Understanding Sources: Churchwardens’ Accounts

To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources

Jonathan Willis

I have a confession to make: I love churchwardens’ accounts, and in this post I want to tryPicture1 to convince you that they have something to offer pretty much everybody interested in researching, reading or writing about early modern England.  As well as co-editing Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources with Laura, I contributed a chapter on ‘Ecclesiastical Sources’, and one of the nice things about editing or co-editing a volume like this is being able to choose exactly what you want to write about!  I happen to be, of course, a reformation historian, and so sources relating to or generated by the Church are naturally something I’m going to be interested in.  But in that chapter, and in this post, it is my intention to show that ecclesiastical sources in general (and churchwardens’ accounts in particular) are of enormous interest and value, almost no matter what area of history you are interested in.  Politics?  Economics?  Society?  Culture?  They’ve got it all! Continue reading

‘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

The reformation of Christmas carols?

Jonathan Willis

Merry Christmas everybody! By now, the last scraps of turkey have hopefully been consumed, the last of the wrapping paper been thrown away. You might have decided to hit the sales; you might even be back at work; and you may also have asked yourself one or more of the following questions: ‘what shall we doe in the long winter nights: how shall we passe away the time on Sundayes, what wold you have us doe in the Christmas Hollydayes’? No need to risk a family feud by dusting off the monopoly board just yet, because John Rhodes, the Jacobethan ‘minister of Enborne’ (Berkshire) anticipated just such a need amongst ‘the Schollers of pettie Schooles’ and ‘the poore Countrieman and his familie’.[1]

christmas-tree-and-fireplaceRhodes’ solution for chasing away the winter blues, and passing the long winter evenings, was simple: sing! Rhodes dedicated his book for such as ‘are naturally given to sing’, so that they might ‘please their merrie minds a little’, and that by winning them ‘to sing good things’ they might ‘forsake evill’. Early modern carols were primarily a popular tradition, and Rhodes’ efforts might be mistrusted on two fronts. Firstly, his aim was clearly a moralising one, recalling the original purpose of metrical psalms, to supplant vain, bawdy or worldly songs with more godly fare. Secondly, pastiches of pastoral or country songs were a moderately popular genre, and examples of ‘countrie’ carols were often affected rather than genuine. In 1611, the enterprising composer Thomas Ravenscroft attempted to cover all his bases in Melismata Musicall phansies, by including a blend of tunes, striving to please ‘the noblest of the court, liberallest of the country, and freest of the city’ in their own respective ‘elements’. Continue reading

Living Broadside Ballads: An Immersive Conference Experience

Mark Hailwood (I’m now on twitter: follow me @mark_hailwood)

As many readers of the ‘monster will know, April is one of the academic year’s prime conference seasons – and this year I threw myself into it with gusto, delivering three different papers on two continents in the space of a week. Now I’ve recovered, I wanted to offer some reflections on a unique conference experience that I enjoyed at the Huntington Library’s ‘Living English Broadside Ballads, 1550-1750’ event, convened by Paddy Fumerton of EBBA fame.

‘Immersive’ history has been an important theme of many posts on this blog; that is, an approach to history that concerns itself not only with surviving written sources, but also with the sights, sounds and material traces of past society. So it was fascinating to attend a conference that sought to ‘bring to life’ the various aspects of early modern printed ballads, not just as texts but as songs, dances and visual objects. This isn’t a conventional paper-by-paper conference report, but rather a selection of some of the highlights that spoke to this idea of ‘immersive’ history:


The conference followed the usual structure of panels of papers, but was also punctuated in the lunches, breaks and drinks receptions (and, in fact, in some of the papers) with ballad performances. These varied from solo unaccompanied renditions, through those supported by fiddling, to mildly raucous group sing-alongs, and the tone ranged from the bawdy to the genuinely moving. The precise character of ballad performances is something I have mused about on the blog before, but the real value of hearing a number of performances at this conference was that it highlighted the range of contrasting styles that ballad performers could adopt, with each bringing their own distinctive approach to their renditions.

Erik Bell and Chris Marsh: two of many wonderful ballad performers

Erik Bell and Chris Marsh: two of many wonderful ballad performers

No doubt seventeenth century ballad consumers had their favourite styles and hawkers, and may have been attracted as much by the charisma or skill of the ballad-seller’s performance as by the content of the song itself. They were, after all, a form of live music, and much like when witnessing performers at a music festival (or on Jools Holland), it is often the look and mannerisms of the performers that captivates the attention as much as the song they are performing, and this was no doubt a more important part of the operation of the ballad market than I, at least, had appreciated before now. Unfortunately, it is perhaps the most difficult aspect to recover from the historical record.


