‘The Rabble that Cannot Read’? Ordinary People’s Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England

Mark Hailwood

Those of us historians intent on exploring the world of ordinary women and men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conduct a lot of our research by looking at surviving examples of what such people read–for instance, cheap printed broadside ballads–or of what they wrote–take, say, Joseph Bufton’s notebooks. These materials are fascinating and undoubtedly useful, but regular readers of this blog might understandably find themselves wondering about the validity of this approach, and asking themselves a simple but important question: to what extent could the lower classes of England actually read and write in the seventeenth century?

David Teniers the Younger 'Peasants Reading a Letter...' But could they?

David Teniers the Younger ‘Peasants Reading a Letter…’ But could they?

It’s a fair question, and has important implications. Does this material really provide a window into the minds of the most humble people in Tudor and Stuart society, or were reading and writing skills the preserve of the more affluent, or at least the middling, classes of society? After all, in 1691 the puritan writer Richard Baxter had described his lower-class neighbours as ‘the rabble that cannot read’. Was this fair?

Back in the 1970s the social historian David Cressy came up with a cunningly simple way of measuring the literacy skills of our early modern ancestors: counting the percentage of people who could sign their name to witness statements that they gave before the courts. Witnesses in court cases were drawn from across the social scale, and included men and women, so the results could be broken down by class and gender. The methodology was simple: given that it was customary in the period for people to learn to read before learning to write, it was assumed that people who could write out their own signature were fully literate: they would have learned to both read and write. Given, Cressy argued, that there was no particular stigma attached to not being able to sign your own name, it was unlikely anyone would have learned to do this specific task if they were not actually able to write. Those who could not write out their name, who instead usually simply signed documents with a cross, were counted as illiterate.

The results of this approach suggested that in the seventeenth century only roughly 30% of adult men were fully literate, and only 10% of women were. When broken down by social group, the results show considerable divergence across the social scale. Almost 100% of the gentry were literate. The number was around 60% for yeomen (i.e. wealthier farmers) and tradesmen: the groups historians tend to see as the ‘middling sort’ or middle class. But for husbandmen (poorer farmers) and labourers, the percentage that could read and write was only between 15-20%. Put crudely, all gentlemen were fully literate, just over half of middling class men were, but less than 1 in 5 men from the lower classes were. For all classes of women the figure was more like 1 in 10.[1]

Richard Baxter: 'the rabble that cannot read'

Richard Baxter: ‘the rabble that cannot read’

This might seem to suggest then that reading and writing materials that survive from this period are indeed artifacts of upper and middle class male culture, not the culture of more humble men and women. But there are some problems with these statistics. For a start, as several historians, including Cressy, have pointed out, they are underestimates of reading ability in particular. It was quite common even for the children of the poor to have some schooling, and hence to learn to read, only to be taken out of school at the age at which they were deemed old enough to work on the family farm or in its workshop: around 7 or 8 years old. It was at this age that the teaching of writing skills typically began. It is highly likely then that many people who could not write their name, and would thus be counted as illiterate in these calculations, could in fact read: they were partially literate. Indeed, some historians have suggested that these figures are therefore a massive underestimate of reading ability in the period.[2]

Moreover, in a recent class I showed some examples of seventeenth-century signatures (not taken from witness statements, but from some petitions by villagers to have alehouses either set up or closed down in their locality) to highlight how this methodology works. In the course of the discussion we identified a number of issues with this process of counting signatures that suggests not only is there a problem here with underestimating reading ability, but that the system of sorting them into ‘signatures’ and ‘crosses’ may well be underestimating writing ability too.

Take, for example, this petition from 1646: sent by the neighbours of one Robert Dowse of Hackleton in Wiltshire to the local magistrates encouraging them to issue him with a license to run an alehouse:

Hackleton Petition

Hackleton Petition

It contains some clear examples of written signatures that suggest their authors were competent at writing, and thus at reading:

The signatures of Thomas Bushell and John Hodges

The signatures of Thomas Bushell and John Hodges

Others clearly fall into the category of simple crosses, where someone with greater penmanship skills has written out the name of the signatory and left a space for them to leave ‘his’ or ‘her marke’, i.e. to sign with a cross:

Widow Piper, 'her marke'. The blotchy cross may indicate a lack of inexperience with the quill

Widow Piper, ‘her marke’. The blotchy cross may indicate a lack of experience with the quill

