‘Microhistory – Parish History – Local History’

‘Microhistory – Parish History – Local History’:

Seventh Warwick Symposium on Parish Research

Arden and Millburn House, University of Warwick, 8–9 May 2009


Report by Graham Chernoff, University of Edinburgh

E-mail: graham.chernoff@ed.ac.uk


This two-day event, consisting of an academic workshop and a public symposium, was organized by the Warwick Network for Parish Research in assocation with the Centre for Renaissance Studies. The generous support of the Mellon Newberry Project and the Humanities Research Centre allowed the participation of over forty scholars from the U.K, Continental Europe, and North America, and the award of two postgraduate bursaries to Graham Chernoff (Edinburgh) and Pavel Kůrka (Prague).


The Friday workshop featured three sessions on methodical and conceptual issues in current research. BEAT KÜMIN (Warwick) opened proceedings with the thesis that the parish offers a particularly useful unit of microhistorical investigation, since its universality might help to alleviate the problem of representativity. This concern — of analysing only specific histories rather than general themes — was voiced throughout the discussions. Yet any fear that microhistorical tools yield only myopic and parochial (if the pun can be forgiven…) insights was quickly swept away by the engaging and penetrating findings the nine historians presented throughout the day.

JOHN CRAIG (Simon Fraser) began with an overview of the dramatic changes parish churches experienced during the sixteenth century. One of the results was an increase in public scrutiny, but parishioners continued actively to shape the Church. His triptych of ‘texting, briefs, and thongs’ (for full titles see programme details below) refers to the remnants of these changes in churches: painted sentences on walls, letters authorising charitable collections, and pieces of metal used to mend bell collars — evidence often ignored by architectural historians. For a more specific understanding of the changes, he enlisted the help of William Glibery, a preacher who tended to laugh at his own sermons incorporating the baser sort of farmyard examples. This led to a charge from the godly that he used profane words; they labelled him a ‘very ridiculous preacher’. In this accusation (politicised when Archbishop Whitgift refused to suspend Glibery), the preacher became the perfect example of how sacredness accrued to the verbal in early modern England.

DAVID CRESSY (Ohio State) began with methodical considerations on how histories can be recoverable and connected with larger national narratives. Historians can access the mind and memory of historical actors from almost any entry point. Building on specific incidents through analytical investigation, they are able to produce microhistory that informs macrohistory. The speaker then put his own advice to use and described three small incidents (involving the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, two Wiltshire boys, and the parish rector of Noyle) from the 1630s, which without further elaboration would seem to be insignificant, serendipitous, and local. Yet by thoroughly analysing them and their contexts, he showed how they can tell us about national ideas of property, relations, and authority. The paper triggered a lively discussion on the respective roles of historians’ judgement and microhistorical theory.

Following some introductory reflections on the role of microhistory in different historiographical traditions, JOHN WALTER (Essex) focused on a mêlée in Colchester in 1642 when a group of 5,000 invaded Sir John Lucas’s house and his wife’s chamber. Interpreting this action as a seventeenth-century version of class violence at the local level, he investigated the relationship between microhistorical approaches and macrohistorical processes. In the specific case of the Colchester riot, the historian faces the task of questioning underlying assumptions about the English Revolution and its causes. Further, this ‘moment of rapture’ showed how the local and the national were not distinct concepts in popular agency at the time. The speaker concluded with an appeal to reintegrate different heuristic categories so historians can in the future write a broader cultural history that will inevitably transcend the boundaries of the parish.

CRAIG HARLINE (Brigham Young) explored the nature of microhistory and the ways historians — intent on making their findings more accessible — could learn from the novel as a form of writing. A novelist can offer precise insights into his characters without the need to rely on documents, while historians find the lack of suitable documentation an insurmountable barrier to painting a similarly differentiated picture. Craig Harline’s suggestion of a way to reconcile these desires for insight and solid historical work was to make explicit how a history might reveal the similarities between the past and the present. He wished not to paint the past with an anachronistic presentist brush, but to allow history to resonate with personal experience now.

