The Voices of Morebathby Eamon Duffy
In the fifty years between 1530 and 1580, England moved from being one of the most lavishly Catholic countries in Europe to being a Protestant nation, a land of whitewashed churches and antipapal preaching. What was the impact of this religious change in the countryside? And how did country people feel about the revolutionary upheavals that transformed their mental and material worlds under Henry VIII and his three children?
In this book a reformation historian takes us inside the mind and heart of Morebath, a remote and tiny sheep farming village on the southern edge of Exmoor. The bulk of Morebath’s conventional archives have long since vanished. But from 1520 to 1574, through nearly all the drama of the English Reformation, Morebath’s only priest, Sir Christopher Trychay, kept the parish accounts on behalf of the churchwardens. Opinionated, eccentric, and talkative, Sir Christopher filled these vivid scripts for parish meetings with the names and doings of his parishioners. Through his eyes we catch a rare glimpse of the life and pre-Reformation piety of a sixteenth-century English village.
The book also offers a unique window into a rural world in crisis as the Reformation progressed. Sir Christopher Trychay’s accounts provide direct evidence of the motives which drove the hitherto law-abiding West-Country communities to participate in the doomed Prayer-Book Rebellion of 1549 culminating in the siege of Exeter that ended in bloody defeat and a wave of executions. Its church bells confiscated and silenced, Morebath shared in the punishment imposed on all the towns and villages of Devon and Cornwall. Sir Christopher documents the changes in the community, reluctantly Protestant and increasingly preoccupied with the secular demands of the Elizabethan state, the equipping of armies, and the payment of taxes. Morebath’s priest, garrulous to the end of his days, describes a rural world irrevocably altered and enables us to hear the voices of his villagers after four hundred years of silence.
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The Voices of Morebath is really just one voice, that of the parish priest, Sir Christopher Trychay. Author Eamon Duffy retells the trials and tribulations of a small West County English village during the tumultuous times of the Reformation, as written down by Sir Trychay in his parish account books.
Intimate look at a Historical Parish A great many books have been written about European religion; however, none cover religion from the intimate level of a parish as Eamon Duffy's "The Voices of Morebath". In spite of the historical approach to the content, Duffy is able to create a personal account of "[intense] communal life" where "everyone was known". This work is comparable to Duffy's previous book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, which explores the broad picture, while "The Voices of Morebath" explores the details of community and religious reformation. This book is also similar to J. Erskine Binney's 1904 release; however, Duffy's is considered more accurate. Readers interested in this genre would also enjoy Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal. Reading "The Voices of Morebath" offers the opportunity to learn vivid accounts of real figures, including a priest named Christopher Trychay who had quite a reputation. This powerful man had strict ideas about generosity, especially in the form of money. Above all, this is a book about community involvement in religion -- and ultimately a revolution! While some readers will express that Duffy's arguments can come off as overstated, they are still quite engaging. Readers will want to learn more, especially after exploring themes of dominance, obedience, and community. Duffy may speculate more than other historical non-fiction writers, but he offers a real intriguing read.
Eamon Duffy's THE VOICES OF MOREBATH: REFORMATION AND REBELLION IN AN ENGLISH VILLAGE is a handsome book. Display it on a coffee table and invite guests to admire its cover dating from a 1558 sketch of village life by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. If they are unfamiliar with southwestern English counties, two maps fill that gap. Twelve colored photographs and numerous reproductions of 16th Century black and white prints elegantly set off this book's rich scholarship and historical overviews. In a few words: from the mid 1530s until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, with some backsliding under Queen Mary I, England moved inexorably, painfully, coercedly from allegiance to the Universal Church and to the Pope in Rome to become the largest and most powerful Protestant power in Europe. Eamon Duffy builds his narrative around 54 years of account books written by the pastor (vicar) of Saint George's parish in tiny Morebath. The town of 30+ farm households was in Devon, 25 miles north of county seat Exeter, but also only two miles west of Somerset county. With Somerset and Cornwall to the west, Devon was one of the most conservative, un-innovative parts of the Tudor realm. Had Henry VIII and two of his offspring (Edward VI and Elizabeth I) not compelled them to become Protestants they would not have shifted their loyalties. Duffy, focusing on the tiny sheep-grazing village of Morebath, shows us pre-Reformation and early Reformation rural England. Its parish was the center of community life. Every year 12 officials, including "maidens," women, young men and others were elected to administer various funds (called "stores') for upkeep and adornment of the church. Revenues came in from sheep and wool cloth, pigs, cattle, bees, banquet fund-raisers called "ales" and not much else. Long before the end of the reign of the iconoclastic boy king Edward VI, the church of Saint George was a shell, a shadow of its former self. Gone were the beeswax candles before saints' statues, donated rosaries and altar cloths, even a great crucifix. Throughout England and well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth vocations to the priesthood plummeted. The Crown increasingly converted the old parish structures into secular engines to raise money for wars with Scotland, France and Spain. In Morebath the Maiden store and other instruments of lay involvement in the parish had lost their reason for being even before the death of slowly moderating King Henry in 1547. "This petering out of the Maiden store, not with a bang but a whimper, is symptomatic of a process of cooling and disenchantment within the devotional life of Morebath in the remaining years of Henry's reign. With the extinguishing of the lights and the abandonment of the patronage of the saints over the two remaining stores, a dimension of warmth and humanity evident in the accounts up to that point, fades a little. The statues of the saint remained in their tabernacles ... But with the ending of their cult, the offering to the images of candles and flowers, the gifts of (rosary) beads and kerchiefs and wedding-rings, they had dwindled from presences to not much more than furniture" (Ch. 5).