Lately I’ve been reading and writing about a large number of godly lives. This is a fascinating genre. Individual stories have always played an important role in Christianity – the gospels themselves, of course, are first and foremost accounts of the life of Christ, written by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Confessions of Augustine; the hagiographical accounts of the lives (and deaths) of saints; the intensely spiritual and personal visions of mystics like Julian of Norwich: all these are examples of how life writing of different kinds has played an important role in shaping religious belief and practice in the millennium and a half following the birth of Christ. However, we see two new and distinctive developments occurring in the early modern period. One is the growth of something which starts to look recognisably like modern autobiography: a warts and all account of the trials and tribulations of an individual life, from start to end. The second is the invention of the so-called ‘spiritual diary’ – that puritan specialism, which combined observations on daily life with deeply personal soul-searching: prayer, godly meditation, and the anatomisation and identification of sin. This is where my interest in these documents primarily lies, because the Ten Commandments (about which I’m currently writing a book) were one of the main tools used by puritan authors to forensically examine their spiritual health.
Augustine – father of the spiritual autobiography?
Once you start looking, it is surprising how many politicians, poets and pioneers have found the answer to the question ‘what kind of society do you want?’ in Scripture, taking as their model the New Jerusalem described by John of Patmos in Revelation. John’s ecstatic vision predicts that following Judgement Day, New Jerusalem will be the earthly location where all true believers will spend eternity with God. This heavenly society became the model that people would evoke for centuries to come. Why was it so enduring?
Another aspirational model – Thomas More’s Utopia.
Ideal Aspirations for All
As we saw in the previous post, the concept of a New Jerusalem is not static, it is a flexible idea that is taken up and defined according to the historical context it is used in, and in line with the intentions and aims of the person evoking it. It can be used to support the establishment of racial equality, the welfare state, or (perhaps?) resistance to industrialisation. But in each of the examples I discussed, you can see that the New Jerusalem is something to aspire to, it is an ideal society, a target, a goal. It is a place where injustice, discrimination and fear have no place, and where people can develop to the full, in co-operation with others. Continue reading
James II: funny, entertaining, shocking
Since September last year, I have spent four hours a week discussing, with sixteen University of Exeter students, what it meant to be a Protestant in England from the Reformation right through to the early eighteenth century (thus partly explaining why I have had so little to say on the monster recently). Those 168 hours have been intellectually exciting (Calvinist consensus, avant-garde conformity, objects as sources), sometimes funny (‘performing’ sermons, ballad recordings, James II), hopefully entertaining (puritans vs the alehouse, museum visits, James II), perhaps dull (Ralph Thoresby’s sermon notes, burial patterns as excel spreadsheets), often shocking (king killing, Diggers, James II) and always immensely rewarding. Two central ideas have underpinned our exploration of English religious cultures of the time, encapsulated in the unwieldy module title:
‘A New Jerusalem: Being Protestant in post-Reformation England’.
Half inspired by Alec Ryrie’s excellent study of the ‘lived experience’ of Protestantism up to 1640 (Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, 2013), it is the concept embedded in the other half of the title that I want to offer some reflections on in this post. As usual a small idea rather grew in the writing, so today I will look at some examples, whilst in a second post at the end of the week I will provide some summarising thoughts. Continue reading
In 1787, a rag-tag band of rebels and revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to write a constitution. They decided to begin the document with a phrase that has since become rather famous: ‘We the People of the United States’.
About 250 years earlier, in the 1530s and 40s, there were a series of new translations of the Bible into English that included an intriguing phrase amongst the Psalms: ‘Let us knele before the LORDE oure maker. For he is oure God: as for us, we are the people of his pasture, and the shepe of his handes.’ The phrase was integrated into the new Book of Common Prayer in 1549, so from then on English congregations would routinely sing this together, collectively declaring themselves to be God’s people. Continue reading
According to a crude survey of published texts, ‘the people’ were invoked frequently in print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in times of political turmoil such as the 1640s and 1688-89. However, published texts are notoriously unreliable representatives of actual contemporary discussion. They were produced by the literate, for the literate, often using carefully crafted rhetoric.
Manuscripts can bring us slightly closer to a less skewed view of ‘the people’. Although obviously they too were only produced by the literate elite, they occasionally purport to record the voices of the illiterate and they tend to be less polemical as they were not intended to influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, there is no manuscript equivalent of the huge sample of published texts that have been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership, though the Folger Library is giving it a go with its own manuscript collection. The State Papers Online is also promising, but only the calendars, rather than the original documents, have been transcribed. The closest to an equivalent to EBBO-TCP is probably the corpus of 240,000 transcriptions on the wonderful London Lives site, though these only cover the period 1690 to 1800 and the early material has many irregular transcriptions.
I’ve mostly drawn on my own little collection of notes from various archival documents (and published editions thereof), amounting to just over 600 pages in total, in which I found about 70 mentions of ‘the people’. Of course my notes are heavily biased in all sorts of ways, with a notable focus on the late 17th century, thanks to my current obsession with the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s. Still, it’s better than nothing. (In what follows, I have not included references, but I’m happy to supply them upon request and I have included links to any quotations taken from London Lives.)
So, with that methodological stuff out of the way, who are ‘the people’ in these sources? Continue reading
In our on-going discussions of social description and social identity on this blog, we have tried to think through how we talk about the ‘non-elite’ individuals that we study. We’ve shown the problems with ‘plebeians’ and ‘the people’, yet I think this latter term is worth looking at from another angle. In Mark’s post on ‘the rise of the people’, he focused on how historians have used the term, but he also mentioned that:
It would be interesting to run a project on the history and meanings of the term ‘the people’ across the centuries, as has been done for instance for ‘commonwealth‘.
I can’t claim this little post is even a preliminary report on any such project. However, I did spend a couple hours searching through Early English Books Online to try to get a sense of how contemporaries used this term in early modern England. So, who were ‘the people’?
The first feature to note is that the term was extremely common. There were just over 400,000 hits for ‘the people’ in the 44,313 transcribed texts on EBBO. Continue reading
Last summer we ran a blog series called ‘Marooned on an Island Monographs’, a collection of posts inspired by the question: what 5 history monographs would you take with you to a deserted island? Each post offered suggested reading on a particular topic or type of history – trying to pick just 5 monographs to cover the whole of human history was a bit too tough! – and the themes covered included early modern social, economic and religious history, and even historical fiction.
The series proved quite popular, and people have told us the lists are really useful too: they can provide a handy guide to a new topic for both students and teachers, or even just a helpful overview of key works in a subject area you don’t know much about – a resource for a bit of quick swotting up for when you next have a Reformation scholar over to dinner! So, we thought it would be a good idea to revive the series and make a bit of a resource out of it, but as there are only so many topics us monster-heads can cover between us we’ve decided to occasionally invite some of our favourite historians to help us out with a guest post!
Our first guest is Jennifer Evans, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hertfordshire. Her research is focused on the body, medicine and gender and covers the period 1550-1750. Jennifer is the author of Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, runs her own blog Early Modern Medicine, and tweets @HistorianJen.
Below is my list of history of medicine books that I often turn to or particularly enjoyed. Now these are probably not what would appear on most people’s ultimate guide to early modern medical history (there is, as you will see, a notably absence of Margaret Pelling’s The Task of Healing: Medicine, Religion and Gender in England and the Netherlands 1450-1800 and Roy Porter’s numerous works), but they are well worth a read. Some of them are general texts and some deal with more specific areas of research. Taken together I think they suggest the breadth and diversity of the field and show all of the interesting areas of research being undertaken in the field. Continue reading