WILLIAM NAPHY (Aberdeen) illustrated the problem of ‘too many records’ with reference to infanticide and sodomy cases. Magistrates aimed to recover each intimate detail — there were few taboos in sixteenth-century Genevan proceedings. The records thus contain an abundance of information on daily life, e.g. about food and wine, but to what extent can they be taken further?  Do they provide too flimsy a foundation for serious historical enquiry? Despite their volume, infanticide cases contain one single reference to women’s motives, when a defendant explained: ‘It would have ruined my life’. Yet the incident of a man who approached a woman in church with the pickup line: ‘Shall we share my book?’ suggests men and women were not always separate in church and this young woman, very probably a domestic servant, might have been able to read. Anecdotal snippets thus provide the historian with a sense of society and sometimes with much more.

GUIDO RUGGIERO (Miami) started with an outline of guidelines and strategies for microhistorical enquiry. While always partial and unable to allow a complete reconstruction, smaller-scale investigations can reintroduce people as the subjects of history — in contrast to many of the dominant (post-)modern macrohistorical concepts. His strategies for microhistory take this into account. Priestesses in the Italian town of Latisana, for example, were representatives of spirituality for themselves and the town at large. When spiritual power appeared to be abused, the townsfolk turned on them. The case served to illustrate how microhistorians must subject an individual or group to exhaustive archival research, preventing interpretations based solely on isolated incidents. Yet, at the same time, the speaker warned of rigid definitions and rules, i.e. the creation of a ‘discipline’, as guidelines need to remain flexible.

JAMES AMELANG (Madrid) emphasized the contrast between the parish’s historical significance and its relative neglect in early modern Spanish historiography. Scholars of seventeenth-century Barcelona, for example, rank membership in a guild or neighbourhood much higher than parish affiliation. The paper then offered a survey of the state of research and sketched areas for further work. Parishes were diverse in size, distribution, and coverage. In the North, they were much denser than they were in the South. Despite their religious and charitable activities, parishes were not institutional recordkeepers as in other countries like England. Yet they also played a political role: in the East, parish vestries appear highly developed, in the west they overlapped with village councils. In this way political and spiritual commonweal resided often in the same people, if not technically in the same body.

JAMES COLLINS (Georgetown) challenged the Annales notion that early modern France was a stable, sedentary society by surveying evidence for geographical and social mobility. For example, 50 per cent of taxpayers who were resident in one town in 1623 had left somewhere else by 1630. Tax records, furthermore, demonstrate significant evolutions in literacy levels and administrative procedures. The motives and aims for mobility become obvious too: women moved more often when they became widowed and needed to look for work, while mobile men often headed to places with higher rent, indicating an improvement in their social status. Analysing further documentation like crop yields and house censuses can help historians reconstruct networks of power in the economic, social, and political structures of over 30,000 early modern French parishes.

MARTIAL STAUB (Sheffield) used the historiography of discipline as a way to gain new perspectives on the late medieval parish. In line with the work of John Bossy and Eamon Duffy, he emphasized the extent of lay and local initiatives rather than mere top-down control. Focusing in particular on the applicability of paradigms of modern society (and conceptualizations ranging from Tocqueville and Gramsci to Foucault), he examined notions such as voluntarism nurturing a ‘civil society in miniature’ and contrasted medieval pastorates with modern gouvernmentalité. With its emphasis on the Scriptures and social control, the Reformation opened a new phase in the history of discipline.

LYNDAL ROPER (Oxford) opened the general discussion with a comment on prominent themes and tensions of the day’s papers, highlighting issues such as differences in attitude to theory; the relationship between individual and collective forces; the place of the parish among other points of reference; the conflicting feelings of pleasure (of stories) and guilt (about methodical challenges) among microhistorians; and the need for a deeper understanding of constructions of the self in the past.


The Saturday symposium proceeded from methodical reflection to three specific case studies. CLIVE BURGESS (Royal Holloway) used the rich archives of All Saints’, Bristol, to investigate how the parishioners contributed to religious life in church and parish. As elsewhere, All Saints’ had to jostle for position with friaries, nunneries, hospitals, and almshouses as providers of worship and spiritual fulfilment. Parish provision became increasingly decorous to encourage participation and there is evidence for church expansion, chantry foundations, and a guild presence. All Saints’ supported a varied experience of churchgoing, financing (through a combination of individual and collective initiative) at least two organs, a peel of bells, numerous images, a set of three vestments, and flexible hangings used for liturgal purposes on various occasions. There are also references to the purchase and copying of musical literature. Overall, parochial infrastructure and activities could be considered as extensive and differentiated as in a late medieval collegiate church. The paper demonstrated the social depth of investment in this urban environment, where spiritual endeavour and a sophisticated administrative structure turned the parish into an all-important symbol of cultural, social, and spiritual health.

