Chums at the altar

Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750. first Edition - Popular Religion in Sixteenth-Century England. First Edition - English Puritanism 1603-1689. First Edition
February 26, 1999

A good history textbook is born out of teaching experience as well as research and as such has already been provisionally tried and tested before being released to a wider market. Significantly all three of these new arrivals draw attention to their origins in degree-level courses and one of them (that by Barry Reay) is actually dedicated to a group of students. Other hallmarks of the good textbook are that it should not just inform but present ways of thinking about a subject, engage the attention of its readers through lively, purposeful and effective presentation, and provide its users with the means to take their interest further. A biblical textbook, apparently complete, definitive, and self-contained, is conceptually and educationally a dead-end.

All three of these textbooks meet these general criteria. Though they all belong to series - two of them to the same Macmillan's Social History in Perspective - each is distinctively different. All are well written and structured. They do not oversimplify the big issues in their subject matter but face up to them and guide the reader through the complexities and debates. All are systematically referenced and have good bibliographies. Two contain glossaries of terms to help the unwary non-specialist.

Christopher Marsh's book on Popular Religion has only the briefest of narrative outlines and for the most part organises its material in three broad thematic chapters that examine the religious beliefs and actions of the laity within, alongside, and beyond the 16th-century church. Belief in magic is given a place inside the wide spectrum of religion - sometimes complementing, sometimes competing with orthodoxy - and not as a separate category outside it. Much is made of the importance of community and neighbourhood contexts, of the many forms of dissent and of the variable incidence of intransigence and toleration. The book abounds with suggestive insights and questions. It urges its readers to recognise the ambivalence of much of the available source material. It draws attention to the entrenched positions, bias, inconsistencies and (sometimes) muddled thinking of historians who have written about 16th-century Catholicism and Protestantism. This is a textbook that does not lean on other historians; it takes nothing on trust.

John Spurr's book on English Puritanism is less exciting to read than Marsh's but is a serviceable and reliable guide. It has more narrative and its contribution to social history is intermittent. But it does bring out very clearly the fluidity of religious belief and practice in the period it deals with and the consequent elasticity of the very term Puritan. Spurr reveals the complexities of different forms of Puritanism - Presbyterian, Independent, and others - and underlines the constant interactions between the spiritual and the social that did so much to define the Puritan experience. Well-chosen quotations from contemporary sources bring out clearly the flavour of the period.

Barry Reay's book on Popular Cultures is his second major contribution to the same subject. The first appeared in 1985 and had a shorter timespan as well as the singular form of the word culture in its title. This new book, which overlaps in some obvious ways with Marsh's and is no less stimulating to read, deals in longer social and mental chronologies and is alert to the essentially plural nature of its subject. Significantly Reay, unlike Marsh, has a chapter on religions. Curiously the most overarching chapter on popular cultures comes at the end rather than the beginning but en route the author takes the reader through ways of uncovering the sexualities of the past, the coexistence of orality, literacy and print, witchcraft beliefs, the impact of festive drama and ritual and the incidence and nature of riots. Reay, like many others, denies the existence of a neat dividing line between elite and popular cultures and is sensitive to gender-related cultural distinctions and to pronounced regional variations.

In short, these three textbooks are good examples of their kind. They are not just short-cuts to their respective subjects or exercises in forced feeding. In particular, the volumes by Marsh and Reay have a cutting edge and are real contributions to active learning.

R. C. Richardson is professor of history, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750. first Edition

Author - Barry Reay
ISBN - £39.99 and £11.99
Publisher - Longman
Price - £39.99 and £11.99
Pages - 235

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