The 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!
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It is now more than half a century since W.E. Tate provided us with his comprehensive review of the contents of The Parish Chest. His work remains the authoritative guide to parish records. However, since he wrote, a huge amount of research has been undertaken, as witnessed by the contents of this website. In his day, parish records were generally still held in parish chests; today, apart from current records, they are in record offices. Many, if not most, are fully listed in online catalogues. Numerous transcripts – especially of parish registers and churchwardens’ accounts – have been published by record societies and others. The value of parish records is now widely accepted by academics, as well as by enthusiastic family and local historians. Seminal works such as Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath (Yale2003), and Wrigley & Schofield’s’s Population history of England 1541-1871 (Harvard, 1981), have been based upon them. The internet has many relevant sites (such as this one). It is therefore surprising that Tate’s work has not been fully updated until now. My Tracing Your Ancestors’ Parish Records: a guide for family and local historians (Pen & Sword, 2015) is an attempt to remedy the omission. I begin by placing parish records in the context of the history of the parish. Parish records mostly owe their existence, not just to the clergy, but also to churchwardens, poor law overseers, parish constables, and highway surveyors, so the roles that each of them played is analysed. Then follows the meat of the book – detailed discussions of the various different types of records that could once be found in parish chests. Vestry minutes, officers’ accounts, poor law records, various records relating to ecclesiastical administration, parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, and the records of tithes, enclosure, and charities, are all considered. Detailed information concerning sources published both in hard copy, and on the internet, is provided. I hope that my book will be of assistance to everyone interested in the study of both local and family history, whether they are academics, undergraduates, local enthusiasts, or just trying to trace their family history.
This coming Monday 28 April, Dr Andrew Gordon (University of Aberdeen) will be giving a seminar paper on ‘The Parish Clerk and the Parish Record in Early Modern London’. The seminar is part of a series of Open University Book History Research Group seminars co-organised with the Institute of English Studies at the University of London titled ‘Paper, Pen and Ink: Manuscript Cultures in Early Modern England’.
The seminar will take place between 5.30 pm and 7 pm at in Room 234, Senate House, Malet St, London, WC1E 7HU.
For more information on the Open University Book History Research Group, please see their website here.
The full list of ‘Paper, Pen and Ink’ seminars, with details, can be found here.
Two forthcoming events at the Warwickshire Record Office might interest locally-based My-Parish members. On Saturday 1 March Dr Gillian White will be giving a talk on The Great Fire of Warwick (1694). The fire destroyed much of the centre of town and gave rise to an ambitious rebuilding and restructuring project. Today the town centre remains an excellent example of the late-seventeenth century ‘English urban renaissance’. The talk will be held at the Warwickshire Record Office between 2pm and 5pm and costs £3.
On Wednesday 9 April Christine Hodgetts will be giving an illustrated talk about poor relief from the Middle Ages to the New Poor Law of 1836, titled ‘”On The Parish”: The problem of poverty’. This will also be held at the Warwickshire Record Office, from 7pm to 9pm, and costs £5.
Having planned the bicentenary ‘Gersau 2014’ celebrations for over two years, it was heartening to see the parish church of St Marcellus – site of the historic assembly which restored the independent republic on 2 February 1814 – packed solid for the commemorative Landsgemeinde exactly 200 years later (see the picture gallery on the project homepage). Following the Candlemas service (which included the blessing of St Blasius, protector against a range of diseases, administered to each parishioner) and an outdoor reception by the District Council (lubricated by a specially commissioned ‘Republic Wine’), the sounds of drummers – not to speak of a cannon salute – summoned the audience back inside. What director Roger Bürgler had prepared surprised everyone: Schiffmeister Balz, Gersau’s mythical resistance hero (impersonated by actor Stefan Camenzind, pictured above on the cover of today’s Bote der Urschweiz newspaper), emerged to challenge the congregation to think not just about the past, but also the future. One-by-one, he asked speakers to present their different takes on ‘freedom’: the district mayor, a Swiss MP, a refugee from military dictatorship in Turkey, a historian (who happened to be yours truly), a village jester and delegates from fellow peasant republics Dithmarschen and Gochsheim. In-between, on a giant screen, we saw video clips of Gersau’s dramatic landscape and appeals from current schoolchildren, punctuated by live performances from musicians, singers and – yes – a yodeling duet. Following a colourful procession, proceedings continued in the afternoon with a sold-out banquet, a couple of historical lectures and a full entertainment programme in the school hall. Judging from the media echo (cf. the podcast report of Swiss National Radio SRF), the day was a great success and succeeded in getting people to engage with the aims of ‘Gersau 2014′.
