Saturday, February 25, 2006

Book Review: Voices of Morebath

Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village
Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press

In 1992 Eamon Duffy published his ground breaking The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 describing the English Reformation as it happened in the parishes. His thesis was that the people of England were Catholic and that the Reformation was imposed on them against their will and only slowly accepted. Especially noteworthy was his use of the records of the parishes and their members, rather than the doings of the senior leaders Protestant and Catholic on which the usual histories are built. Running through out the book are the comments of Sir Christopher Tryche (pronounced Trickey) of Morebath who was the pastor from 1520 to 1574. A shepard of definite opinion on just about anything, with a deep concern for his flock, his comments bring to life the impact of the Reformation on the parishes. In this follow up book Dr Duffy tells the story of Morebath as it is preserved in Sir Christopher’s records. (In this period priests were addressed as Sir as we would use Father.)

Morebath was a village of 33 families (1531, Sir Christopher’s count by family and farm) and about 125-150 souls located in a remote corner of northeast Devon. The secular political and economic organization was the Manor of Morebath, unfortunately the records of the manor were destroyed in WW II. Except that the crop was wool instead of grain this appears to be a fairly typical medieval village, the manor provided the local government services and was also organized the economic activities. So long as the rents were paid, and there were no disputes requiring outside resolution, a village was fairly autonomous.

Duffy’a account is based on the financial records of the parish maintained by Sir Christopher, as such they provide a good accounting of the physical activities of the parish but do not provide direct evidence of the most important item: the faith life of its members. We see something of this from the comments and asides by Sir Christopher, and indirectly by the amount and type of contributions to the parish and how the parish spends it’s money.

Sir Christopher comes to Morebath as an enthusiastic young priest. We see the parish repair the building, increase devotions, the financial records show a parish spending money on things that facilitate worship and teaching the faith. Two of Sir Christopher’s special projects were establishing the veneration of St Sidwell and obtaining black vestments for funerals. He purchases the statue of St Sidwell from his own money and the parish over several years provides for it's decoration. He contributes about half the cost of the vestments the parish contributing the rest, these must have been decorative, it took 20 years of saveing to purchase them.

In November 1534, Sir Christopher’s world began to unravel. Henry VIII decided that in order to get a divorce he would have to break with the Papacy and had Parliament pass the Law of Supremacy making him head of the Church of England. To keep his appointment Sir Christopher would have had to sign the oath of supremacy. Changes began slowly as Henry’s Protestant advisors slowly brought protestant ideas into force. Widely unpopular, they were they were met with a reaction from passive resistance to open rebellion. But since the King was head of the Church of England these changes had the full force of civil law, denying that the King could be head of the church was high treason. In Morebath there was grudging though timely compliance and trying to make the best of the situation. The records show a change in income and purchasing. Voluntary donations are down; there is one time income from the sale of now forbidden objects. If these are not sold the Crown will confiscate them without compensation. Money is spent to buy Protestant replacements and more and more there are external requirements to raise money to support secular activities such as road maintenance and wars. Decrees 1538 and 1540 eliminate the devotion to saints. However until 1548 Morebath is still a Catholic parish. The Pope is no longer prayed for and is denounced four times a year. The veneration of the saints is gone, but still every Sunday Mass is celebrated. Sir Christopher is required to burn the statue of St Sidwell by outside direction. The black vestments were banned a year after their purchase, but are hidden by a parishioner.

In 1548 King Henry dies, King Edward is a minor and the regents appointed to rule in his place are activist Protestants. A series of decrees are published against all things Catholic, most importantly replacing the Mass books with the Protestant Book of Common Prayer. This is too much for South West England; it rises in what is called the Prayer Book Rebellion. Morebath sends five men to join the rebels and the parish pays to buy them weapons. The revolt is ended when the Crown brings in foreign mercenaries who make short work of the amateur rebels. Of the six thousand rebels 3000 to 4000 died, mostly after the revolt was defeated. Three of the five from Morebath never again appear in the parish records. For the rest of Edward's reign things are dismal. A parish that is doing what it needs to do with no spirit, or least any spirit that they would want to record on paper.

But joy returns. King Edward dies and Queen Mary assumes the throne. Things Catholic begin to be restored, and Mass is celebrated. Items of Catholic worship that were hidden come out hiding. The parish records show voluntary donations to restore the Church as well as an increase in ordinary income.

After a few years of rebuilding, Queen Mary dies and Queen Elizabeth restores Protestantism. She bans things Catholic and reestablishes Protestantism. However she does not restore the activist tendencies makes a very few concessions. Morebath gradually turns into a Protestant parish. In 1574 Sir Christopher dies, the Shepard of Morebath to the end. After his death the parish sells his Mass chalice which he never stopped using and buys a Protestant communion cup.

Useless trivia learned.

To make a noun possessive in 16th Century English the word “ys” followed the noun, which over time became contacted to apostrophe "s". From “Hank ys Eclectic Meanderings ” to “Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings.”

