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The Origins of the English Parish
Also: The decline of the hit instrumental, Neo-Assyrian families, the city that fell off a cliff, and more.
I have been reading through Nicholas Orme’s Going to Church in Medieval England, and it is one of the best works of history I have picked up in the past ten years. It is full of lots of little details that bring churchgoing to life, which Orme somehow manages to organize into a coherent story. I was particularly interested in the section on the formation of parishes since I have been thinking about T. S. Eliot’s defense of the parish as the foundational unit of a flourishing Christian society in “The Idea of a Christian Society.”
Orme makes a couple of interesting observations about the parish. First, a single church—a minster—initially covered a very large area, making regular churchgoing impossible for most English people. Weddings and funerals didn’t regularly take place in a church until the middle of the tenth century. But as smaller communities grew, and craftsmanship and writing became more available in rural communities, smaller churches were planted in these communities, often at the request and expense of local landowners:
The transformation of England into a land of many parishes seems to have taken place between the tenth and the twelfth centuries . . . By the twelfth century the Church authorities regarded parishes as units with definite rights and boundaries which could not be changed or ignored except with permission from the diocesan bishop or the pope and consent by the owner or clergyman of the former mother church. Boundaries mattered from early on in parish history. As the Church extended its power over lay people in the twelfth century it required them all to belong to a definite parish. Lords and ladies who built or owned churches wished all the tenants on their estate to attend the same church. When tithe-paying grew to be normal in and after the tenth century, each parish clergyman had to be vigilant about exactly which lands paid him tithes. Lay parishioners too expected all in a parish to share its burdens. Boundaries came to be known and were sometimes patrolled in the early summer.
Those boundaries, Orme notes, were complex and often coincided with “landscape features: streams, roads, and even ancient hedges,” and could be both very small and quite large:
In the upland part of England, especially the far north, parishes were often very large because of the scattered population. They remained so down to the Industrial Revolution in Cumberland, Lancashire, Westmorland, and north-west Yorkshire . . . In most of the rest of England parishes were smaller and those of the former minsters usually shrank to an average size. The desire to have a parish church serving even a modest estate led to some very tiny creations. Lancaut in Gloucestershire covered only 202 acres and Dotton in Devonshire 214.
Existing churches would sometimes work to stop the founding of other churches in order to “prevent the creation of rivals which would reduce their territory and income”:
The most that would be allowed was the founding of lesser chapels without separate rights. In consequence churches that had a monopoly in a flourishing town absorbed most of the patronage and wealth of the local community. They grew into huge buildings with numerous clergy, liturgical services, and guilds of supporters: the opposite of the many small impoverished churches to be found in the older settlements.
For Eliot, the parish is a community unit that was not “solely religious and not solely social . . . in which all classes, if you have classes, have their center of interest.” What a parish does, according to Eliot, is bring different classes together—a touchstone of civilization—in a single place with shared interests:
I am not presenting any idyllic picture of the rural parish, either present or past, in taking as a norm, the idea of a small and mostly self-contained group attached to the soil and having its interests centered in a particular place, with a kind of unity which may be designed, but which also has to grow through generations. It is the idea, or ideal, of a community small enough to consist of a nexus of direct personal relationships, in which all iniquities and turpitudes will take the simple and easily appreciable form of wrong relations between one person and another.
In Orme’s account of the parish, that is clearly often the case and sometimes not. Guilds, for example, constituted a separate if overlapping community of individuals. “The statutes of four guilds,” Orme writes, “have survived from the tenth and eleventh centuries . . . These show that members—apparently all men—bound themselves to obey certain rules.” Orme continues that the “formation of guilds did not remain restricted to the rich and powerful” and by 1100, “they could potentially be found in many parishes.” Yet, for most part, Eliot is right that the parish was “the center of interest” for most communities in England and brought the nobility and commoner together to understand themselves as pursuing a common goal.
According to Eliot, the parish was largely agrarian—which is confirmed in Orme’s book—and the question for him is not so much how we can return to an agrarian society but how we can find a system like the parish system that works in an industrialized one:
I am not advocating any complete reversion to any earlier state of things, real or idealized. The example appears to offer no solution to the problem of industrial, urban and suburban life which is that of the majority of the population. In its religious organization, we may say that Christendom has remained fixed at the stage of development suitable to a simple agricultural and piscatorial society, and that modern material organization — or if “organization” sounds too complimentary, we will say “complication” — has produced a world for which Christian social forms are imperfectly adapted. Even if we agree on this point, there are two simplifications of the problem which are suspect. One is to insist that the only salvation for society is to return to a simpler mode of life, scrapping all the constructions of the modem world that we can bring ourselves to dispense with. This is an extreme statement of the neo-Ruskinian view, which was put forward with much vigor by the late A. J. Penty . . . The other alternative is to accept the modern world as it is and simply try to adapt Christian social ideals to it. The latter resolves itself into a mere doctrine of expediency; and is a surrender of the faith that Christianity itself can play any part in shaping social forms. And it does not require a Christian attitude to perceive that the modern system of society has a great deal in it that is inherently bad.
