‘A guide, a mistress in godliness…’: in search of clergy wives in reformation England

Jonathan Willis


Christ Church, Oxford

The marriage of Protestant clergymen was one of the most controversial aspects of the reformation, in England as elsewhere. Opprobrium was heaped upon clergy who married, and also upon their wives. Even death was no escape from censure. During the reign of Mary I, Strype tells us, Richard Marshall, the dean of Christ Church, exhumed the body of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s wife from its resting place in the cathedral, and had it thrown onto a dunghill, presumably because in the eyes of the Catholic authorities she was no better than a heretical priest’s whore.[1]



817xcpDamhLHistorical interest in clerical marriage and clergy wives has increased substantially in recent years, with our understanding of the field primarily shaped by the work of Eric Carlson and Helen Parish.[2] This also seems to be a topic that really captures the imagination of students: when I ask my seminar groups to look at the Marian Injunctions of 1554, for example, they often marvel at the amount of attention given to clerical marriage, together with the uncompromising and uncharitable tone of the articles (the ones that say that married priests must no longer be allowed to be working priests, or to remain ‘married’). I’ve recently finished supervising an undergraduate dissertation on clerical marriage, and whilst the student, Helena Theo, worked extremely hard, and turned up some interesting material, it is clear that there is not exactly a wealth of sources giving an intimate picture of the relationships of the first generation of married clergy and their wives, especially from the female point of view (thank you Helena, for a very enjoyable supervisory experience, and for your permission to mention you here!).


The Zurich Letters

In this post, I want to try to explore this relationship in a little more detail, and especially the extent to which marriage was an important aspect of the identity these early reformers constructed for themselves. I’m going to do so using a very well-known source, but one which (to my knowledge) has not been extensively mined for this sort of material, either by any historian of clerical marriage, or indeed by Helena, whose project went off in a slightly different direction. That source is the two-volumes of The Zurich Letters, published by the Parker Society in the 1840s, and, as it says on the title page, ‘comprising the correspondence of several English bishops and others with some of the Helvetian reformers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth’. Continue reading

A revolution, an economic crisis and a very sarcastic clergyman

Brodie Waddell

Thomas Smith was not a man of the people. Although born to a London merchant, he made his name teaching Hebrew at Oxford, publishing a thesis on Aramaic in the Old Testament and spending several years in Constantinople hunting down Greek manuscripts. Smith was, above all, an uncompromising believer in a very particular brand of high-church Anglicanism, so when William and Mary captured the throne in 1689 he refused to take the oath to the new monarchs.

In the 1690s, Smith watched the aftermath of the Revolution unfold. It was not a pretty sight. Maritime trade was battered by war with France, taxes doubled within a few years, food prices rose dramatically and the people lost faith in the currency. Although Smith seems to have lived a fairly comfortable life and remained focused on his scholarly work, his correspondence reveals that he had a good eye for the problems that beset ‘the common people’ in this decade. Continue reading

Food for Thought III: A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque

Mark Hailwood

This is the third and final post in a series introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first, here for the second). The previous post concluded on Pierre Bourdieu’s point that the cultures of different social groups were relational to one another. But what was the nature of this relationship? It can be interpreted in a number of ways. Elias, for instance, as I mentioned in the previous post, tended to think that the cultural practices and preferences of the elites gradually ‘percolated’ down through the rest of society. Sometimes a similar argument is made with reference to the term ’emulation’ – the idea that lower social groups tend to ape the culture of higher social groups, and that this in turn causes those higher social groups to reinvent themselves to maintain their sense of distinctiveness and superiority.



A rather different way of looking at the relationship between the cultures of different social groups can be seen in our next concept that has proved popular with historians of food and drink – Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’. Bakhtin was a Russian literary critic, most famous for his book about the French Renaissance humanist Francois Rabelais, published in 1965 (although written under the Stalinist regime during WWII) Rabelais and His World. In the book, Bakhtin argued that Rabelais’ work provided a valuable insight into what he called the ‘folk culture’ of early modern Europe. If Elias’ conduct books could reveal the eating and drinking culture of European elites, what Bakhtin termed ‘official culture’, then Rabelais had written a carefully observed account of the consumption practices and dispositions prevalent amongst ordinary men and women. Continue reading

Food for Thought II: Sociology – Civility and Habitus

Mark Hailwood

In this second of three posts introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first) I’m going to move on to think about some of those borrowed from sociologists. The last post ended by stating that a concern with change over time plays an important role in the types of theories historians tend to like and dislike: and it helps to explain why they have been taken with our next key concept – the notion of the ‘civilising process’.

Norbert Elias

Norbert Elias

This was a theory first posited by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, back in 1939, but its main impact on Anglophone historians only came when it was translated into English in 1969, as: The Civilizing Process, Vol. 1: The History of Manners (1969). Its central claim was that between the middle ages (c.800AD) and the nineteenth century the manners of Europeans had become gradually more ‘civilised’ – by which he didn’t necessarily mean ‘better’ or more ‘progressive’ (he wasn’t passing judgement) but marked by increasing levels of self-restraint and self-control, especially with regards to violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table-manners and forms of speech. By reading conduct manuals – guides to appropriate forms of social etiquette, a very popular genre – from across these centuries, Elias identified a shift away from an aristocratic honour culture in the middle ages which had seen aggression, violence, and the excessive consumption of food and drink as acceptable and laudable, towards an increasing sense of shame and repugnance towards all of these behaviours. Continue reading

Food for Thought: An Introduction to Theory via the History of Food and Drink

Mark Hailwood


Most historians are not especially enthusiastic about theory. We tend to have an aversion to dealing with abstract concepts, and struggle to see how they might apply to what we work on. Instead, we feel much more at home when we are dealing with context; with specific evidence grounded in, and bounded by, time and place. But like it or not, theoretical concepts have played a major role in shaping historical research – though they are concepts usually borrowed from other disciplines, not produced by historians themselves – so ignoring theory is really not an option.

Doc Brown's thinking cap: not essential for understanding theory

Doc Brown’s thinking cap: not essential for understanding theory

This is as true of food and drink history as other types of history – perhaps more so. The history of drinking, for instance, might just seem like a series of amusing anecdotes (see my alehouse characters series) but really it is all about how we interpret the instances of eating and drinking that we find in the archives, how we use them to tell stories about the societies and cultures that they take place in. For this, historians of eating and drinking tend to rely on various theoretical concepts developed outside of history to try and make sense of the rituals of food and drink consumption that we find in the archives.

So, in the various courses I have taught about the history of food and drink in early modern England I usually have to broach theory at some stage. Trying to teach theory to undergraduate historians is rarely the easiest of teaching assignments, so what I try to do is to show how ideas have been applied to the specific field of food and drink history to help students see their relevance. The aim is not to provide them with a complete mastery of the concepts we discuss – I wouldn’t claim to have this myself – but rather to give them an introductory sense of them so that (a) when they come across mentions of them in the literature they will have an idea of what they mean, and (b) to provide them with a platform to build from should they wish to delve deeper into these concepts in their essays and projects.

Anyway, when recently backing up some computer files I came across the lecture I usually give on this theme, and thought that it might also work well as a series of blog posts that could serve as a very basic introduction to some of the key theoretical concepts used by historians – structuralism, habitus, the civilising process – that might be of interest to undergrads, postgrads, or anyone else who is keen to (or perhaps for a course they are taking, has to) engage with some theory but is a bit daunted by the prospect of delving straight into [insert archetypal daunting theory book here]. Anyone who is a master of these concepts might like to read on and helpfully point out where I get them wrong!

The lecture is a bit long for one post, so I’ll break it down into 3 posts over the next couple of weeks. Part I, below, deals with ‘Anthropology and Structuralism'; Part II will look at ‘Sociology: Civility and Habitus'; and Part III at ‘A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque’. Tuck in… Continue reading

Woodford’s woes: debt and divine favour in early modern England

Jonathan Willis

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.[1] 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?

Augustine – father of the spiritual autobiography?

Continue reading

Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part II

Laura Sangha

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.

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