The end of a civil and spiritual marriage

A History of the English Parish
December 14, 2001

"Parochial: pertaining or confined to a narrow area or region, as if within the borders of one's own parish; narrow, provincial." It is significant that the Oxford English Dictionary 's first notice of this word in a petty, pejorative sense is dated as recently as 1856. Before the middle of the 19th century, the parish could justly claim to have been at the centre of English life and governance. Norman Pounds's book shows how the parish gained its dominant position and how it later declined and became a byword for narrow, sectional interest.

The topic is ambitious, covering nearly 2,000 years of English history. Pounds's approach is a mixture of the chronological and the thematic, with major sections on the origins of the parochial system, the functions of the parish and its church.

Within these sections there is a more chronological approach. The first section concentrates on the period from the Roman invasion to about the Reformation, when the parish came to cover almost the whole of the English landscape, rural and urban, and when every person came to have his or her own church, and a community to rely on and be responsible for. In this period the parish was principally an ecclesiastical entity, but £shows how the intertwining of the ecclesiastical and the secular permeated the foundation and growth of the parochial system, so that by the early 16th century, it was the obvious unit for secular administration at local level.

The section on the functions of the parish travels over well-worked ground, illustrating how, from the early 16th century, government administrators took advantage of the extensive parochial network and of local parochial officers who knew their populations, to throw more secular burdens on them, until the parish became the prime unit of government control and social order. The final section on the parish and its church deals with the fabric of the church - its appearance, responsibilities for its maintenance and its meaning and significance locally and in the wider context.

£draws on the most recent research and adds much of his own. The book does tend to read like a series of essays on discrete subjects. Perhaps given the size of the task and the nature of the subject, this is inevitable, but it leads to patchy coverage. After an interesting beginning on the origins of the parochial system, £concentrates on the period from about 1400 to just after the Reformation. In a way this is not surprising, since that is when the parish exerted its greatest influence. The result, however, is that some parts of the story are disjointed and there is repetition between sections.

No one can be at home with all aspects of the history of the parish. One area where £perhaps does not do justice to his material is in the church courts. It is an exaggeration to say that the church lost control of tithe cases after the Reformation. Tithe cases continued to come before the church courts into the 19th century. Similarly, the church courts did not cease to be active in the 18th century, but continued to function into the 19th century. They provided the only practical way for most people to end a marriage until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. There is a rich vein of material in the archives of the church courts, from the 14th to 19th centuries, much of which remains to be mined.

The central theme of the book is the intermingling of the ecclesiastical and the secular, which shaped the whole history of the parish. For much of the history of this institution, the two cannot be separated, but at the historical shear point of the Reformation, the two elements began to separate. Until the Reformation, the parish provided a context that shaped spiritual and civil life. At the Reformation, however, the idea of a single church was destroyed by the varieties of worship that spread through the body of the church, like dry rot through the timbers of a medieval roof. At the same time, the parish became the most important unit of civil administration and remained a civil community until the creation of the Gilbert Unions of the 18th century, only to be irretrievably destroyed by the administrative changes of the 19th century: the Poor Law, the highways and the public health reforms.

Can anything take its place? The question of how to reconcile the local with the national and the international will continue to pose problems for politicians well into the 21st century.

Christopher Webb is acting director, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York.

A History of the English Parish: The Culture of Religion from Augustine to Victoria

Author - N. J. G. Pounds
ISBN - 0 521 63348 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 593

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