We know ballads were intended to be sung, but were they meant to be danced? In a thought-provoking paper Bruce Smith of USC persuaded us that they were. Although ballads only rarely styled or titled themselves as dances—and made few explicit calls for their listeners to throw some shapes—Bruce argued that many ballads contained implicit ‘traces of dance’. These took the form of descriptions of motion in ballads—with characters leaping, turning, jigging, jogging and thrusting—that would have served as ‘kinetic cues’ to listeners to mimic these actions.

A dance ballad? Pepys 4.106 (from EBBA)

A dance ballad? Pepys 4.106 (from EBBA)

There is some science behind this argument: descriptions of motion trigger motor-neurons in listeners, engaging their ‘kinetic intelligence’, so that ballad audiences would have felt a ballad as well as thinking about it and hearing it. Its an interesting argument, and invites us to imagine more physically energetic ballad audiences and performers swaying, bouncing and swirling as they recited the trials and tribulations of a brave adventurer or the twists and turns of a bawdy courtship tale.

I’m still a little unsure why more ballads were not more explicit about prompting listeners to dance if this was their intention, but in the spirit of ‘living’ these ballads I joined in with the efforts to dance along: it was certainly a fun way to experience a ballad, but exposed a severe shortage of ‘kinetic intelligence’ on my part.

Exercising my kinetic intelligence with Paddy

Exercising my kinetic intelligence with Paddy


Ballads were seen and not just heard. Indeed, we know that they were pasted on the walls of cottages and alehouses in the period to provide decoration, adorned as they were with ornate borders and woodcut images. These woodcut images have, however, received short-shrift from ballad scholars, who have often dismissed them as crude, unsophisticated additions that generally bore little relation to the content of the ballad song itself. Not so, argued fascinating papers by Megan Palmer Browne (UC Santa Barbara) and Chris Marsh (Queen’s University, Belfast), who both demonstrated that the woodcut images used on ballads were often carefully chosen to supplement the meaning of the words.

Master Disaster

Master Disaster

Often this was done by deploying certain woodcut characters, who appeared again and again in association with certain ballad themes: such as the figure dubbed ‘Master Disaster’ by Chris, whose dismayed arms aloft pose was routinely used to indicate to readers that some unexpected misfortune was heading the way of that ballad’s protagonist. Chris argued that many such woodcut characters carried these kinds of prior associations for ballad consumers, and helped to construct the ballad product. Perhaps ballad consumers had their familiar favourites and, like baseball cards or panini stickers, would buy a ballad to add to their collection of broadsides detailing the adventures of ‘Master Disaster’. I’m eagerly anticipating Chris Marsh publishing on this topic, and in the meantime I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of these characters in my own research.

We also had the chance to look first hand at the Huntington’s collection of woodblocks, believed to have been owned by the Newcastle printer John Wright, complete with worm holes and all. Sadly, they didn’t have a ‘Master Disaster’. We didn’t go as far as creating our own woodblocks, but others have done.

A woodblock from the Huntington's collection.

A woodblock from the Huntington’s collection.

Broadsides as Digital and Material Objects

Online digital collections of ballads, such as EBBA and Bodleian’s Broadside Ballads Online, have been integral to the renaissance in early modern ballad studies over the past decade or so, allowing scholars and ballad enthusiasts to access ballads for free from their own desk. But they also raise some questions. For one, they tend to provide us with a two-dimensional image of what is in reality a three-dimensional material object, and as such do not preserve or convey important pieces of information about the broadsheets.

In the future, however, they might. Carl Stahmer, another member of the EBBA team, blew our minds by taking us through the latest developments in digital technology. More advanced imaging techniques make it possible to determine the quality of paper a ballad was printed on; to identify variations in the positioning of printed type on prints of the same ballad; or to identify minute discrepancies in printing caused by the wear and tear of the type itself over time. All of these can help us to piece together better records of when ballads were published, and by which printer, valuable information in our quest to reconstruct the ballad market. All this information could, one-day, be provided through these online collections too – if the funding can be found to support this imaging.

I’m still trying to get my head around some of the technical wizardry at work, but you can find out more here. What is certain is that digital technology opens up some amazing possibilities for the future of ballad scholarship.


Inspired by our immersion in the multi-media nature of broadside ballads, it seemed like the logical next step that the delegates would soon turn their hand to producing their own songs and ditties. The EBBA team and the conference organisers were the first to try their hand, and produced their own ballad-style conference review:

Conference summary in ballad form

Conference summary in ballad form

Things got a bit more scurrilous by the time we reached the bar on the last night of the conference, and the ballads became more libelous than celebratory. But they were complete with their own tunes and kinetic cues, and received a boisterous rendition or two: perhaps this was not so far away from that seventeenth-century drinking song experience I had long been searching for.

By the time my head cleared the next day I certainly felt that the conference’s attempt to explore the ‘living’ dimensions of ballads as songs, as performances, and as material and visual objects, had given me a much more sophisticated way of thinking about these fascinating and ubiquitous artifacts of early modern culture. To simply read a ballad is to misread it entirely.


** Rutgers also held an event recently in which they recreated seventeenth-century protest songs: there is a short video about their event here.

Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part II: Nightmare neighbours and Tudor ASBOs

Jonathan Willis

This post is, if not a follow-up, then perhaps a sequel to my investigation last month into the eccentric Elizabethan Miles Fry, aka Emmanuel Plantagenet, who claimed to be the secret lovechild of no less a coupling than Elizabeth I and God Himself. My next archival oddball is Goodwife Dannutt, from Rose Alley in London. Dannutt is described in the calendar of the Lansdowne manuscripts as ‘a poor distracted woman’, writing to Lord Burghley and ‘begging him for Jesus Christ’s sake to punish a constable and two watchmen, who are so noisy in the night she can take no rest’.[1]

Modern society seems more than a little preoccupied with the idea of nuisance neighbours. A quick google search reveals the website http://www.nfh.org.uk/ – designed to help embattled residents deal with, you guessed it, ‘Neighbours from Hell’. Newspapers, it appears, love to run stories about neighbours from hell; from the story of an academic whose experience of hellish neighbours may (the Telegraph speculates) have contributed to her tragic suicide, to the Mirror’s more risible account of Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s decision to install a nine-foot gate at the entrance to their $10,000,000 California mansion, ‘without permission’. The UK’s Channel 5 is currently screening a television series called The Nightmare Neighbour Next Door, which promises to reveal ‘the traumatic, shocking, humorous and occasionally bizarre experiences of nightmare neighbours’; that’s people who live ‘next door’, in case anybody was in any doubt. In recent years even governments have taken this sort of thing increasingly seriously with the advent of the ASBO, or ‘anti-social behaviour order’, such as that given to a noisy Burnley resident.


Gwyneth and Chris – no longer a couple, but still neighbours from hell?

Elizabethan communities did not have to cope with electric gates, celebrity (ex-) couples, domestic cannabis farms, electronically amplified dance music or an influx of stag and hen parties to ‘party houses’ in affluent parts of Dorset. However, they were no less affected by noise. Just as Mary Douglas observed in Purity and Danger that ‘dirt’ was ‘matter out of place’, so we can usefully think of ‘noise’ as ‘sound out of place’. Sounds that might be acceptable, even appropriate, in one time or place or context could be deeply disturbing or offensive in others. I’ve written about this myself, in terms of religious music.[2] But clearly the principle can be extended to all forms of noise pollution.

The exact nature of the noise that disturbed Goodwife Dannutt is unknown, but in her frantic letter to William Cecil she noted that the time of the disturbance was ‘at one of the clocke at an unlawfull time’.[3] She requested Cecil ‘be so good unto me’ as to force her neighbour, ‘my good man Johnson’, to reveal ‘the counstables name that dwell next house’ and also the names of two watchmen, who were presumably responsible for the unseemly night time interruptions.

Dannutt’s desperation is palpable. She beseeched Burghley ‘for godes sake’ to help her, ‘for godes sake your honour’ and that she ‘may have some ende of it for cryste Jesus sake’. This sort of language, incidentally, would not have endeared her to any particularly religious neighbours, who would have viewed this sort of casual swearing as a serious breach of the Third Commandment.[4] Dannutt also requested that Burghley help her ‘have some ende upon it without gret expense’, suggesting that the constable and his accomplices request ‘pay every nighte’ and that she ‘can never take coste for them’. Quite what was going on here is unclear – some sort of nocturnal racket? – and if anybody has come across any similar cases I would be intrigued to hear about them.

No ‘nightmare neighbour’ story is complete without a sense of how powerless law-abiding citizens are to resolve their desperate situation. Not only was Dannutt complaining about a constable and a pair of watchmen, she also noted that ‘the judges of the Kinges Bench ar a kinde’ to the offenders, and that they have ‘so maney frendes that I coud never reste day nor nighte’. Reaching out to Cecil was therefore her last hope for peace, quiet, and a good night’s sleep.

Nightmare neighbours - not just a modern problem.

Nightmare neighbours – not just a modern problem.

The goodwife ended her letter on a strange note. She also claimed that ‘moste of the lands that the queen gave he meanes to kepe it from me’, and also lamented that ‘every one cossus me & decevses me’. There are perhaps two conclusions to be drawn. The first is that, like many neighbourly disputes, this one may well have concerned the more serious question of property rights, as well as the nuisance issue of antisocial behaviour. The second is that Dannutt appears to have been socially isolated, and therefore may not have been as innocent a party as she herself claimed. There is no evidence as to whether Burghley slapped whatever the Elizabethan equivalent of an ASBO was on to the noisy constable, or even whether or not Dannutt ever managed to get a decent forty winks. Even if this incident was resolved amicably, we can at least say for certain that the problem of noisy neighbours has unquestionably never gone away.


[1] Catalogue of the Lansdowne MS in the BL, p. 191.

[2] Jonathan Willis, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England (2010), p. 225.

[3] Lansdowne vol. 99 no. 28, f. 77.

[4] John Dod, for example, forbade idle, curious, vain or unreverent speaking of God’s word titles, attributes or works. John Dod, A plaine and familiar exposition of the Ten commandements (1604), p. 92.

Norwich Entertainments – Part VII: The science of music

Brodie Waddell

I live in Cambridge, a well-touristed little town, and when the sun is out the streets are Cambridge bin buskerawash with buskers. Some are quite good. For instance, there’s the chap who strums tunes on his guitar from inside a litter bin who always makes me chuckle even when his playing isn’t brilliant.

But there are also some that are decidedly displeasing to the ear. If only – I find myself muttering – these unmusical musicians had been sufficiently trained in the science of music. Continue reading

E.P. Thompson’s Desert Island Discs

Brodie Waddell

E.P. Thompson had, with one or two notable exceptions, rather boring taste in music.

Thompson has always been one of my favourite historians and I’ve been learning more about him recently as 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his Making of the English Working Class. We celebrated earlier with ‘The Future of History From Below’ event and I’ll be giving talks at Oxford (Nov. 29th) and at Birkbeck (Jan. 24th) on EPT’s legacy over the next few months.

William Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' (1789): Thompson's choice of reading material

William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789): Thompson’s choice of reading material

So imagine my delight when I heard – via Jonathan Healey – that Thompson had been a guest on the famed BBC programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ and that the episode was freely available online. It was broadcast in 1991, just two years before his death at the age of 69, and his health was clearly not great, but he was still very intellectually sharp and irrepressibly politically engaged.

Thompson made a couple of inspired musical choices. For instance, I was struck by the raw power of Paul Robeson, the African-American communist actor and entertainer, belting out ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, a song composed in the Börgermoor concentration camp in 1933. Even more interesting is Thompson’s second choice. He offers a beautiful recording of Rabindranath Tragore, the Bengali poet, singing a totally transformed version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s a wonderful piece of music and a wonderful encapsulation of Thompson’s close links to India. As he says in the interview, his father was a Research Fellow in Indian history at Oxford and former Methodist missionary, with close links to the Indian National Congress. Thompson recounts a childhood memory of Gandhi visiting his family home in the late 1920s or early 1930s:

‘I was just about the height of the sideboard. My main memory of Gandhi coming was the sideboard piled with all these fruits that we didn’t usually get. But there he was, and he was doing his daily stint of charkha – spinning – in the corner of our house, and it’s a very pleasant memory.’

In light of this, it is quite easy to see how Thompson’s ideas about poverty and protest emerge not only from his extra-mural teaching in the West Riding but also from his long and deep connections to South Asia.

However, almost as notable as these two striking choices of records is – to my mind – the ‘conservative’ nature of the rest of his choices. Despite being a political radical and an incredibly innovative historian, his other six records seem distinctly nostalgic and a bit earnest. There’s some eighteenth-century Irish harp music, an unbearably miserable rendition of a Yeats poem, two well-known classical pieces and an early English Baroque song. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about any of them – with the possible exception of Warlock’s composition – but they’re hardly the inspiring music one would hope for from a man like Thompson.

Where are the radical musicians of his own age, who often combined musical invention with a hard political edge?  Where are the Sex Pistols or the Specials or even the Rolling Stones? Was it really possible to be an activist in the 1960s and 70s without liking rock and roll?

The Specials (1979)

Sorely lacking from Thompson’s playlist.

Continue reading