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.

Sermon gadding

Twelve-year-old boys aren’t particularly well known for their interest in funeral sermons. Yet on 1 April 1663, the young Joseph Bufton, merely a few months past his twelfth birthday, wrote a detailed account of the sermon preached by Thomas Jessop at the burial of a local clothier named John Sudbury. He recorded 70 funeral sermons in this volume altogether, ending only in 1699 when he left Coggeshall. He also filled at least another three volumes with more sermons notes, including Sunday sermons, Good Friday sermons, Christmas sermons, thanksgiving sermons, and fast day sermons.

The first page in Bufton’s pocket-sized book of notes on 82 sermons

The first page in Bufton’s pocket-sized book of notes on 82 sermons

The sheer number of sermons he attended is not too surprising. All parishioners were, in fact, legally obliged to go to church every Sunday, so he was hardly exceptional in hearing hundreds of sermons over these three and a half decades.

His rigorous note-taking was a bit more unusual. Plenty of people took notes at sermons by the seventeenth century, but – as Arnold Hunt has shown – most of these people had a university or at least grammar school education. Bufton undoubtedly lacked such formal schooling, so why was he so assiduous in attempting to record what he heard at the pulpit? I’m inclined to see two likely causes. First, he was by nature a chronicler of everything going on around him, a point to which I will return in a later post. Second, and more importantly in this instance, the writing of sermon notes was part of a wider ‘puritan’ culture that Bufton seems to have partly inhabited. Just like Nehemiah Wallington – the puritan London wood-turner – Bufton believed that godly preaching ought to be prized as a source of great spiritual guidance. And what better way to receive full benefit of the preaching ministry than to carefully record the wisdom offered from the pulpit?

Even more unusual was Bufton’s ecumenical taste in preachers. In the 1660s and 1670s, he recorded 39 funeral sermons by a dozen different clergymen. Two of them were the vicars of his native Coggeshall – hardly surprising. Six were ministers from other parishes, including the neighbouring villages of Earls Colne and Kelvedon as well as churches further afield such as Great Yeldham, which was about 15 miles distant. At first glance, then, Bufton seems to be an upstanding Church of England man. However, three of the other preachers he heard were local independent ministers who refused to conform to the established church, so perhaps Bufton was not as orthodox as he first appeared. In his notes, Bufton actually eludes to the problems faced by one of dissenters in 1675. The preacher, a Presbyterian named Matthew Ellistone, was ‘hindered’ from reading his sermon at the burial so instead ‘preached it the Sunday after’, when he explicitly remarked on the ‘unkind and unchristian opposition’ that he had received.

His words are a reminder of the often vicious interdenominational struggles that were going on in England at this time. The Test Acts and other penal laws against religious dissent were in full force, and they were occasionally augmented by popular violence. Yet, for all that, at least one layperson – and doubtless many others – happily wandered across these denominational boundaries, soaking up the wisdom preached by both firm churchmen and persecuted dissenters.

Godly reading

Bufton’s reading habits mirrored his sermon gadding. Despite his minimal or non-existent formal education, he read an extraordinary amount and it was predominantly works of piety. Henry French found that over two-thirds of the titles mentioned by Bufton were religious texts of some kind or another. He dutifully copied out short extracts or long passages that caught his eye, in the style of a commonplace book.

However, here again we find a promiscuous mix of puritans and anti-puritans, conformists and ejected ministers. A very brief selection demonstrates the diversity of authors he enjoyed:

  • Various printed sermons by Archbishop John Tillotson, a ‘low church’ latitudinarian.
  • Contemplations upon the Principal Passages of the Holy Story (1612), by Joseph Hall, a puritan who remained within the established church.
  • The Young Man’s Monitor (1664), by Samuel Crossman, who was ejected for refusing to conform after the Restoration.
  • The Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696) of Richard Baxter, the popular but controversial puritan dissenter.
  • Divine Fancies (1632), poems written by Francis Quarles establishing him ‘as an Anglican and a royalist’, according to his biographer.

Bufton’s choice of verses from the last of these texts is particularly pleasing. In his copy of The Complete Tradesman, he recorded Quarles’s poem ‘On God and God’:

My God & Gold cannot possess one heart

My God and I, or Gold and I must part.

So, in a handbook devoted to teaching its readers how to make a profit, Bufton decided to reaffirm his belief that God – not filthy lucre – must come first. This was a man who was unmistakably eclectic in his diet of religious literature whilst remaining steadfast in his commitment to some of the more uncompromising elements of Christian doctrine.

