REED all about it III: Some musings on music and the micropolitics of Sabbath-breaking in Jacobethan Lancashire

Jonathan Willis

One sunny afternoon last July, the University of Birmingham’s Edgsbaston 295393_10151929538030109_359375196_ncampus played host to some rehearsals by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.  Cellos, violas, tubas and trombones were scattered liberally throughout the Arts Building, and the history department itself played host to the trumpet section.  Hearing (fainter) strains of music in the department is not an uncommon occurrence, as there are student rehearsal rooms in other parts of the building.  This is usually quite enjoyable, even if it occasionally adds a melodramatic quality to meetings or supervisions.  Whether at work or home, we have all probably at some stage encountered some form of music which has permeated our environment uninvited.  Sometimes, as with the NYO or Birmingham’s budding undergraduate virtuosi, this can be an unexpected source of pleasure.  But in other situations, it can be distracting, disruptive, or downright offensive.  Uncleanness, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously observed in her 1966 work on Purity and Danger, is ‘matter out of place’.[1]  In the same way, musical sound in the wrong spatial or chronological context can easily cross the rubicon of taste and order and become a provocative and clamorous noise.  If this is still true in the sound-proofed, double-glazed, cavity-wall insulated, noise-cancelling-headphone-wearing twenty-first century, then it was even truer in the sixteenth, where both welcome and rogue sounds must have travelled with much greater volume, clarity and conspicuousness. Continue reading


REED all about it – Part II: Angelic sheep-stealers, iconophobia, and the unaccountable longevity of ‘Merry England’?

Jonathan Willis

Last month I wrote a REED-related post about a minor scuffle at a church ale in Bere Regis in 1590, but this time I would like to highlight a more significant and well-known case, to my mind one of the real gems of the REED material: the controversy surrounding the performance of the Whitsun plays in Chester during the early 1570s.[1]  There was a rich history of sacred drama in Chester going back at least as far as the late fourteenth century, including plays to celebrate Easter, midsummer, and Corpus Christi.  By the sixteenth century, it was held that the ‘old and Antient Whitson playes’ held annually in the city were ‘first made Englished and published by one Randall Higden a monk of Chester Abbey, and sett forth and played at, and by the Citizens of chester charge In the time of Sir Iohn Arneway Knight, and Major of Chester Anno 1268’.[2]  In 1571-2 the plays were still going strong, and detailed guild accounts give a fascinating insight into both the performances themselves, and the degree of time, effort and resource which went into their preparation.  The Smiths, Cutlers and Plumbers’ Records for that year recorded 3d for equipment (a ‘touyle’), 1s 4d for casting costs (‘seekinge our players’), and 7s 8d worth of beef to sustain them ‘for our genrall rehearse’, along with two whole cheeses and spices for the meat.[3]   An amateur dramatics group, like an army, evidently marched on its stomach, as payments for bread over three separate rehearsal days totalled 4s 10d, and to quench the assembled thirst there was 10s worth of ale and 9d of small ‘beare’.  Alongside the players, payments were also made to musicians and minstrels, as well as 4s 2d ‘to the clergy for the songes’, implying a close relationship between the professional religious institutions of the city (quite possibly the choir of Chester Cathedral) and the amateur efforts of the trade guilds. Continue reading

REED all about it – Part I: Fiddling at the Church Ale…

Jonathan Willis

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. Continue reading