GRAEME MURDOCK (Dublin) considered a series of events in the parish of Choulex near Geneva that presents moral discipline as a fluid exercise with political, local, and situational variances. The area had turned Reformed in 1536 and remained so for several decades after its return under Savoyard rule in 1567. In this period, the characteristic ban on dancing resulted in an intriguing consistory case led by the local minister against the leading families of the parish. A raucous party in 1591 resulted in many witnesses to dancing covering up for other people, though willingly giving names the authorities already knew. Deeper issues involved in this ‘scandal’ emerge from developments four years later, when the pastor, Pierre Petit, came under close scrutiny from the Company of Pastors. The people involved in the dancing complained that Petit had sought protection from the Savoyard army, suggesting split allegiances confirmed by Petit’s conversion to Catholicism in 1598. The paper thus illustrated the continuing relevance of friendship, neighbourliness, and mutuality in this community. In the end, consistory discipline could not produce a clean and slick version of Reformed religion: the results were messy and, though they related to Christian morality, tell us more now about how people negotiated multiple allegiances in their religious and social lives.

ANGELO TORRE (East Piedmont) focused on the relationship between confraternaties and the parish in the Piedmontese town of Chieri during the late sixteenth century. Ecclesiastical jurisdiction was divided, and corporate lay bodies like the parish of St George and the brotherhood of Jesus evolved distinct ‘communities of rights’ and ‘cultures of possession’. Their co-existence also resulted in contests over public space and personal belonging. Because of a dispute over church furnishing, the confraternity moved to another oratory in 1577, presenting brothers with difficult decisions about the main centre of their religious life. In such situations, the parish emerges as a social organism as well as a geographically defined place or a building. The subsequent legal settlement provided for a confraternity with two focal points, allowing members to retain an active part in parish life while having a ‘niche’ of their own. The physical and spiritual boundaries of ecclesiastical bodies were thus constantly re-negotiated, if need be with recourse to the law. Possession, place, and self-identification were highly charged aspects of early modern culture.

GIORGIO CHITTOLINI (Milan) concluded the symposium with a comment and suggestions for general discussion. He problematized the notion of ‘the parish’, pointing to the wide range of forms, functions, and meanings in different parts of Europe and its relationship to other local communities. Yet he also found strong ties between parishioners and (sometimes voluntary, sometimes compulsory) activities in the fields of pastoral care, preaching, rituals, and administration. Key variables for comparative analysis include size and territorial composition. Elaborating on these issues in a broad geographical and chronological perspective, the discussion identified many challenges, but also emphasized the potential of further investigations in the field.



Workshop Programme


Session I:

John CRAIG (Simon Fraser University), ‘Texting, briefs and thongs: the changing history of the early modern English parish’

David CRESSY (Ohio State University), ‘To see a world in a grain of sand: Histories and microhistories of early modern England‘

John WALTER (University of Essex), ‘Putting the politics back in: Writing micro-history the English way’


Session II:

Craig HARLINE (Brigham Young University), ‘Microhistory and the Frustrated Novelist—Reflections’

William NAPHY (University of Aberdeen), ‘The Problem of too many Records’

Guido RUGGIERO (University of Miami), ‘From the Women Priests of Latisana to Bird Hunting in the Streets of Renaissance Florence: Adventures in Microhistory’


Session III

James AMELANG (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid), ‘Problems with Parishes: A View from Spain’

James COLLINS (Georgetown University), ‘Cross pollination: The secret life of parishes’

Martial STAUB (University of Sheffield), ‘Reconsidering parish discipline’

Lyndal ROPER (Balliol College, Oxford), ‘Comment’



Symposium Programme:


Clive BURGESS (Royal Holloway), ‘What did they think they were doing? The parishioners of All Saints’, Bristol, in the century before the Reformation’

Graeme MURDOCK (Trinity College, Dublin), ‘Rural Reformed religion: Life in a Savoyard parish’

Angelo TORRE (Università del Piemonte Orientale), ‘Parish and confraternity in Chieri’

Giorgio CHITTOLINI (Università di Milano), ‘Comment’


For further information see the website of the Warwick Symposium on Parish Research: