In Huddersfield yesterday to examine a PhD – not something I would normally blog about, but then doctoral theses aren’t normally this good. Maggie Bullett’s title doesn’t stir the blood: ‘Post-Reformation Preaching in the Pennines: Space, Identity and Affectivity’ – I confess my heart sank when it arrived in the post. But the thing about books’ covers applies doubly to theses.
There’s real scholarly substance here. In sheer research terms, the most impressive thing is the careful reconstruction of a well-known and much-misunderstood major civic dispute in Leeds in the 1620s. Maggie has found stacks of highly relevant new documents and has very convincingly interpreted the dispute, not as a conformists v. Puritans punch-up, but as a split between two different factions of what she calls ‘progressive Protestants’. In the process, she manages to explain an old mystery: why St John’s Chapel in Leeds, which was built in 1631-4, is decorated with a set of royal arms dating from 1620. If you want to know more, read the thesis.
The most exciting innovation, though, is her use of financial records to unlock a whole new set of data about popular participation in local religion. It wouldn’t be possible to do this for the heavily-parished south of England, but in the North, huge parishes with multiple chapelries required and allowed much greater lay involvement. So when she shows us communities arriving at a consensus that they intend to levy a rate, or simply mobilising huge numbers of small donations, to pay for visiting ‘godly’ preachers; when we see them building or rebuilding their chapels with architecture which prioritises preaching, dedicating their pew rents to the support of the godly ministry, and pricing the pews so that the ones nearest to the pulpit (not nearest the communion table) are the most expensive – it’s hard to avoid the once-unthinkable conclusion that there is some real popular Calvinism happening in the Yorkshire dales.
My favourite nugget, though, hangs on my longstanding preoccupation with people who fall asleep during sermons. Readers of the indispensable 101 Things to Do During a Dull Sermon will recall that it recommends, as well as discreetly pinching yourself to stay awake, discreetly pinching the person next to you, which should keep both of you awake. Of course, in the seventeenth century, pinching yourself was for wimps: Nehemiah Wallington tried pricking himself with a pin.
Maggie, however, has found another of those quarrelsome folks from Leeds, one Maria Beckett, who in 1615 was presented to the court for ‘misbehaving her selfe in tyme of divine service … by pricking them that satt next her with pinnes’.
I now propose to trawl through the church court records for people trying the other exercises recommended in 101 Things. ‘Rapture Bingo’ would have been great fun in the 1640s.