These individuals would be counted as illiterate. Others, however, are not so clear cut. When William Hickman was asked to scratch his mark onto the parchment, he went beyond leaving a simple cross: he sketched out one of his initials:

William Hickman, 'his marke'

William Hickman, ‘his marke’

What should we make of this? This is not a full signature, so in Cressy’s methodology William Hickman would have been filed under ‘illiterate’. But does his use of an initial suggest he had a modicum of ability with the quill in hand? Perhaps he had stayed in schooling long enough to begin writing lessons, but had not fully mastered the art before being called back to lend a hand tilling the soil. If so, he would almost certainly have been able to read. Or maybe he had asked a literate associate, a tradesman from the village, to teach him the basics, so he could at least offer an initial rather than a cross. There may not have been a stigma attached to being unable to sign in full, but it may nonetheless have been important to Hickman to show that at least his literacy skills were a step up from poor Widow Piper’s. This was, after all, a society obsessed with status at every level.

Hickman’s act of one-upmanship might have left an impression on his fellow petitioner Richard Guy. He was invited to add his mark to the list just below the marks of Hickman and Widow Piper. Confronted by their contrasting efforts–the bold H; the blotted cross–Guy may have felt the urge to show that he too was not one of the rabble who could not write: he proffered an initial too, a large R, but it betrayed his inexperienced quill-craft. It was back-to-front:

Richard Guy, 'his marke', albeit back-to-front

Richard Guy, ‘his marke’, albeit back-to-front

Another example, this time a petition from 1631 by the inhabitants of Monksilver and Bicknoller in Somerset to have a disorderly alehouse suppressed, again indicates a diverse range of literacy skills that are not sufficiently captured by the categories of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate':

Signatures on a petition from Somerset

Signatures on a petition from Somerset


Once more, we have some polished full signatures:

John Bellamy

John Bellamy

Yet we also have some marks that do not even come up to the standard of a simple cross. Paul Sayer’s blotted squiggle might well be evidence of an individual with very little experience of ever holding a quill (though it might also be the result of an unsteady hand withered by age):

The marke of Paull Sayer of Monksilver: a splodge

The marke of Paull Sayer of Monksilver: a splodge

Nor does Gilbert Thorne’s mark seem to suggest much familiarity or confidence with writing. This curt flick also invites us to rethink Widow Piper’s dexterity: by comparison her cross is rather more sophisticated, and may suggest that she was more used to putting pen to paper than Sayer or Thorne:

Gilbert Thorne, his marke

Gilbert Thorne, his marke

Most intriguing of all though is the signature of the man I will call George ‘Middleton’ (as you will see his surname is very difficult to decipher – I’m open to advances):

George 'Middleton' of Monksilver

George ‘Middleton’ of Monksilver

First of all, you need to ignore the large cross that looks like a big lower case ‘q’. This is in fact the mark of the previous petitioner, who has signed in the wrong place (easy to do, presumably, if you cannot read). Well, I say ignore, but first note that the cross has been made without removing the quill from the parchment, which could indicate a greater degree of skill than a two stroke cross. It’s joined-up handwriting. Even simple crosses, then, can reveal a diversity of calligraphic ability.

When we look past this cross, we can see that George has not left ‘his marke’ in the form of a cross, or even an initial. It seems as though he has attempted to write out his Christian name, albeit misspelled, in full:



What is more, if we look back to where a more skilled writer has set George’s name down for him to place his mark next to, we see that they have in fact written, uniquely, that what will follow are ‘the markes‘ of George Middleton, not the more routine singular ‘the marke':

'The markes of George...'

‘The markes of George…’

Perhaps George had requested for it to be phrased this way, insisting to his fellow petitioners that there was an important distinction between his writing ability and that of those who could only put a cross beside their name. Why, though, is his surname crossed through? Here is my theory. Imagine his embarrassment when, after confidently insisting he could do ‘markes’ plural, he managed to omit the second ‘g’ from his name. It was a blemish that this proud petitioner could not bear to let alone. So, he decided to up the stakes. He struck out the belittling lines where another man had had to write out his name for him, and down at the bottom of the sheet, below all the other signatures, he endeavoured to sign his own name in full. This time, albeit with a shaking hand that left a spidery ‘George’ and a cramped ‘Middleton’, he succeeded in making his way into the ranks of the ‘literate':

The fully literate 'George Middleton'

The fully literate ‘George Middleton’

Perhaps this is being too fanciful. Is it really the same hand as the first misspelled ‘Geore’? The ‘G’ is certainly not identical, but then would we expect an inexperienced writer to consistently produce identical characters? I admit that we can’t be sure, but even if we put this example aside we can see that the range of signatures on these petitions reveal subtle differences in writing ability: even two simple crosses can be compared and contrasted to tell a story about the varying level of skill with which petitioners could handle a quill. This is important because it demonstrates to us that these gradations in ability mattered to ordinary people at the time: many signatories showed great determination to demonstrate that, with their use of an initial, for example, they were not on the bottom rung of the literacy ladder. It suggests that status, and its handmaiden stigma, clung closely to the literacy abilities of even relatively humble people.

I may be pushing this material too far, but I think these signatures are fascinating. Using them to produce broad statistical estimates of reading and writing ability in the period is, undoubtedly, very useful, but reading them closely has the potential to reveal so much more about the spectrum of literacy that existed in this society. Sorting these signatures into the ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ results in the lumping together as ‘illiterate’ many people who would in fact have had a wide range of at least some reading and writing skills. An illiterate rabble they were not.

[1] David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1 (1977).

[2] See for example Margaret Spufford, ‘First Steps in Literacy: The Reading and Writing Experiences of the Humblest Seventeenth-century Autobiographers’, Social History, 4 (1979).

The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations

Brodie Waddell

Whether you’re a historian, a hairdresser or a helicopter pilot, you may well define yourself by your occupation. The same was true in the early modern period, as when legal scribes added ‘labourer’, ‘weaver’ or ‘yeoman’ after each and every name in their records.

Joseph Bufton, the Essex diarist and sermon-goer, was no different in some ways. His father, John, was listed as a ‘clothier’ in at least four documents between 1645 and 1692. His brother, also John, was likewise a ‘clothier’ in 1671 and 1695. Joseph himself was described as a ‘clothier’ when he served as a trustee for a local charity in 1695 and again when he made up his will in 1718. He was, then, a clothier in a family of clothiers.

So why have I titled this series ‘The Woolcomber’s World’? I’ve used that label because Joseph Bufton was – I think – a woolcomber for most of his life, closely linked with the trades of fulling and combing throughout his time at Coggeshall.

Isaac van Swanenburg's 'The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing' (1595)

Isaac van Swanenburg’s ‘The Removal of the Wool from the Skins and the Combing’ (1595)

The evidence for this comes from yet another almanac-turned-notebook, a Goldsmith’s Almanack of 1686, which Bufton later described as the one which ‘has the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’. In it he recorded the ordinances of his guild, warrants from magistrates to protect the craft, the articles of the journeymen’s ‘purse’, and of course several lengthy poems lauding the glories of the trade. Continue reading

When history and holidaying collide

Brodie Waddell

The international conference is a well-loved feature of academic life.

Its scholarly value should not be underestimated: it brings together researchers who might otherwise never have a chance to talk in person and can help to break down the boundaries between different national research cultures. It is too easy, especially as a Britain-based scholar of British history, to miss out on all of the excellent and often complementary work going on in other languages and in other places. Spending a few days in a foreign city discussing research with European or North American colleagues often provides a fresh perspective that can be very difficult to get at home, even in a cosmopolitan city like London.

However, international conferences aren’t just vital for ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘developing strategic partnerships’, they’re also a nice perk of the job. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say they’re a customary perquisite that many academics would defend all the way to the Tyburn tree. They are usually at least partly subsidised and, if nothing else, provide a good excuse to fly off to somewhere you might otherwise never get around to visiting.

A Rotterdam canal in 1904. Note the narrowboat on the left, just chillaxin'

A Rotterdam canal in 1904. Note the narrowboat on the left, just chillin’

My first opportunity came whilst I was still a PhD student at Warwick in 2008 when the Social History Society decided to host their annual conference at Erasmus University Rotterdam. As this was one of the first times I’d presented a paper, I was inevitably nervous. Thankfully, some unusually sensible Dutch laws made relaxation easy … I remember with great fondness unwinding at the end of the day next to a picturesque old canal with a well-deserved local delicacy, watching the narrowboats slide calmly past.

