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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 362-363
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Parish Communities and Religious Conflict in the Vale of Gloucester, 1590-1690
Parish Communities and Religious Conflict in the Vale of Gloucester, 1590-1690. By Daniel C. Beaver. [Harvard Historical Studies, Vol. 129.] (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1998. Pp. xiii, 462. $49.50.)
In the controversies surrounding the historical debate about the Reformation in England, one note of consensus does seem to have emerged: the Reformation took a long time. Gone are the days when one could wind up a study with the Elizabethan Settlement in 1559. The foundation of the Elizabethan regime, providing unprecedented stability by comparison with the reigns of the queen's half-siblings, gave the cause of reform the opportunity to become "the establishment." In 1559, one could say, the Reformation was just getting off the ground.
Hence the importance of the time frame investigated in this imaginative and ambitious work. Professor Beaver's book is an important scholarly contribution for a number of reasons. First, he has chosen to push across conventional periodization, giving us a rare study of religion across the troubled seventeenth century: a century which saw a Jacobean consensus, a Laudian counter-revolution, civil war and religious tolerance for selected groups (though not for "Popery or Prelacy" as the Instrument of Government of 1653 put it), and finally the return of the established church but also the eventual legitimization of "dissent." In short, it was a century which saw the abandonment by almost all Christians of the ideal of a single national church to which everyone belonged and conformed. This ideal was replaced by an established church enjoying certain privileges but also by an acceptance of religious pluralism, however grudging and ungracious that acceptance was by the Anglican authorities.
Professor Beaver has used a well-known approach, the local study, to do this—in his case the Vale of Gloucester in the west of England. However, his book stands out as one of the best local studies produced in quite a while in locating his meticulous use of difficult source material in terms of larger historical debates. His use of interpretive tools from anthropology are skillfully deployed and his prose, though occasionally dense, is often eloquent.
One of his most interesting discussions is of death and funeral practices in the period 1590-1690. We might expect from work such as Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars (1992) to find communities indifferent to the fate of the deceased and the ceremonies which accompany their passing. However, Beaver reconstructs a complex and fascinating world from wills, sermons, and other sources, of local people who took immense care over properly conducted funerals both in terms of instructions left and care of others. As well as the Prayer Book church service, this also included customs such as bell ringing, requests for particular individuals to accompany the corpse to the grave, and the generous provision of food and drink for neighbors and family "to make merry withal" afterwards (pp. 96-98). In a religious world that has been characterized by revisionist historians of the Reformation as indifferent to the dead, partners [End Page 362] still requested, as in the case of one Robert Shatterthayte, burial in the churchyard "near unto my last wife" (p. 101).
In a sense, one could say that the greatest discontinuity with the medieval past came in the late seventeenth century when the "advocates of further reformation rejected [the] link between religious fellowship and territorial conceptions of space" (p. 324)—a disjunction which fatally undermined the parochial religious system in England. "Belonging" was now about like-mindedness and agency—not the accident (or rather the "providence") of birth and place. Professor Beaver's fine study provides much insight into this transition.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford