‘Spatial politics in the English parish c. 1300-1700: A Field Trip’
Steve Hindle and Beat Kümin, History, Warwick
Parish churches in preindustrial Europe were eminently political sites. At least once a week, the local congregation assembled for worship, communication and a wide range of related activities. Dress codes, seating order and rituals such as processions and communion reflected gender roles, social hierarchies and power relations, leading to countless disputes on precedence and almost constant renegotiation.
The congenial location of a Warwickshire parish church will be used to illustrate some aspects of spatial politics in the English parish, with reference to both the pre-Reformation (Beat Kümin) and early modern periods (Steve Hindle).
In England, where secular communities were relatively weak, parishes acquired high political relevance from the late Middle Ages. Householder assemblies of varying constitutions acted as sovereign lay bodies, allocating parochial funds to public works and charitable uses as well as religious initiatives, while churchwardens oversaw day-to-day management as ‘chief executives’. Purgatory provided a particularly strong incentive for voluntary activities. The physical setting for political communication was a highly complex space shaped by agents, institutions and objects such as priests, gentry families and commoners; chantries, fraternities and ‘stores’; images, chapels, screens, monuments and porches.
The impact of the Reformation on the political structures of the parish was profound. The middle years of the sixteenth century were a period of institutional defoliation, in which a large number of fora for political participation within the mediaeval parish were dismantled. The parish became increasingly secularised, taking on numerous novel functions including the maintenance of the highways; the provision of men and arms for the county militia; and the relief and regulation of the poor. This change in the focus of administrative activity entailed the creation of new opportunities for political participation within the parish, especially in the creation of what by the late seventeenth century had arguably become the most significant office of all, that of overseer of the poor. By the end of our period, the ‘civil parish’ had emerged as a unit not only of worship and obligation, but also of control, and numerous parishes saw the development of both formal and informal structures of oligarchy, especially in the form of the ‘select vestry’, through which access to the circuits of representation and authority within the parish could be regulated.
The longue durée approach (and the audience’s interdisciplinary and Continental perspectives) should yield more general insights into continuities, change and regional peculiarities of parish politics in preindustrial Europe.