Schulz on Dean and Parry and Vallance and eds., 'Faith, Place and People in Early Modern England: Essays in Honour of Margaret Spufford'

Trevor Dean, Glyn Parry, Edward Vallance, eds.
Zachary W. Schulz

Trevor Dean, Glyn Parry, Edward Vallance, eds. Faith, Place and People in Early Modern England: Essays in Honour of Margaret Spufford. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2018. 252 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-290-7.

Reviewed by Zachary W. Schulz (Columbus State University) Published on H-Albion (September, 2018) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

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For those familiar with the scholarship of Margaret Spufford, Faith, Place and People in Early Modern England is a sublime paean commemorating her contributions to the field of social and economic history. This compilation of essays, many written by former students and colleagues of Spufford, not only displays the influence she had on those around her, but also demonstrates the ongoing impact she continues to exert in the study of early modern history. Split into three thematic sections, the nine essays within validate her argument that an emphasis on local and non-elite records can better nuance our understanding of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English society.

The first section’s essays, concentrating on the theme of faith, employ Spufford’s methodology of seeking the “emotional element” of religious belief, eschewing top-down approaches in order to analyze the spirituality of villages and their inhabitants at a personal level (p. 2). In William Sheils’s essay, an examination based on case studies of northeastern Northamptonshire and the towns on the Essex and Suffolk borders, an insight into the dissenting community Spufford otherwise neglected, the Catholics, is aptly presented. As the competition between seminary priests and “the godly puritans” escalated during the 1570s and 1580s, the communities involved in these debates became increasingly polarized (p. 42). Rather than isolated pockets of little importance, the Catholic families in these locales were in actuality a strong motivator for dissenters to urge for further ecclesiastical reforms. Conversely, as those reforms were pursued, the recusancy of Catholics in the community only deepened. Yet, Henry French’s essay, employing the diary of Reverend William Adams to study the Essex village of Earls Colne, complicates the inference that dissenting sympathies were restricted to those of a privileged class during the 1570s through 1620s. Attempting to control the wanton behavior of “the young, mobile and rootless,” Adams’s efforts, via preaching an emphasis on personal responsibility, proved ineffective. His inability to inspire the community through his personal ministry only further supports Spufford’s and French’s argument that society as a whole was striving “for a more positive solution to the world’s ills,” as “the exhaustion of existing beliefs, practices and remedies” was unable to cope with the changing times (p. 69). Succinctly, Adams’s failure was one of personal origin and not reflective of the overall movement to reform. Following that, Steve Hindle’s essay argues that the personality of a reverend determined how effectively reforms were initiated within a community. Approaching his subject from an extremely localized level that mimics Spufford’s methodology, Hindle details the generational changes in the parish of Chilvers Coton to conclude that “personal and psychological” issues at the local level predominated over wider “structural or systemic” problems of the Restoration settlement (p. 4). Indeed, Hindle even recreates the pew plan of All Saints, reconstructing the social order of the parish and its 176 households. Such a micro-historical approach indicates that men like Reverend John Perkins were the “principal medium of political communication,” “the landlord’s mouthpiece” whose position in society was essential to reconciling the worlds of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the realities of the manorial court (pp. 82, 90).