Sometimes, however, I find that the ‘scholarly’ and the ‘recreational’ parts of international conference-going can get all mixed up together. Continue reading

A Reformation Roundup

Jonathan Willis

Last week, I had the very great pleasure of organising and attending the annual meeting of the European Reformation Research Group, and attending and presenting at the bi-annual Reformation Studies Colloquium, back-to-back, at Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall), Cambridge. I heard 36 papers over 72 hours (including my own), and on Wednesday alone I began conferencing at 9am, didn’t finish until nearly 9.45pm, and heard 14 different papers over the course of the day. What I want to do in this post is to reflect on some of what I heard, and on what it says about the exuberance of reformation studies today. I have three disclaimers. The first is the Colloquium at times had four sessions running in parallel, so my experience of the conference was incomplete, and tailored around my own interests as a historian of the English reformation. The second is that I think it would be a bit tedious to summarise every one even of the 36 papers I heard, and so I’m going to be selective, and pick out papers relating to a few of the themes that stuck out to me most prominently. That means I won’t be mentioning some brilliant work, but I don’t think that can be helped – it would be great if other delegates could add some of their highlights to the comments below! Finally, apologies if I’ve misrepresented anybody’s ideas in what follows. If that’s the case, just let me know, and I will correct it.

hourglassA Long Reformation?

One of the things that really struck me is, in fact, two things, relating to the chronology of reformation studies. The ‘long reformation’ has been an increasingly important concept in recent years, and ‘when does the reformation end?’ is a question with which I perennially enjoy tormenting my students. Historians of the English reformation are now in (rare) broad agreement as to when the reformation didn’t end: and that’s 1559, with the Elizabethan Settlement. An interesting collaborative presentation by Peter Marshall and John Morgan cleverly employed databases and spreadsheets to torpedo the oft-cited statistic that only a handful of the Marian lower clergy resigned or were deprived in the years immediately following Elizabeth’s accession. The true scale of deprivations and resignations is unknown, and perhaps unknowable, but if partial datasets can be trusted as indicative it looks as though the figure calculated by Henry Gee in the early part of the twentieth century was a massive underestimate. Perhaps the longest reformation we saw at this conference was Ben Kaplan’s, who gave in his plenary a sneak preview of his forthcoming book, Cunegonde’s Kidnapping: A Story of Religious Conflict in the Age of Enlightenment. Kaplan traced the origins of a mid-eighteenth-century kidnapping, which brought the local area to the brink of religious war, back through a prolonged history of tension between the Catholics and Calvinists in the small community of Vaals, caught in between the posturing of the Catholic Imperial City of Aachen and the military might of the Dutch Republic. This is an extreme example, but plenty of papers ranged far into the seventeenth century, such as Chris Langley’s fascinating discussion of the local care provided by the Scottish Kirk for wounded soldiers returning from the civil wars and other conflicts. What there was surprisingly little of, at least at ‘my’ conference, was extended discussion of the early reformation.

venny4Interdisciplinary Approaches

Something else that struck me is that interdisciplinarity is now pretty much the norm. Not everybody is doing it, but it’s common enough that it seems incredible that we ever thought that we could study the reformation, let alone understand it, without looking at images, sounds, music, material objects, or employing theoretical or methodological insights from cognate disciplines. Emilie Murphy gave a rich evocation of the life of English Catholic religious orders in exile in Habsburg Spain, in which we could practically hear the tolling of bells and the chanting of nuns, while Margit Thøfner made some tantalising suggestions about the relationships between Lutheran music and church furniture, in particular as it was used to frame the sacramental rites of baptism and the Eucharist. In her plenary, Mary Laven gave a fascinating insight into a major project which aims to uncover the domestic piety of the Italian renaissance home, primarily through the material testimony of objects such as paintings, rosary beads, and ex votos. We also saw some wonderful images of Transylvanian Lutheran church interiors, courtesy of Maria Crăciun, who used them to question the dichotomy between aural and visual worship. At ERRG, Jeff Jaynes gave a fascinating paper on the urban geography of sixteenth-century Lutheran reform, through an examination of printed images of north-German cityscapes.