One thing that comes through in Orme’s history is how the parish system developed out of both pious and secular motives following the collapse of Roman Britain and a long period of paganism, and it is unclear to me that something similar will ever happen again.
In other news, Chris Dalla Riva writes about the decline of the hit instrumental: “Clarinet players aren’t sex symbols. I say this with no disrespect for those that play the single-reeded woodwind. But if you asked a random person on the street to name a clarinet player, I suspect most people couldn’t come up with one . . . This wasn’t always the case.”
The city that fell off a cliff: “Before it fell, All Saints’ Church had been one of three medieval ruins — two of which survive — on a wooded cliff overlooking the North Sea. To the west stand the fragments of wall and austere pointed arches of Greyfriars Monastery, projecting palettes of vivid light onto the lonely green fields; beyond that is what remains of St James’ leper hospital, built from various masonry salvaged from long-gone buildings, a quilt of loss. The fallen Gothic church was just one of eighteen churches, chapels, and monasteries in the vast port of Dunwich. This city was once the same physical size as the City of London with a population, in its late-thirteenth-century heyday, of around ten thousand, before it was savagely diminished by two calamitous sea-storms in 1288 and 1328 initiating a process of coastal erosion that would plunge much of the city off the cliff in the succeeding, sorrowful centuries.”
Juliet over the centuries: “Searching for Juliet, a witty and illuminating account of the ‘lives and deaths of Shakespeare’s first tragic heroine’, explores how Juliet has been conceived, reworked and reimagined in Western culture from her first appearance in the 16th century to the present day . . . Few historical actors have performed the role exactly as it was written. In 1748, Susannah Cibber became the first Juliet to appear on a balcony, in a version of the play adapted by David Garrick, the 18th-century’s most prolific actor-manager and self-appointed high priest of Shakespeare. Garrick’s veneration of the Bard led him to tinker a great deal with his texts, chiefly in order to highlight Shakespeare’s nobility by stripping out his more regrettable crudities. Garrick gave Juliet a spectacular funeral scene, increased her age to seventeen and cut many of her wittiest and most suggestive lines.”
Jennifer A. Frey reviews Émile Perreau-Saussine’s Alasdair McIntyre: An Intellectual Biography: “[Perreau-Saussine] has little concern for MacIntyre’s private life (although we do learn in a short footnote that he had three wives and four children), and not much for his public life, either, beyond some explorations of the various institutions and projects he involved himself in back in his activist years. Perreau-Saussine, a scholar of political philosophy and ideas at Cambridge University who died tragically young in 2010, does not present what Pierre Manent in his foreword calls “the story of a soul.” I would argue that it is not truly a biography but an account of how MacIntyre has struggled, over the course of his long (and ongoing) career, to articulate an antiliberal philosophy that avoids the pitfalls of either communism or fascism, while taking the former’s concern with justice and the latter’s concern with nobility into his account of a virtue ethics that he sees as indispensable to collective human flourishing.”
What were families like in the Neo-Assyrian empire? “Assyrian families of the imperial period tended to be small. A husband would normally live with his wife and children, sometimes a few slaves, and occasionally also his parents, in his private residence. Women from well-off families would bring a dowry into the marriage, consisting of jewelry, textiles, containers, toiletry articles, tools, furniture, and silver. In the case of divorce, it would remain in the woman’s possession, providing her with some material security. The primary purpose of marriage in Assyria was to produce offspring. Children, apart from bringing joy, were expected to take care of their parents when the latter grew old, to bury them—normally in vaults located below the family home—and to keep their memory alive by performing monthly rituals in honor of the dead. But as in all premodern societies, in Assyria, too, being pregnant and giving birth were fraught with danger.”
B. D. McClay looks in the mirror: “My domestic situations have always had this problem: I buy things for the other me, who has great taste, but then I don’t know what to do with them, because they’re not my things, they’re hers. Other me—McClay A, let’s call her Alice—likes delicate coffee serving sets that would turn the humdrum act of sipping coffee in the morning into a small, beautiful ritual; real me habitually buys cheap iced coffee before going to sleep, placing it on the nightstand for the morning. What happens to the coffee service? Who knows. I look at it and am as charmed as ever. I’d buy it again, I’m sure.”
Elliot Abrams reviews Daniel Gordis’s Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams: “Gordis is a Zionist, which is what of course inspired his move to Israel decades ago. He argues that ‘Israel took upon themselves an impossible task’ and ‘to a great degree, they succeeded.’ They changed the existential condition of the Jewish people, after 2,000 years of statelessness and vulnerability. They did not create a state that is, in the words of their Declaration of Independence, ‘like all other nations,’ but that is due to the enduring hostility that led to the denunciation of Zionism as racism in the United Nations, to wars in 1948, 1956, 1973, and to endless terrorist attacks that continue to this day. Yet even without the vicious hostility, could Israel ever have been a ‘normal’ state?”