July 22, 2009

Book Review: The Voices of Morebath

Eamon Duffy's Voices of Morebath is an account of events in one village during the English Reformation, running from the 1520s to the 1570s. Duffy has been able to recreate the world of Morebath thanks to its priest, Sir (the honorific is a traditional one) Christopher Trychay. Trychay maintained over the years a set of parish accounts for the village- these accounts spanned the work of several wardens of the various parish funds set up to aid the church. Duffy mentions the young maids' fund, the young mans' fund, the wardens' fund, the ales' fund and others- not to mention bequests that came in and various particular charges that Trychay and the village elders asked the villagers for. Furthermore behind these funds were the wealthy men of the parish- the four men- and the contributions received from bequests- all these were meticulously recorded as lastly were those things that the money was spent on, whether through the discretion of the parish or of the priest. These accounts are accompanied though by Trychay's own moralising- for example he is as keen to report those that have not contributed as those that have contributed, as keen to exhort his flock to communal worship and to the exhibition of their devoted worship as he is to discuss with them what the results of that have been. When in the late 1540s, he finally acquires a black velvet gown to officiate at funerals in, we feel his glee, for the search for funds had been running for over twenty years before that point.

Trychay's accounts cover a crucial period of English history and Duffy uses them for that purpose. Between 1520 and 1573, England went through a series of religious revolutions. Henry VIII declared the royal supremacy and abolished the nearby monastery. His son Edward VI engineered a Protestant reformation. Edward was followed by his half sister Mary who returned England to the faith of Rome, and she was followed in turn by her half sister Elizabeth who returned England to the faith of Protestantism. During a dizzying period between 1545 and 1560, the country had to contend with four different religious settlements. This produced confusion inside the local churches of England- the fabric of the church let alone the doctrine was altered again and again with images of saints being replaced with bibles and bibles replaced with images of saints. Duffy implies that the richness of the medieval church was destroyed, its material splendour which, in his view, bound the community together, ransacked. Trychay would agree and his voice tells us on behalf of the parishioners of Morebath of the sadness of secreting the images of saints away and replacing them with the dullness of Protestant ecclesiology.

Duffy's book is an elegy for Catholic England. The reign of Elizabeth is greeted by a particular poignant passage, as Duffy writes of the moment when the queen ascended to the throne and for the last time in English history the bells rang out and the congregation prayed in Latin for the safety of the Queen's grace. That elegy comes through the hands of Trychay himself, who by the time he died in 1574, saw a new generation arise who had no memories of the time when England was securely Catholic, when he had arrived in the parish in 1520. We have to remember here though that what we have through Duffy's book is Trychay's view of his parish- we do not know what the views of the parishioners were and whether they felt so elegiac. Particularly we do not hear the voices, save through the priest's ventriloquism, of those that objected to his idea of Morebath. The village sent five men to the rebellion of 1549 which convulsed south western England but as Duffy points out with regard to the rebellion of 1554 in East Anglia, Tudor rebellions were motivated by a large amount of causes- including religion but not only including religion.

There are though interesting things to be taken from Duffy's book. The first being that the change from Catholic to Protestant was a change in material culture within a church as much as in doctrine: Trychay himself ended his life happily preaching Protestant doctrine and there is no evidence in Duffy's study of any particular doctrinal attachment amongst the parishioners either way. The second is the degree of community coercion that early modern Christianity exercised in local communities- Trychay read out the accounts with the lists of people who had not contributed for a reason. Frequently justice was meted out by local arbitration- the Sydenham family were crucial in this respect in Morebath and that relied on community consensus. Thirdly its worth understanding how important loyalty to the crown was- apart from the rebellion of 1549- there is no particular instance of disloyalty in the village under any of the reigns we see chronicled here. Lastly there is the frequent importance- growing importance- irrespective of religious faction- of the church and parish as a unit of administration and particularly as a unit for taxation. Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth all requested that Morebath supply them with money, with cash to finance wars and government.

Duffy's book is a fascinating slice of Tudor life- its conclusions are to be treated with caution because of the limitations of the evidence that it uses- but having said that they are still interesting and important. Sir Christopher Trychay's character- wordy, cantakerous and traditionalist- comes out strongly through the book as do some fascinating insights into the world of Tudor Christianity (the prominence for example of selling ale as a means of funding the Church surprised me!) Whatever the limitations of the evidence, Duffy has delivered a study which does reawake a little corner of the past.