st_peter_basilica_002A Catholic History Renaissance

It was fitting in a conference which ended with a roundtable acknowledging the enormous contribution to reformation studies of Eamon Duffy (and marking his retirement) that papers on Catholicism were both numerous and vibrant. Half a century ago, Catholicism was the ‘Cinderella’ of reformation studies, but thanks to the work of historians such as Duffy, Walsham, Michael Questier, Bill Sheils, and many more, we are starting to take for granted that post-reformation Catholicism was just as complex, nuanced, and fascinating as early modern Protestantism.  ERRG contained a whole panel on the Catholic West Midlands, with excellent papers by Beth Norton on the Blounts, Laura Verner on (in-)tolerance, and Ruth Barbour on the returns for papists for the Diocese of Worcester in the early eighteenth century. My colloquium also began with a whole panel on the material culture of Catholicism, with brilliant papers from Katy Gibbons, Liz Tingle and Alex Walsham. David de Boer also gave an excellent paper on the Catholic response to Protestant iconoclasm in the Netherlands. The fact that donated church goods technically remained the property of the donor meant that church officials were able to present iconoclasm as an attack not on the church or clergy, but on the community itself. While the value of sacred art was (for the most part) diminished by iconoclasm, relics were often invested with additional meaning by virtue of having survived destruction at the hands of Protestants.

chain-breakingBreaking Paradigms

The last theme I want to discuss is that of ‘breaking paradigms’. In a way, of course, pretty much everything an academic writes is in a sense controversial: designed to change, modify or refine accepted views on a given topic. Still, there are some papers that take on the challenge with more gusto than others. Alec Ryrie’s plenary deserves a special mention here. Coming out of a forthcoming history of global Protestantism, Ryrie suggested that the ‘confessional’ model of the reformation, while useful, has run its course; that we should not attempt to understand Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism as parallel ‘confessions’; that we should reject the traditional division between ‘radical’ and ‘magisterial’ reformers; and even questioned whether ‘Protestant’ itself is a useful term of analysis. Clearly this is going to be a book to wait for with some anticipation! Adam Morton gave a very interesting paper in which he suggested that we re-think iconoclasm in post-reformation England, contending that the sense of sight was not rejected by Protestants, but refocused in new and creative ways. My own paper on illustrated commandment boards issued a mild corrective against the increasing tendency to see Protestant visual culture as migrating exclusively to the domestic sphere. And a pair of papers from Greg Salazar and Emma Turnbull asked us reconsider different aspects of ‘anti-popery’, and the ensuing discussion ranged widely over the possible differences between anti-popery and anti-Catholicism.

We may not yet know where ERRG 2015 and Reformation Studies 2016 are taking place: but we can be pretty certain that they will both definitely be worth attending.  Amidst all the admin and chaos of the start of a new academic year, it was good to be reminded of how rich and exciting a field I’m lucky enough to work in!

Fantastic Thoresby – Part IV: An archive closure, a whale and a funny friend

Laura Sangha

This is my latest post in my long running series on the pious Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby. My thanks to the Yorkshire Archeological Society for their permission to reproduce material from the Thoresby papers.

ClaremontI recently returned from an end of summer ‘smash and grab’ raid on the archive with a memory card stuffed full of hundreds of images of diary entries, correspondence and other bits and bobs from Ralph Thoresby’s papers. I consulted all of this material at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (YAS) headquarters in Leeds, where the Thoresby Society is also currently located. Both are housed at Claremont, a splendid eighteenth-century merchants’ abode that is a delight for any student of history to work in, peaceful and accessible as it is. The staff and volunteers are very welcoming and knowledgeable, and the archivist Kirsty McHugh in particular went out of her way to accommodate me on my visit. Alas, Claremont will not provide such a salubrious environment to scholars for much longer, because lack of funds means that the Society’s Library and Historical Collections are to be moved, and Claremont is to be sold. Fortunately, the collection is to be loaned to the magnificent Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, hopefully preserving the unique character and coherence of the whole, but nonetheless this is sad news for those who have sustained the YAS over the years, and particularly for those currently based there.

With the start of term only a week away, it is likely to be some time before I can digest the material that accompanied me back to the South West, but I did stumble across a couple of bits of found art that I wanted to share.