Flooding was a persistent threat to coastal, wetland and riverine parishes in early modern England and Wales. My current PhD research is into how communities responded to this threat at a variety of different levels and in a variety of different ways. I look at how flooding and flood risk was managed politically, socially and culturally – through local and national governance, through communal and familial structures, and how those affected understood and conceptualised flooding. I take two case studies, the Upper and Lower Severnside ‘levels’ of southern Gloucestershire and the Parts of Holland in Lincolnshire, as areas subject to significant flooding, and subsequently significant flood risk management, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The research I am currently undertaking focusses on the various levels of government and administration that dealt with flooding. The parish history element of this current research is both interesting and puzzling. In some coastal regions, particularly in Lincolnshire, but also in Somerset and elsewhere, dikereeves were elected to oversee the maintenance and upkeep of sea walls and drainage ditches. Dikereeves were often a manorial appointment, as at Sutton Holland in Lincolnshire in the 1550s and 1560s, where the manor court elected dikereeves from amongst both freeholders and copyholders. During the 1570s records suggest that the Lincolnshire dikereeve moved from a manorial to a parochial office, with all the Lincolnshire parochial dikereeves accounts I have found beginning post-1570.
So far I have two explanations for this move – one general and one specific, but neither resting on a ‘smoking gun’, and both more than open to challenge. The first is the rise of the parish as a unit of local administration amidst the ‘quickening’ of the ‘pace of local government’ in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century. This would explain the move towards the parish, but not necessarily the move away from the manor. The second more specific reason could be the particularly stormy years around 1570. These included widespread flooding of the East coast in 1570 and 1571. Perhaps given new environmental challenges, parishes required greater flood defence oversight and established parochial dikereeves? Again, such an explanation rests on the parish, rather than the manor, being the most effective unit of local organisation.
Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome.
In today’s Guardian, Simon Hoggart outlines the great trouble caused by bats in modern parish churches. Due to the recent classification of bats as a protected species, churchwardens are no longer able to disturb their homes and habitats. It can cost up to £29,000 in legal fees for churches to be allowed to relocate bats, and a project has been set up to help our two species communities cohabit peaceably in churches.
Ridding parish churches of ‘vermin’ has a long history. The term ‘vermin’ has had various contested meanings, many of which were based on the slyness and subtlety of vermin. The main threat that these unwanted creatures posed was to seeds and crops. In 1533, parliament passed ‘An Acte made and ordeyned to dystroe Choughes, Crowes and Ro[o]ks’, which ordered every parish to provide a net for catching birds, on pain of a fine. The act specified that two pence was to be paid by farmers and landowners ‘for every xij [twelve] olde Crowes Rookes or Choughes’ caught on their land. A further act of 1566 (‘An Acte for preservacion of Grayne’) expanded the list of vermin to a further thirty-two types of bird and mammal, including kingfishers, bustards, stoats and wild cats, each with a price on their head. In Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlife, Roger Lovegrove argues that this act sanctioned the systematic and widespread persecution of wildlife, that continued right up until the nineteenth century.
Early modern parishes had a mixed relationship with their animal neighbours. Records abound of churchwardens paying out for animals caught or moved on under the 1533 and 1566 acts. In 1555 at Mildenhall, Suffolk, ‘John Pollyngton and Buntyng’ were paid for ‘taking of the dows [doves] and the oules [owls] in the church’. Church roofers could supplement their income by removing unwanted birds from church lofts. Whilst repairing the roof of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire, in 1663-4 a group of ‘slaters’ removed four owls at a cost of 1s 2d, and later the intransigent ‘old owle’ for a substantial 1s. In a typical churchwardens’ account entry in the Bedfordshire parish of Northill in 1572, John More was paid twelve pence for bringing in a fox head. In Shillington, Bedfordshire, during the ‘general crisis’ of the dearth years of 1594-7, the parish invested in crow nets to be used by parishioners, perhaps to protect a slender crop. In 1594 wardens laid out 7s 10d on a net, which was subsequently repaired for 10d in 1597. During the Interregnum, the parish of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire paid out for many fox heads, including the 2s for four fox ‘whelps’ (cubs) in 1657. In Cratfield, Suffolk, in 1651-2 the pursuit of vermin became weaponised as the churchwardens paid out 4s 10d ‘for lokeing to the wheat, and powder and shott to kill varmen’.
‘Vermin’ and other animals did not always enter parishes and churches entirely of their own volition. In his 1509 Shippe of Fooles, Alexander Barclay laments the veritable menagerie attendant at some pre-Reformation church services:
Into the church there comes another sotte,
Without devotion jetting up and downe,
Or to be seene, and to shew his garded cote;
Another on his fiste a sparhawke or fawcone
Or else a cokow, so wasting his shoon.
Before the aultar he to and fro doth wander,
With even so great devotion as a gander.
One time the hawkes bells jangleth hye,
Another time they flatter with their wings,
And now the houndes barking strikes the skye,
Nowe sounde their feete, and now the chaynes ringes,
They clap with their handes ; by such manner of things
They make of the church for their hawkes a mewe.