Awful poetry

When it came to religion, Bufton did not merely record the words of others. He also attempted to write his own spiritual poetry. It would be cruel to inflict more than a tiny selection on our readers, so I’ll merely note that – as with his extract from Quarles – much of it dealt with decidedly worldly issues such as ‘good works’, ‘Sinfull lusts’ and ‘Rich men’.

Bufton - poem with zodiac manNonetheless, most of it offered decidedly conventional godly platitudes and awkward rhymes. The stanza below, squeezed around a zodiac man in the middle of one of his almanacs, gives enough of a favour.

Earthly injoyments may be lost,

Or we with them may be much crost

Made sure to us they cannot be,

From troubles we cannot be free.

Making sense of Bufton’s faith

Taken together, Bufton’s spiritual scribblings reveal someone who was unusual in all sorts of ways, without seeming to cross over into the realms of the openly radical or schismatic. The volume of material shows that he was clearly pious and eager for religious knowledge, presumably much more involved in written religious culture than many of his fellow woolcombers. He was also eclectic and open in his godly reading and sermon gadding, embracing conformist and dissenters alike.

But for all that, his personal religious outlook remains mostly obscure. The vast majority of his notes are verbatim extracts or paraphrases of other people, rather than his own personal reflections. Even his occasional forays into religious poetry are mostly too generic to be especially revealing. Despite hundreds of pages of pious writing, the full depth of Bufton’s faith is still tantalizingly out of reach.

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

  1. Fascinating stuff Brodie – the more I hear about Bufton, the more curious I become. I think you’re spot on in terms of how we shouldn’t let the multiplication of dissenting denominations fool us into thinking that a majority (even a minority?) fit neatly and distinctly into a single category: this was a buzzing religious marketplace, and people seem to have experimented widely, sampling (and perhaps holding) a range of different and (often contradictory) opinions.

    I’m very interested to hear that he started noting sermons so young – 12 years old! Alec Ryrie notes in Being Protestant that we know too little about the spirituality of early modern children, so this really is an exciting aspect of Bufton’s historical residue.

    I wonder if I could quiz you on a methodological point though: who do you think Bufton was writing for? Wallington (and others who kept spiritual diaries) were clearly writing for three audiences: themselves, God, and a select group of close friends/family who they would show their writings to, perhaps some years after they were first penned. Do you think the fact that Bufton’s writings are predominantly marginalia mean that they were perhaps more ‘personal’, less ‘constructed’, not written for an ‘audience’ in quite the same way (I know these are problematic terms, and there are probably better alternatives, hence the quotation marks!)?

  2. Thanks, Jonathan. Yes, I think the notion of Bufton sampling the wares in a ‘religious marketplace’ is perhaps a good metaphor for his habits. I’m sure I’ve encountered that image before: is there an existing historiography on this? Any suggestions for further reading?

    The question of ‘why’ is an important one that I haven’t figured out yet. As I said in the post, I think in may be partly due to his more general predilection for recording and chronicling. My next couple posts will examine how he did this in the context of his work life and his local community as well. These other writings were almost certainly partly intended for a wider audience of family, co-parishioners and co-workers, so perhaps his spiritual writings were too. Perhaps that helps to explain why his notes were actually less ‘personal’ (i.e. opinionated) and more descriptive than something like Wallington’s diary. I think his use of almanacs may have been purely practical, at least at the beginning: there were plenty of blank pages, so why not put them to use instead of spending money on an expensive paper notebook?

    • Is the phrase borrowed from the notion of the ‘medical marketplace’? Bernard Capp uses it in ‘The Religious Marketplace: Public Disputations in Civil War and Interregnum England’, English Historical Review 536 (2013).

      Really enjoying finding out more about Bufton Brodie – on note taking, given that Thoresby is such a prolific writer I’m also interested in this. I’m going to give all of my new Special Subject students a blank notepad which is intended to be their commonplace book for the module – I’ll report back on whether they leave blank pages or not!

      • Thanks for reminding me about Bernard’s article. I knew I remembered that phrase from somewhere!

        I love the idea of having students keep commonplace books and I’m sure it’ll be interesting seeing how they interprets the idea: hopefully they’ll each take a wildly different approach and then you can compare them at the end. Sounds like a fun module!

  3. Pingback: The Woolcomber’s World, Part III: Rich clothiers, poor combers and the obscurity of early modern occupations | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: The Woolcomber’s World, Part IV: Births, deaths, marriages and fighting cocks | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: The Woolcomber’s World, Part V: A defence of microhistory | the many-headed monster

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