The first I found in YAS MS15, a collection of letters from the clergyman George Plaxton (1647/8-1720) to Ralph Thoresby. Plaxton was another Yorkshire antiquarian who became rector of the valuable living of Barwick in Elemet in July 1703. He immediately struck up a friendship with Thoresby and they exchanged letters, books, documents and information for many years. Plaxton stands out among Thoresby’s correspondents (even to the scholar just taking endless photographs of documents for days on end…) because of his rambunctious writing style and for the wide range of nicknames that Plaxton used to address his letters to Thoresby. These range from the more regular Good Friend, Ralpho, and Mercury, to the more unusual Sydrophil (sometimes mystical conjurorshortened to Sydri). My favourites however are: the Great Antiquary, the Mystical Conjuror, and perhaps most memorably, the Wizzard. On occasions Plaxton would also address the ‘envelop’ using a nickname, which invited the carrier into the joke as well – I wonder how my subject felt about being addressed in this public manner as ‘The Portly Mr Thoresby at Leeds’?

The letter that particularly caught my eye was one that was addressed:

To the Ghost of Mr Ralph Thoresby late of Leeds, To be left at the sign of Methusalems head in the suburbs of Purgatory, [from] Frank John Mandeville.

to the ghostWhat was this reference to the fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman writer doing there? Of course I stopped and read on, with growing amusement. Evidently Thoresby had not written to or visited his friend for some time, because Plaxton wrote:

I am now satisfy’d that Ralph Thoresby is dead, for had he been alive he would have seen mee this Frost, but he is certainly gone to the other world to converse with Selden, Cambden, Goltzius, St Simon d’ Ewes and other Antiquaries. I hope he will meet with [Jacobethan traveller and writer] Tom Coryat, and other Learned Foot-pads in his Travells, and compare notes and compare shoes with them. I am sure that [medieval monk and astronomer] John de Sacro Boko will be glad to see him, and so will [medieval Bishop] old Paulinus of Leeds, and the Merry Abbot of Kirkshall. I hope he will discourse with Robin Hood, and get his Pedigree, and send us word who was Litle John’s Godfather. Had I known of his journey I would have sent some Materiall Enquiries by him, and writ a letter to our friends Fryer Bacon, and honest Bungay [characters in an Elizabethan play], but Ralpho slipt away unknown to his Friends. I will write to him by the next Neighbour who goes that Road and send 1d to drink with him, and poor honest Owen, who I am sure will be glad to see an old Acquaintance. By this time I judge he is neare Purgatory, if he pass well that dark and Troublesome Lane, he will soon be at this Journeys end. I have no more to add but that I am

Old Sydrophills Living Friend and Servant

Barbicus. St Thomas’s day 1709

A very silly letter

A very silly letter

The letter is almost entirely humorous in function – though there is a request for Thoresby to send a tobacco box and inkhorn to the vicar, this afterthought seems far less important than the jest itself. It’s funny even to modern sensibilities (‘send us word who was Litle John’s Godfather’), and whilst parts exhibit the sender and recipients’ learning, there are plenty of references to more ‘popular’ culture, to local figures, and to the medieval past in the mix. It is quite a sophisticated piece of wit, an example of the presumably everyday humour that rarely survives in the types of sources that I usually work with when studying religious cultures, and which leaves few traces elsewhere. A reminder then, that early modern people made jokes too.

I will certainly be exploring the Plaxton-Thoresby relationship in more depth in future. I’m particularly interested in any drafts of letters to Plaxton that might survive in Thoresby’s copy book, because the light-hearted offerings from ‘Barwick’ suggest a less sombre and more cheery side to Thoresby’s character that his spiritual diaries in particular might obscure.

My second bit of found art fulfils the criteria in a more literal way. It is from YAS MS19, a miscellaneous collection of notes covering all of Thoresby’s life. There are very few illustrations in the Thoresby papers, so I feel I don’t really need to explain why this one caught my eye, except to say that he also looks like he would appreciate a jest too.

the whale fish


The Woolcomber’s World, Part II: Finding God in seventeenth-century Essex

Brodie Waddell

Joseph Bufton spent a lot of time thinking about God. He assiduously went along to hear sermons by the local vicar and by travelling preachers. He read scores of books and pamphlets offering religious guidance. What’s more, he filled many volumes with notes and extracts from these sermons and published texts. He even tried his hand at spiritual poetry, with decidedly unimpressive results.

What, then, do we know about Bufton’s faith?

Bufton - Coggeshall parish church

The (mostly) 15th-century parish church in which Bufton spent many a Sunday

As I explained in my previous post on Bufton, almost all of our knowledge of this Essex woolcomber comes from the notes he scribbled in the margins and blank pages of eleven volumes of almanacs between the 1660s and the 1710s. As such we can learn a considerable amount about his exposure to diverse religious ideas and instruction.

