This wasn’t originally going to be the first utterance of this particular newly-sprouted head of the many-headed monster, but Brodie’s recent musings ‘On the merits of dust‘ and the lively debate it sparked set me to thinking about one of my favourite short-cuts to a treasure-trove of brilliant archival material, the Records of Early English Drama series. REED (for short), for those of you who haven’t come across it, is an international project with its home at the University of Toronto. Since 1975 they have published almost thirty edited volumes bringing together collections of transcribed documentary material relating to drama, secular music, and community ceremonial and entertainments from the middle ages until the middle of the seventeenth century. Organised variously by city, county or region, these reassuringly sturdy big red books would be a handsome edition to any library or bookshelf (no, I’m not on commission), and even better many of them are also available to download in PDF format, perfectly legally(!), through the Internet Archive website. This is a top-notch published collection of manuscript material, gathered from record offices up and down the country, which is not only available in university libraries but also on your laptop, desktop or tablet.
‘All well and good’, you might say, ‘but what has this got to do with me?’ Early English drama is a rather narrow area of enquiry, albeit a fascinating one. But the diverse nature of the sources used makes the REED volumes an absolute goldmine for all sorts of incidental information. Take this case from the Deposition Book for Salisbury Deanery included in the Dorset and Cornwall volume of REED , which I stumbled across while looking for material relating to the capacity of music to sow the seeds of religious division in communities. The examinations of two husbandmen, Thomas Howlett and Geoffrey Phipper, together tell a sorry (and slightly amusing) tale of a clash between two very different religious cultures at a church ale in Bere Regis in 1590.
The gist of the matter is that Thomas Whiffen (a minstrel) was fiddling at the church ale, when Mr Woodknutt (the local vicar) came up to him ‘and disliked (as itt should seeme) of his playinge’. Whiffen put up his instrument, and that might have been an end to it, until Thomas Ffawkner/Ffawconer (one of the churchwardens) asked Whiffen to play again, with a promise that he ‘would aunswere itt’. Woodknutt called to another member of the parish, Harry Gerrard, for backup, and to witness Ffawkner’s words. Gerrard was clearly possessed of a fiery temperament, and at this point in the proceedings turned to Whiffen and ‘vttered and spake these wordes, viz he might haue byd away and not haue come there a fidlinge like an arrant knave he might better have byd att home a making of spleetes and bottoming of seeves like a cuckolde knave then to come here a troblinge of the parishe.’
REED (and perhaps history) does not record the outcome of the case, but Gerrard’s defamation of Whiffen was clearly motivated by something: either a clash of religious and festive cultures, a reaction against the dubious social status of the itinerant musician, or perhaps a personal animosity. The difference of opinion between Woodknutt – the vicar of Bere – and Ffawkner – one of the churchwardens of the parish – is also tantalising. REED is certainly not a substitute for stepping into an archive (dusty or otherwise), and it is both a strength and a weakness that it offers a very selective sample of material, but it does give us a sense of what was going on all around the country whilst also fitting in with some of the broad, thematically constructed topics that many of us work on from time to time. Finally, and on something of a tangent, I’d love to know if other people have come across insults involving the ‘making of spleetes and bottoming of seeves’…
 WRO, D5/22/2, ff 47v-48v, in Records of Early English Drama: Dorset and Cornwall, ed. Rosalind Conklin Hays, C.E. McGee, Sally L. Joyce and Evelyn S. Newlyn (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1999), pp. 123-5.