On Parochialism

On Tuesday, William Hague said something that really hit a nerve. After giving a speech on behalf of the EU ‘Remain’ side (don’t worry, this isn’t a post about that!), he told the BBC that Eurosceptics should

raise our eyes from parochial concerns and look at the challenges of the next 20 to 30 years

He’s totally within his rights to use this word in this context, of course. The word literally means ‘of or relating to a (civil or ecclesiastical) parish’, but since the nineteenth century it has also taken on a second, figurative meaning:

Relating or confined to a narrow area or region, as if within the border’s of one’s own parish; limited or provincial in outlook or scope (OED)

I’ve often wondered how this word could possibly have become associated with a mentality of closed-mindedness, limited horizons, and pig-headed insularity. That’s a story for another day, though the OED (link above) points the finger squarely at Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose English Traits (1856) disparaged the ‘parochial and shop-till politics’ of the English, a people who ‘fear the hostility of ideas, of poetry, of religion’.

St Peter and St Paul, SM

St Peter and Paul, Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Why did this institution become a by-word for insularity and closed-mindedness?

But look it up in the Glossographia (1661) of Thomas Blount (a seventeenth-century lexicographer) and you only get the sparse, literal definition: “of or pertaining to a Parish”. Hague hit a nerve precisely because for my own period of study, the middle part of the seventeenth century, nothing could be further from the truth. The early-modern parish was anything but parochial.

No – the early-modern parish was outward looking, engaged with and informed about the world around it. Those who inhabited it occupied a sphere of permeability, the institutions of which actually facilitated – not inhibited – contact with the outside world. The great debates of the seventeenth century took place in the pews and pulpits of the English parish churches, exposing parishioners to arguments, ideas, and personalities that might otherwise have passed them by.

Let’s start with the easy one – the communication of official news.With the widespread erection of so-called ‘royal roods’ (monarch’s coats of arms hung at the east end) in the 1630s, no parishioner could be in any doubt where authority in ecclesiastical affairs ultimately lay: with their dismantling after 1649, no parishioner could doubt that this authority had met its demise. The parish church was, of course, a place where (theoretically) every single person in the community would be every single Sunday. It was therefore the perfect place for bishops and kings to get their messages heard, through the reading of proclamations, or the ringing of bells to celebrate events of national significance, such as the birth of a royal child, or victories against a foreign foe. Indeed, by refusing to read a proclamation, or by continuing with the observance of a politically-sensitive memorial, churchwardens and parishioners could perhaps even express their dissatisfaction with the current regime or its policies, home and abroad.

Soldier Churchill 1636:7

Sketch of a soldier in a churchwarden’s account book, Churchill, Somerset, 1636/7

But the church was also a site where new ideas were shared through debate and disputation. Everybody knows that the Putney Debates of 1647 (“the poorest he…”) took place in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney, but this was far from unusual during the tumult of the 1640s and 1650s. The parish of Wiveliscombe, near Taunton, started to hold weekly lectures which by 1652 has a ‘much increased’ attendance and drew disputants from far and wide. In that year, the Baptist preacher and New Model soldier Thomas Collier attended a lecture to debate with the Presbyterian minister of Staple-Fitzpane, Francis Fullwood, on the subject of infant baptism. This followed similar debates between Collier and the ministers of Badgworth and Bitsham, at Axbridge in 1650. The debate was such a significant event that Fullwood saw fit to take his appeal to print, with his Churches and Ministry of England (London, 1652). Thus, the parish church became a site where a local communities were exposed to debates of national significance – on religious toleration, the territoriality of churches, the universality of a true church.

Parish churches also became magnets for alms-seekers passing through on their way to a nearby port or city. These could be internal refugees, perhaps displaced by fire or disease, or ones from further afield. In 1641, rebellion in Ireland caused a great many Irish protestants to flee to England, and many of them entered through the port of Minehead to make their way overland to London, stopping en route at churches to collect charitable donations. The parish itself became a forum in which they could share their stories and even, in the case of Irish ministers, to preach a sermon. The churchwardens of Cheddar recorded paying one such minister 5s for a sermon in 1642, while in Minehead 5s was raised for an ‘old minister…in great distresse [who] desired a collection in the Church’. One can only imagine the tales they told – reason, perhaps, why two gentlemen of Hinton were paid to spy on a ‘suspicious’ Irishman, or why the wardens of Axbridge purchased new locks for their doors and chains for their copy of Foxe. ‘Parochialism’, in the context of the seventeenth-century, looks more like deep and immediate immersion in faraway events than a doggedly localist blinker.

There are signs that we can even stretch this analysis to the continental sphere, too. The parishioners of Axbridge saw fit to raise a shilling for the beleaguered protestants of the Rhineland Palatinate in 1635, in an act of (admittedly pitiable) solidarity with their co-religionists, whose territory had been conquered by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1623. Three soldiers, presumably returning from the unsuccessful fight there, were given 3by the wardens of Banwell in 1626 – no doubt they too had their fair share of stories to tell to willing parishioners. The Cameley churchwardens’ account for 1630 records 4d each for two soldiers from Dunkirk and Denmark: the parishioners of Goathurst had even prayed for the King of Denmark in 1626!

The parish was the very institution bringing people into contact with the world outside its bounds, whether from the capital, from one of the King’s other realms, or even from across the English channel – and beyond. What’s more, in attending a particular debate, praying for a particular foreign king, or listening to a sermon delivered by a refugee minister, English parishioners of the early-modern period were actively participating in conversations that broke through the parish borders. So when is the parish ‘parochial’? Not in the seventeenth century, for sure. This was a time when ‘parochial concerns’ were, in fact, English, Irish, British, and even European concerns too.





One thought on “On Parochialism

  1. Pingback: History Carnival 157: Anything but Brexit | the many-headed monster

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