However, there are limits. The volumes include only a few hints about his own personal thoughts on such matters, especially his place in the fraught religious politics of the later Stuart period. Still, the fact that eight of the eleven surviving volumes are mostly or entirely focused on spiritual concerns surely can tell us something about how a simple layman set about finding God in late seventeenth-century Coggeshall. Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part I: A life scribbled in the margins of almanacs

Brodie Waddell

On 8 August 1716, Joseph Bufton sat down to take stock of his little archive.

For about forty years, he had been filling the margins and blank pages of old almanacs with notes. He now had quite a collection and his terse list hints at their contents.

‘I reckon I have here 22 almanacks’, he wrote…

  • Seven volumes were ‘filled up chiefly with things taken out of other books’, including ‘out of a dictionary’.
  • Five were account books, some ‘of household stuff, &c.’, but others probably related to his work.
  • Three volumes were ‘out of Irish letters, &c.’, that is to say, copies of letters between Joseph and his brother John, who had removed to Ireland in 1678.
  • Two were ‘filled up with notes of sermons’ and ‘an account of funerall sermons’.
  • One was ‘filled chiefly with buriall and marriage’, chronicling the vital events of his family members and neighbours.
  • Another ‘I keep on my board and write in dayly’, though its precise contents remain a mystery.
  • One he ‘fill’d great part with Bellman’s verses’, short poems celebrating the chief annual religious and civic festivals such as Christmastide and the royal birthday.
  • A final volume recorded the rules of his trade in the form of ‘the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’

This extraordinary little library has only partly survived the ensuing centuries. Only eleven volumes – half the total noted by Bufton in 1716 – are known to remain. Eight of these are held in his native county at the Essex Record Office and another three can be found at the Brotherton Library in Leeds. Still, the fact that any escaped the rubbish heap is surely a sign of providential favour – most personal jottings of this sort were long ago destroyed by unfortunate fires, spring cleanings or damp basements.


One of Bufton's almanacs, including a scrawl of notes in every available margin.

One of Bufton’s almanacs, including his scrawl of notes in every available margin.

This brings me to the question that I suspect most readers’ are now asking themselves: Who was Joseph Bufton and why should anyone care?

I would love to be able to include a portrait here of Bufton, showing you what he looked like posing in his prime. However, unlike Laura’s current hobby-horse Thoresby, Bufton never achieved the sort of wealth or notoriety necessary for a pictorial acknowledgement of his existence. Even his biographical details are too sketchy for a detailed pen-portrait, and I am still trying to fill in some of the gaps.

Coggeshall, Essex, c1700

Coggeshall, between Braintree and Cochester (c.1700).

What we do know is that Joseph Bufton was born in 1650 to John and Elizabeth, a clothier and his wife. He grew up and lived most of his life in Coggeshall in Essex, a small town dominated by the woollen industry, and he found employment there as a woolcomber. I have not found any evidence that he married or had children, but he did have an older brother, John, and three older sisters, Mary, Elizabeth and Rebecca.

In 1699, he left Coggeshall, and he made few notes after that date. It is not clear where he lived out the rest of his life, though it may have been London or Colchester as he lists two account books as ‘1 for Lon., 1 for Colc.’. Similarly obscure is his death. All that is certain is that he survived until at least 1716, when he would have been sixty-six years old.

In subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to shine some light on this ill-defined silhouette. By looking at his eleven volumes of surviving notes from several different angles, we can begin to illuminate a well-rounded individual with eclectic tastes, surrounded by a diverse crowd of family, friends, co-workers and neighbours. My hope is that I’ll convince you that Bufton’s scribblings are not only interesting and sometimes amusing. They can, in fact, allow us to get some sense of how life was lived – God worshipped, money made, communities peopled – by people who far too rarely wrote anything down.


I owe a considerable debt to Henry French for both information and ideas about Bufton, some of which he has published in The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (2007), pp. 244-50. I’ve also drawn on G.F. Beaumont, A History of Coggeshall (1890), pp. 219-29. I previously discussed Bufton in God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life (2012), pp. 199-202. The title of these posts is borrowed from Paul Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (1985). Bufton’s surviving notebooks can be found at the Essex Record Office, D/DBm Z7-Z14, and the Brotherton Library, MS 8-10.