Concentrating on the theme of place, the second section’s essays center around Spufford’s assertion that the strength of dissent in a community was connected to the dynamism of dissenting families. To that end, Adrian Ailes employs the surveys of hearth tax returns conducted by Elias Ashmole and William Dugdale in the 1660s to add a contextualization of “flesh and bones to names and numbers” (p. 110). Like Spufford, Ailes champions the underappreciated sources found in the rightfully criticized heralds’ visitations. Despite the visitations’ historical failings, oversights, and errors, these records nonetheless grant a means of turning the abstractions of numerical data into relatable accounts of the past. Similarly, in her essay, Catherine Ferguson utilizes hearth taxes to argue that the increasingly efficient administration of the taxes from 1662-89 in the parish of Woking did not mean those granted exemptions should be automatically considered impoverished. Investigating the differences between tax and poor relief records, her essay concludes that Woking overseers aided those who were marginally poor via creative methods. For example, overseers would avoid documenting the completely destitute by providing a larger stipend to the impecunious residents in the expectation that those additional funds would be passed on to the most desperate indigents. Thus, like Spufford’s efforts tracking “those who might slip between the meshes of the net,” a microstudy of Woking offers a model of extrapolation for parsing the English poor relief system (p. 111). Likewise, Patricia Wyllie, utilizing probates beginning in 1610 to scrutinize formal credit instruments that were bequeathed in Maidstone and Sedburgh, expands on Spufford’s methodology to conclude that credit was both widely used and commonplace before the 1710 Act allowing the transference of promissory notes. Hence, rather than a development in finance originating in the early eighteenth century, the process of issuing formal, written credit was situated in practices dating back at least a century earlier and required the complicity of a larger proportion of the populace than previously assumed. Unsurprisingly, then, credit was such a concern in the parishes under study that from the 1650s onward local clergymen felt the need to address usury and “how to approach moneylending legally and morally” in a series of sermons that were popularly discussed (p. 149). 

The collection’s last section, concerning people, situates itself around Spufford’s “concern for lived experience set in spatial context” (p. 12). However, detailing such experiences is problematic when focused on non-elites. Danae Tankard, utilizing epistles, books, and diaries of two families in Sussex, Suffolk, and Rye, offers a fascinating look into the expressivity of individual tastes in fashion and consumptive practices. Admittedly, any conclusions arising from such tenuous sources are conjectural. Nevertheless, Tankard succeeds in breathing fresh life into those whom she studies in her essay. In particular, Samuel Jeake’s detailing of his fashion choices is refreshing: his punctiliousness regarding couture culture offers a humanizing of the past that we all too common render monochromatic and flat in the course of historical analysis. Christopher Marsh’s account of seventeenth-century joiner Stephen Seagar’s cuckolding is equally vibrant in its contextualization. Seagar’s publicizing of his wife’s affair throughout his community grants a view into the gendering of private and public spaces, particularly among those removed from the echelons of upper society. The “ideology of separate spheres,” still entrenched in the historiography of domesticity, is rightfully contradicted by Marsh, with a caveat that it need not be completely abandoned. Indeed, Grace Seagar’s resistance to patriarchal oversight is more complex than a casual glance might initially suggest. She both resists the policing of her behavior and works within it, seemingly acknowledging the ideology of gendering as an intellectual construct. Her operating in such an enlightened manner belies the facile assumption that those within the spatial context of the seventeenth century were unaware of the fluidity of gendered roles. Finally, David Cressy’s essay notes these spatial contexts existed in a more transient manner than Spufford ever envisioned, specifically the shifting landscape of gypsies as they moved throughout the countryside. Like Spufford’s emphasis on those non-elites in fixed geographic and societal units, Cressy finds that gypsies are equally difficult to directly access in the archives. Characterized as “counterfeit Egyptians,” the Roma peoples were either overlooked as part of the “general vagrant stream” or simply subjected to “perennial denigration” that omitted them from any records (pp. 204-5). Even so, Cressy’s search for gypsy companies proves laudable, a clear extension of Spufford’s methodology into a developing area of culture history even if it is tentatively undertaken.

This monograph is a wonderful tribute to the late Margaret Spufford. It offers a concise resource that demonstrates both her methodology and its ongoing application in various historiographical undertakings. Though dense and seemingly eclectic in its essays, the great value offered in this compendium is clear once one appreciates her visionary approach to micro, economic, and social history. For those close to her, I can think of no greater requiem than seeing her ongoing influence in our field for many years to come.



Citation: Zachary W. Schulz. Review of Dean, Trevor; Parry, Glyn; Vallance, Edward; eds., Faith, Place and People in Early Modern England: Essays in Honour of Margaret Spufford. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. September, 2018. URL:

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