from God, and that ‘the Devil is full of subtlety and simulation.  His end is to enlarge his kingdom by curing diseases’.

The English Reformation should have removed the clergy from the world of popular magic, and to some extent this did happen, as the number of sacraments was reduced, sacramentals rejected and exorcism suppressed, relics were destroyed, and prayers had to be said in the vernacular.   However, at parish level, many clergymen, such as Richard Napier, continued to be involved with the physical and mental illnesses and magical distresses of their laity.  Napier, a well-respected Protestant rector of Great Linford, Buckinghamshire, employed a series of curates to deal with the majority of his clerical obligations, and dedicated himself to private study and public practice of natural magic and astrological physic until his death in 1634.  Napier saw himself as fulfilling his Christian duties, charging little if anything for his services for those who considered him both clergyman and physician, by not only healing the souls of his clients who were drawn from all social classes, but also their bodies and minds.  He dealt with hundreds of cases of witchcraft and thousands of patients during his career, all noted carefully in casebooks.  Napier believed in witchcraft, but seldom ever verified any suspicions of bewitchment.  He preferred instead to interpret his clients’ symptoms as the result of natural physical illnesses and diseases or spiritual disorder, as did most doctors, Protestant churchmen and educated laymen.

(To be continued – Clerics as sorcerers and other magical practitioners)


Davies, Owen, Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (London, 2003), pp. 170-72.

Sharpe, James, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750 (London, 1997), pp. 286-87.

Warwickshire County Record Office., CR0136/7: Richard Newdigate’s Diary.

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

Reformed churches on the move

08/17/2014 in archeology and architecture, British Isles, Other, Parish Research Today

Cape Town Slave Lodge, Slave Auction Tree Spin St and Groote Kerk

Greenock nr Glasgow Old West Kirk 1591 moved 1926 (Laird John Shaw crest + staircase)The remarkable mobility of Calvinism has long been noted by religious historians. Soon after its emergence in Geneva, the new confession attracted followers not only in numerous neighbouring territories, but also other Continents. The roots of the Groote Kerk in Cape Town (left) reach back to the establishment of a Dutch staging and supply post at the south-western tip of Africa by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. Conditions here were very different from its European home base. Immediately adjacent to the former churchyard was the slave lodge (the white building to the left of the church, where the East India Company VOC kept hundreds of unfree labourers under lock and key), while individual slaves were auctioned on a spot under the trees in the foreground.

A very different kind of mobility, however, marks the story of the Old West Kirk at Greenock near Glasgow (pic on the right). When the local inhabitants petitioned laird John Shaw for permission to have their own place of worship, one of Scotland’s first post-Reformation churches was built here in 1591. In the 1920s, however, the expansion of a nearby shipyard led to its dismantling and stone-by-stone reconstruction a short distance away on today’s Esplanade. The image shows Shaw’s personal staircase and family crest on the side wall.

Feastday economies

07/21/2014 in Parish Research Today, Parish sources, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories


While working on records of the former Bishopric of Constance (now kept in the archives of the German Archdiocese of Freiburg), I found a petition by the parish republic of Gersau (address page pictured). Sent to the vicar general in 1779, the mayor and council voiced concerns about the large number of Catholic feasts and mounting difficulties to keep them observed. With the backing of the regional dean, no fewer than 26 saints’ days were identified for downgrading (among which the Visitation of Our Lady). The bishop played ball, approving the request, but urging his ‘Catholic flock’ to diligently attend mass on all remaining feasts and to ‘abstain from all vanities, damaging idleness, suspicious gatherings, dancing, gaming, excessive drinking, swearing … as well as any other insults to the Almighty’. Gersau was in good company, following the lead of the neighbouring Canton of Lucerne, which had secured a similar privilege, and rather ahead of Enlightened monarchs like Joseph II, who started to curb religious duties for economic reasons at about the same time.

Some early modern Gloucestershire bells

05/09/2014 in art and imagery, British Isles, music and drama, Parish Research Today, preservation and memory

In anticipation of our  symposium on ‘Parish Soundscapes’, and having been treated to a preview of the Berkswell Bellringers’ stall, I have been looking into some of the bells of parish churches of my own research area of Gloucestershire. Digging primarily into my favourite local sources, the parish registers, I came across a number of references to bells and the casting of bells.

Bells were, and still are, items of great importance, and symbols of pride and prestige for parish communities. The parishes of Almondsbury, Arlingham, Great Rissington, Lechlade, Quenington, St John the Baptist Gloucester, Standish, and Tytherington all record the casting and repair of their bells in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We might expect to find these events recorded in churchwarden’s accounts, yet they are here too, amongst baptisms, marriages and burials, written, almost as community members, into the histories of these parishes. The type of bell, how much it cost and who cast it are often recorded. At times this serves as a memorial of the great expense parishes were able to meet: in Great Rissington the 1601 treble bell was commissioned from John Charter, a founder in Reading, and paid for by subscription. The names of each of the 112 subscribers are listed, in a kind of who’s who of the parish pious.

Bells’ roles as monuments to the piety, charity, good neighbourliness and good credit of parishioners are also identifiable in the Gloucestershire registers. Arlingham, a parish in the ‘loop’ of the river Severn, had a near full set of bells cast in 1717. These bells were dedicated to the parish, its ideals, its chief inhabitants, God, and the bells’ founder. The pre-1717 bell bore the inscription ‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood.’ The five new bells cast in 1717 bore the following: 2) ‘Abra. Rudhall bell founder. 1717.’, 3) ‘Prosperity to this Parish. A R. 1717.’ 4) ‘Peace & Good Neighbourhood. A.R.1717.’ 5) John Carter & Richard Fryer, churchwardens. 1717.’ 6) ‘Come when I call/ To serve God all. A. R. 1717.’ The bells then symbolised the ideals of devotion, peace, prosperity and good neighbourhood, and served to venerate the memory of their founders and the men who were likely their procurers. As some of the largest and most expensive movable goods parishes might buy, bells were important items of material culture, and as the loudest, most recognisable noises regularly made in the parish, were highly aurally significant. To have one’s name or motto inscribed upon one was then a great source of pride, renewed and repeated with each practice and peal.

Procuring bells was not always as smooth as at Arlingham however. At Almondsbury in 1573 the tenor bell was broken by some over-enthusiastic ringing, and the ensuing three-decade quest for a replacement was written up in the parish register by incumbent vicar John Paul. One William Bewall, of repute ‘the best rynger in the paresh’ gave the offending pull breaking the bell, and bell caster ‘Old Jeffreys’ of Bristol was recruited to produce a new one. His first attempt ‘faylyng in sound’, Jeffreys senior enlisted Jeffreys junior, and together they cast a further bell in 1575, which ‘with hewyng contynued in some good sort unto the yeere 1603 and then with chymyng dyd rend’. Our talented, boisterous ringer William Bewall caused the ‘myshap’ once again. Having been twice disappointed by the Jeffreys’ bells, the parish sent for John Long of Cirencester, on the recommendation of local man, Mr Chester. Cirencester is 35 miles from Almondsbury, no doubt seeming much longer when laden with the largest and heaviest bell in Almondsbury’s peal. Unfortunately John Long was not able to produce a working bell, casting it twice in 1604, ‘both tymes badd to the domage of the paresh’, before Almondsbury gave up on him too. The register notes that Purdy of Bristol, ‘who shold by bargeyn fyrst have cast the tenor… cast the same as he now ys, but nothyng so sweet in sound as he was 40 yeeres before.’ Here we get a sense of the problems of parochial procurement, and the ‘consumer power’ exerted by communities when purchasing large and important items. Finally having found a bell that fitted and worked, albeit not a patch on the old bell, vicar Paul also happily anthropomorphised it into another member of his flock.

Whilst William Bewall may seem to have been particularly unlucky in managing to break two tenor bells in his distinguished bellringing career, in comparison to John Hale of Hartpury, he was remarkably lucky. Practicing ringing one day in 1692 with his group of fellow ringers, John was pulling the 3 bell. Either through a loose component in the headstock, or a particularly mighty tug on his behalf, the bell came loose and was sent crashing down into the ringing chamber, landing on him and killing him. Bewall died amongst his ringing group, perhaps not the worst way to go. Ringing groups were important centres of sociability, particularly among young, boisterous men. In Cirencester in 1794 a ‘Freindly [sic] Society or Ringing Clubb Held at the Black Horse Cirencester’ was set up, in a rather polite formulation, with its own constitution (yet still meeting in a pub 500 yards from the church…). Edward Sherring of Forthampton also died under a bell, but not in the highly sociable act of ringing. In 1788 he was “killed by the falling of a Bell one of which he went up to turn”.

Such campanological misfortune could come from on high as well as the chamber floor. In 1605 the parish of Olveston was beset by a great storm of thunder and lightning. John Paul, the vicar of Almondsbury, recorded in his register that on 28 November 1605 there was

a great thunder clap and fearfull lyghtnyng with a storme of hayle, in which the towre of Olveston church was rent, the steeple covered with lead was sett on fyre under the bowle of the wethercocke, and the steeple consumed, the lead and fyve sweet belles molt, the chauncell burnt, and the body of the church hardly saved.

Whilst John Paul’s narrative is dramatic and engaging, it tells the story of the destruction of the bells with no real gloss or interpretive flourish. Such flourish was provided by ‘P.S.’, a schoolmaster in Olveston, and the acronymical author of Feareful newes of thunder and lightning with the terrible effects thereof, which Almighty God sent on a place called Olvestone, in the county of Glocester the 28. of November last. This 30-page pamphlet contains just three short pages on the lightening, fire and the damage in the parish. The remaining 27 pages are taken up by lengthy providential proselytizing, with the author at pains to unpick the soteriological implications of the storm and damage, and to link it to the recently-foiled Gunpowder Plot. The destruction of the bells is particularly significant. The parishioners were said to love ‘their sweet ring’, of what the author judged ‘very tunenable but often abused bells’. It was this ‘abuse’ that rankled most for P.S. For him the lightning was a clear sign from God. It supposedly destroyed the strongest parts of the church, yet left the weakest standing, showing ‘that strength to him is weakenesse, and weakenesse to him is strength.’ The thunder was too much for the parishioners, as it ‘ cast one hither, another thither, and some downe’, as people scrambled around attempting to save their possessions from a blaze that was now raging on the church roof, dangerously close to neighbouring houses. The bells were melted and destroyed, as the

wrath of God, would no longer suffer to jangle [them] then or ther for their ignorance of God, and his goodnes, or their unthankfulnes, or for any other sin, which was doth the cause of this, and is the cause of all other his judgements.

It was to the great shame of this parish that after this almighty storm and fire, in which luckily nobody was killed, ‘divers lament the death (as it were) of their Belles, but no one there so much as mention, the guilt or punishment of sinne.’ Bells, as important community symbols were here lamented too much. It should have been to their own sins that the parishioners of Olveston turned, in the mind of P.S. Rather than a source of piety and spiritual instruction, as at Arlingham, these bells, for P.S., symbolised ungodliness and spiritual corruption, perhaps hinting at the culture of those enthusiastic young men who met for practices at places like the Black Horse in Cirencester.

Having given a precis of some of the lives of the early modern bells of Gloucestershire, I would be very interested to hear of comparable examples in other counties, particularly given the social and symbolic significance of the bells collated here.


D18/597, Notes relating to manor and parish of Arlingham

P86/1 SP 1/1, Cirencester Ringing Club general register

P120 IN 1/1, Driffield Parish Register

P146 IN 1/3, Forthampton Parish Register

P154/9 IN 1/1, St. John the Baptist, Gloucester, Parish Register

P165 IN 1/1, Hartpury Parish Register

P197 IN 1/2, Lechlade Parish Register

P261 IN 1/2, Quenington Parish Register

P268 IN 1/1, Great Rissington Parish Register

P305 IN 1/3, Standish Parish Register

P344 IN 1/4, Tytherington Parish Register

P.S., Feareful neuues of thunder and lightning with the terrible effects thereof, which Almighty God sent on a place called Oluestone, in the county of Glocester the 28. of Nouember last : hauing prefixt before it, a short discourse, concerning two other admirable accidents that soone after ensued / truely related by P.S. ; and dedicated vnto the Kings Most Excellent Maiestie. (London, 1606)

Green, A., ‘An Almondsbury Parish Register‘, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 78 (1959), pp. 175-179.

Travel note from the parish of Mareta (South Tyrol)

05/02/2014 in art and imagery, landscapes and pilgrimage, Parish Research Today, The Alpine Territories

It’s been a day of travel. Trains, buses, a bit of hitchhiking and as always at the end, in piedi. But the journey was worth it. My destination was the miners’ church of Sankt Magdalena in the Val Ridanna. It’s is a daughter house of the parish church of Mareta, not far as the crow flies but a lot more once you ascend the sides of the valley on the snaking road. A pit stop at a nearby maso procured the key and the custodian, Caterina, who would do the needful with the alarm – important artworks afoot! Sankt Magdalena lies in the foothills of the Snow Mountain, which bears rich seams of ore. The miners did so well in the 15th century that they reputedly shod their boots with silver nails! They also funded the rebuilding of an earlier church, retaining the dedication to the Magdalen. Two large scale altarpiece, combining painted scenes and sculpted figures were commissioned from leading artists working in nearby Vipiteno/Sterzing. Both were destined for the high altar. Mattheis Störbel’s work of 1509 remains in situ, while Hans Harder’s earlier opus is now in the nave (pics below). To study these works in person was a real privilege, especially after the journey. It was a real connection of landscape, art and devotion, as well as the financial underpinnings of such endeavours. The architecture of the church was simple but well executed. In all, a lasting testimony to the men who laboured in the mountains and the saint who watched over them.

IMG_0438 IMG_0457IMG_0443IMG_0456