And canell for their dogges, which they shall after rewe.
Dogs were a particular problem for some parishes. They were to be whipped out of the choir in sixteenth-century Chichester, and payments for dog whipping are not uncommon in churchwardens’ accounts. Dogs’ admittance to church became a minor polemical controversy in the seventeenth century. Archbishop Laud’s introduction of the rail around the communion table was loathed by stricter Protestants and seen as ‘popish’ due to the formal separation of clergy and congregation. The rector of Beckington, Somerset, claimed rails would ‘give admittance unto dogs, while Christians be kept out’. Laud himself saw the rail functioning differently. After a dog stole a consecrated loaf from the altar at Tatlow, Cambridgeshire one Christmas Day, Laud argued that such a scandal would have actually been prevented by the presence of a rail.
Some domestic animals behaved much better than these anecdotes would have us believe. Whilst I have no evidence to suggest that anyone went as far as blessing a dog, special dog pews were erected in Aveley, in Essex, and at Northorpe, in Lincolnshire, where the small ‘Hall Dog Pew’ accommodated canine companions during divine service. Perhaps there is yet hope for bats and humans to cohabit in peace and piety.
 Judith Middleton-Stewart (ed.), Records of the Churchwardens of Mildenhall Collections (1446-1454) and Accounts (1503-1553) (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2011), p. 135.
 Esther M.E. Ramsay and Alison J. Maddock (eds), The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire 1627-1667 (The Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 2005), pp. 148-9.
 J.E. Farmiloe and Rosita Nixseaman (eds), Elizabethan Churchwardens’ Accounts (Streatley: The Bedfordshire historical Record Society, 1952), p. 14.
 Ibid. p. 91, p. 99.
 Ramsay and Maddock (eds), The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Walton-on-the-Hill, Lancashire 1627-1667, p. 116, passim.
 L.A. Botelho (ed.), Churchwardens’ Accounts of Cratfield 1640-1660 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1999), p. 87.
 quoted in George S. Tyack, Lore and legend of the English Church (London: W. Andrews & Co., 1899), pp. 109-10.
 W.D. Peckham (ed.), The acts of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral Church of Chichester, 1545-1642 (Lewes : Sussex Record Society, 1959); i.e. C.J. Litzenberger (ed), Tewkesbury Churchwardens’ Accounts, 1563-1624 (Stroud: TBGAS, 1994), p. 46, p. 63.
 Charles Carlton, Archbishop William Laud (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 97.
 Carlton, Archbishop William Laud, p. 97.
 Tyack, Lore and legend of the English Church, p. 109; T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, Church-lore gleanings (London: A.D. Innes and Co, 1892), pp. 191-92.
Visit the wonderful new research resource BOhisto – Bozen-Bolzano’s History Online. “Some dozens of the old Minutes of the Municipal council of Bozen-Bolzano are freely available to you. The manuscripts digitised up to now span from 1470 to the late 17th century and shed light on the administration, the economy and the townspeople´s life of one of the main urban centres of Tyrol, situated on the most important transalpine route between Germany and Italy. The rich database offered by the archival data is an unique playground to further explore the urban history of a central European area.”
Searchable in Italian, German and English
This is a guest post by Dr Sarah Richardson, Associate Professor of History at the University of Warwick. Her book, The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain, discusses the rich female political culture in Victorian Britain, including women’s participation in parish politics.
Women and the Politics of the Parish
The parish electorate in England and Wales was generally broad and inclusive. There was the potential for elections for a range of parish officers including constables, highway surveyors and overseers of the poor. Parishioners could also vote for parish servants such as beadles and sextons. Although there were attempts to reform and codify this system in the early nineteenth century, in reality, in many parishes, democracy was in the ascendant. What is less appreciated is the fact that women ratepayers were able to participate in these very local elections. There are many reasons for this oversight. First, two landmark pieces of legislation in the 1830s, the Reform Act and the Municipal Corporations Act, restricted the right to vote to ‘male persons’. Second, the story of female enfranchisement has been dominated by the women’s suffrage campaigns at the end of the century. And, third, there is little direct evidence of women voting, therefore, historians have assumed they were effectively barred from the polling booth.
The discovery, in a box of solicitors’ papers, of a poll book for the election of overseer of the poor for St Chad’s parish in Lichfield, provided the missing link between the theoretical right of women to vote, and their practical application of that privilege. The poll book listed over 300 voters and among them were the names of 30 women. Ironically, they were almost equally split between the Tory and Liberal candidates. The women came from all walks of life, from wealthy businesswomen to lowly paupers. The fact that they were able to participate and make choices in this parish election has important implications for our understanding of female citizenship in this period.