How did the reformation succeed in England?

1) It had the full weight of both Church and State authorities. When Henry VIII made himself head of the Church it was high treason to speak or act against the changes.

2) There was still a good bit of continuity between the Catholic and Protestant faiths so being required to stop some specifically Catholic pratices left room for practices that were acceptable to both Catholic and Protestant. It took longer to get specifically Protestant practices adopted.

3) Like the fictional frog being boiled by gradually increasing the heat, the Reformation happened in small steps so that at the end things were accepted that never would have been accepted at the beginning. Sir Christopher’s tenure lasted 53 years about the average life expectancy at that time. At his death, most of the parish had few or no personal memories of the Catholic period.

4) The old saying “As we pray, so we believe” is relevant here, over time the recitation every week of the Book of Common Prayer would gradually change the parish from Catholic to Protestant. Certain sermons had to be read 4 times a year. Sir Christopher had to have read them for at least 30 years. What ever he felt about them at the beginning somewhere around the 40th or 80th time they must have become part of his belief.

5) The example of priests like Sir Christopher, adapting even under protest, set an example that the laity followed. Mathew 18 makes a good case for accepting the decision of the Church on controversial issues. The parish could hardly be blamed for following Sir Christopher’s lead and he could hardly be blamed for following the direction of his bishop.

This is an excellent book. Well written and informative, it brings to life the people of this parish. The glimpse of a late medieval village we see here is useful for understanding the life in the medieval period in general as well as the reformation period. The only problems with the book are that it is based on accounting records and once in a while it reads like a summary of accounting records. Duffy could have been more generous with modern translations of Middle English. But these are trivial. This book is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.

I would think that despite every thing Sir Christopher would still wish you to pray for the repose of his soul and those of his beloved parishioners.

See alsoLife in a Medieval Village.


hank_F_M said...

Bob, an old friend posted a response herewhich I am copying over

Bob said...
Sorry to be so late responding to this post! I can't believe how Bloody Mary has been passed over but we can set that aside.

The English Reformation was less intense than the German. However, even if we assume that it was political and from the top down, we are left with the problem of divorce which Catholicism has still not addressed even after the Protestant Reformation has burnt out after 500 years. Catholicism has disregarded Scripture on this issue wherein Jesus taught that divorce is allowed in cases of adultery. Also, the Pope has no right to tell a head of state what he can or cannot do. Catholicism has erred in making The Vatican a political state instead of merely the international headquarters of a Christian denomination. American Catholics may have been Americanized but in other countries traditional Catholicism shows the political involvement of the Pope in international politics due to his rank as head of state. As for divorce, Catholicism gives annulments as divorces to those wealthy enough to bring their case to Italy. This is an open scandal and serves to vindicate the English Reformation.

Hi Bob

Good to here from you again. I hope you and yours had a Happy and Joyous Easter.

This is a book review about a book on how the Reformation effected one English village. Since it deals with one village I stuck to what the book covered. It does not directly cover the theological issues of the Reformation. I found it especially interesting in describing the effect on the daily lives of the people and how they delt with the situation.

Not that your points arn't interesting points to be dealt with in another time and post.

Duffy says that Fox’s Book of Martyrs records there was one person executed for religion during the reign of Queen Mary in southwest England, who had no connection with this village. He describes the execution of only one of the priests executed (his parrish was only 20 or so miles away) after the Prayer Book Rebellion, who some how missed inclusion in the list of English Martyrs. For my preference anyway, both sides were not listening to Jesus on this issue.

Since Jesus was quite clear on the subject, and the people who spoke Biblical Greek as there mother tongue understood him to mean no divorce, I can’t see how the Church would even have the authority to revisit the issue. But there were no divorces in this vilage at that time, so except as a distant event, divorce was not an issue in the vilage.


Bob said...

Hank, thanks for the kind words and the Easter greetings! My wishes for you at this great Christian feast are God's Richest Blessings. If you can delete my post that was posted on the wrong thread, please do.

Here is where I depart from the thesis of this book, Hank, which you stated was "His thesis was that the people of England were Catholic and that the Reformation was imposed on them against their will and only slowly accepted."

My reply is that the issue is divorce and that everyday Catholic practice today shows that divorce seems to be an issue that Catholicism still needs to address. It does not matter if the English Reformation were top-down because the central issue directly affected the King.

Here is what Jesus said:

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. (Mat 19:9 KJV)

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Mat 5:32 KJV)

One good book on this subject is by Guy Duty and is called Divorce and Remarriage: A Christian View, ISBN 0764227262.

In short, I disagree with the thesis of the book. England has now reverted to paganism so the current situtation there is deplorable. Nevertheless, the English Reformation brought both The Holy Bible and the church service into English, which has proven to have been good. The issue of divorce is also an achievement of the English Reformation in that divorce is allowed when adultery occurs. Divorce is also allowed after a long desertion on the basis that it implies a period of adultery in view of the total depravity of all human beings.

hank_F_M said...

A review you might find interesting from Touchstone magazine.

Bob said...

That's an interesting review, Hank, and I would like to comment on this sentence: "Second, a significant number of the sons of the English Reformation have become addicted to change itself. Whatever the Scripture and the Church have been for, they are against, in an inversion of Vincent of Lerins’s definition of the catholic faith as that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all."

I agree with that. England has become a pagan nation because the religious left cannot bring itself to believe orthodox doctrine. The Church of England lives from endowments from the past and preaches to empty buildings.

However, I still maintain that the Catholic doctrine on divorce is in error, and that was the trigger for the English Reformation. I am waiting for you to buy or borrow and read Guy Duty and refute it. As for putting Scripture in English, Tyndale won on that issue, as you probably agree was for the best--especially since the cookies should be on the bottom shelf so that anyone could reach them since Our Lord Jesus Christ made every single individual person with total competency on the issue of accepting or rejecting Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

hank_F_M said...

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Mat 5:32 KJV)

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery Matt 19:3-9 RSV

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away." But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" Mark 10:2-12 RSV

First the context. The OT law allowed a husband to divorce a wife for virtually any reason with no substantive due process. Come to think of it that is the basic no fault divorce that unfortunately is current in the US. Jesus was saying that this was granted because of the “hardness of hearts” but this is not what God intended and that Jesus is restoring God’s intent.

Another context. In Scripture the Church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. Marriage is an earthly analogy of our eternal relationship with Christ. But if divorce is possible then following the analogy Jesus could divorce his bride the church. In other words we could have no confidence in salvation.

Please note in the Henry VIII situation there was no (credible) evidence that Catherine of Aragon committed fornication. Even accepting your understanding of the verse there was not grounds for Harry to divorce Cathy.

Fornication is illicit sexual relations. Adultery is illicit sexual relations where at least on of the participants is married to some one else.

But if some one “divorces” and remarries in what would otherwise be legimate marriage they are committing adultery in having relations with the new spouse. How is that possible? If there was such a thing as divorce then this should not be the case, but Jesus says it is the case so the first marriage is not ended. “Divorce” in this case is a means to get an abusive spouse out from under the same roof but it does not end “what God has joined together”

I do not think it is good exegisis to say that because there is one very debateable exception then divorce is allowed in all cases not just the debated exception. I don't claim to know everything but the Catholic Church is attempting to deal with His words, sometimes poorly perhaps.

Bob said...

Hank, you are a good friend and a smart man. I hope that you will be able to find and read the Guy Duty book.

I believe that God hates divorce and is against it but man has fallen and is no longer in the Garden of Eden and so therefore divorce was permitted in the case of adultery (and a long desertion implies adultery, human nature being totally depraved).

I don't understand how an annulment differs from a divorce in any respect.

As for the Henry VIII case, I have heard that it is murky, in which case Henry VIII will have to answer for that. However, I think that most Protestants in an AIDS epidemic and an STD epidemic would allow divorce on grounds of adultery as a matter of self-defense. Willy-nilly, I think that divorce is an issue of the English Reformation. The second issue was The Holy Bible and church services in the language of the people, which you probably agreed with in the early 1960s, right?

hank_F_M said...


A funny thing happened when things switched from Latin to English. When things were in Latin there was very careful teaching to insure that what was happening was understood, not hat I am admitting my age or anything. We knew what was happening and could join in with are hearts even though we could not tell one word from another. When things started in English well it was in English so it is not necessary to teach it right? Not quite. The year I taught Sunday school (on Monday night) to seventh graders I walked them back from the Mass to the scripture; it was fun to see lights going on the kid’s heads but this was stuff we had learned in third grade. I do prefer English but I think the value of using the vernacular is much over rated. I would not be surprised if a similar thing happened during the Reformation.

It should be noted that the Reformation in England did not give them services in the language of the people unless you were a middle class Londoner. The dialects were much more distinct and separate than now England and especially now in the US. In SE England where the Reformation had its greatest strength this may have been close to the language of the people but in West and North England this would not have been true. (In Cornwall just to the west of Morebath they spoke Cornish, which is related to Gaelic, but they had to have services in English. Also the English of Sir Tryche that Duffy quotes is much different than that of Shakespeare who wrote 50 years later) It would be like requiring all services every where to be in a heavy Brooklyn accent. Popular in the Brooklyn, but nowhere else. Once it was in place over a hundred years or so years the Book of Common Prayer did much to stabilize and standardize English.

RalphtheBeachcomber said...

With all respect to Hank and Bob, it is this sort of irresolvable dispute in which people hammer away at each other without apparent gain to anyone which led me to abandon church attendance for good. Nevertheless Professor Duffy's book on Morebath is deeply informative and very entertaining.

hank_F_M said...


Ralph thank you for commenting.

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