To learn more about the poll book and its implications, see the following:
BBC Radio 4, Document: Victorian Women Voters (available on iplayer)
The Victorian female franchise (Victorian Commons blog)
Women voted 75 years before they were legally entitled to in 1918 (Daily Telegraph blog)
Where are all the women in politics? (History and Policy policy paper)
Parish registers are some of the most familiar sources for parish historians. Introduced in the 1530s by Thomas Cromwell, they contain records of the baptisms, burials and marriages of parishioners and thus serve as useful genealogical and demographic tools. From information contained with these records, historians have been able to estimate population sizes, fertility rates and mortality rates, and genealogists have been able to trace their ancestry back into the sixteenth century.
But these records are not always just lists of names and dates. Authors of these registers took it upon themselves to record memorable local events alongside the sacraments. In Rowde, Wiltshire the first parish register opens with the a note that therein is contained all the ‘memorable accidents which have or shall happen within the parish’. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, Dr White Kennet, the Bishop of Peterborough, urged local clergy ‘to enter down any notable incident of times and seasons, especially relating to your own parish, and the neighbourhood of it’ when making his visitations. These local chronicles were seen as potentially instructive guides to future generations. William Auerell, clerk of Saint Peter’s, Cornhill, included a sixty line poem on the instructional value of the parish register:
Thus every age and calling,
May heare beehold theyr faces:
Theyr rising and theyr falling,
Theyr endes and wretched cases:
Which glasse weare it well used,
Life should not bee abused.
However, until relatively recently, and perhaps because of the registers’ value as demographic and genealogical sources, these local chronicles have been neglected. The Harleian Society published its early registers ‘to obtain as large a mass of genealogical information as possible in the shortest possible time’, thus leaving out ‘lengthened Annotations’ and other marginalia deemed ‘useless and uninteresting matter’.
There are some wonderfully evocative vignettes included in registers. My own interest is in flooding and other so-called ‘natural disasters’ in early modern Britain. Parish registers (the name for both the book and the person that wrote in the book) were particularly keen on noting down freak meteorological events. Henry Childe, vicar of Arlingham, a parish in a loop of the River Severn in southwestern Gloucestershire recorded the dramatic events of January 20th 1607, the Bristol Channel ‘tsunami’:
manye, about the number of 20, had lost their lives, or, at the least, binne greatly endangered to be pined or starv’d to death. Mr Thomas Yate and his eldest son, Mr Richard Yate, were then hemm’d in upon the Glass Cliffe with the water. I say it is an admirable memorandum, because it exceeded the fludd that was about 46 years before, a foot and a half at the least higher than it was then.
In Welford, an Avonside parish in Warwickshire, the end paper of the earliest surviving register records a flood on July 8th 1588. We read of a flood that was so sudden that ‘John Rennies wife then millward was soe amazed that shee sate still till she was almost drowned’, and was ‘much besides her selfe and so farr amist that shee did not know her owne child when yt was brought unto her’. In Pilton, Somerset, the register tells us of a snow so deep in February 1577 ‘that no man coulde travell wthout daunger of Drowninge therin’. These notes were obviously referred to by future generations, much as William Auerell had hoped: in Long Newnton, Gloucestershire, the Great Storm of 1703 is referred to as the ‘most generall calamitie that ever this nation felt. Neither can we find any paralell of it in our Chronicles’.
Despite the glum tone of this last memorandum, the Long Newnton chronicler was not down for long. In 1704 we hear of ‘this happie yeare [when] This nation had many remarkable occurences of Gods good Providence; in giving good successe and victory to our Armies & Fleetes’. The personal whims of authors could come through in accounts of more local events too. Henry Childe included a verse on his experiences of Arlingham’s seventeenth-century floods:
Thrice have I seen a fearful inundation
Within the space of two and twentie years,
As few of my coate have in al their station;
Which when it comes (as’t will) unto men’s eares
What hart so hard that can abstain from teares?
But woe is mee that I am first to dwell
Where seas, enradge with windes, so proudlie swelle!
God knows who shall survive to see the next,
To be, as I have binne, with feare perplext.
These ‘admirable memoranda’ and ‘memorable Recordes’ give us an interesting, very local perspective on important events in parish life. I would be very interested to hear of any memoranda in the registers of fellow My-Parishioners!
Will Coster, ‘Popular religion and the parish register 1538-1603’, in Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs, and Beat A. Kümin (eds), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester: MUP, 1997), pp. 94-111., pp. 94-111.
Steven Hobbs, ‘‘The abstracts and brief chronicles of the time’: memoranda and annotations in parish registers 1538-1812’, The Local Historian, 38, 2 (May, 2008), pp. 95-110.
Steven Hobbs (ed.), Gleanings from Wiltshire Parish Registers (Chippenham: Wiltshire Record Society, 2010)
W.E. Tate, The Parish Chest; A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England (3rd edn., Chichester: Phillimore, 1983)