Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Parish' and 'City'-A Shifting Identity: Salisbury 1440-1600

Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Parish' and 'City'-A Shifting Identity: Salisbury 1440-1600

Article excerpt

The study and documentation of ceremony and ritual, a broad concern of Records of Early English Drama, has stimulated discussion about their purpose and function in an urban context. Briefly, in academic estimation their role is largely positive, both in shaping civic consciousness and in harmonizing diverse classes and interests while--as a convenient corollary--simultaneously confirming local hierarchies. Profitable self-promotion is also part of this urban picture, since ceremony and entertainment, like seasonal fairs, potentially attracted interest from outside the immediate locality. There are, however, factors that compromise this overall picture of useful urban concord: the dominance of an urban elite, for instance, may effectually be stabilized, promoted, or even disguised by ceremony and ritual; on the other hand, marginalized groups (women and the poor) have normally no place in them at all. (1)

Those excluded from participation in civic ritual and ceremonial might, nevertheless, be to some extent accommodated in the pre-Reformation infrastructure of trade guilds and religious guilds. Both organizational groups crossed social and economic boundaries to draw male and female members together in ritual and public expression of a common purpose and brotherhood --signalling again (in customary obit, procession, and feasting) harmony and exclusivity, themes with which, it seems, pre-Reformation urban life was preoccupied. But although women were welcome within guild ranks, office was normally denied them. Fifteenth-century religious guilds also saw a decline in membership drawn from the poorer members of society, with an overall tendency for a dominant guild to become identified with a governing urban elite. (2)

Less obvious perhaps, but of prime importance to those excluded from any of the above, was the parish church itself, whose round of worship afforded forms of ritual open to all. Yet each church was uniquely defined: by its history, dedication, and parish boundaries; by building form, furniture, and decoration; by memorials of its dead; and by its cult of particular saints. The individuality thus created offered a sense of belonging for even the humblest parishioner. A small offering for the Font Taper, the gift or planned bequest of a cooking vessel to be sold for the church fabric, a Whitsun dance or Hocktide meal--these all presented opportunities, particularly for the poor and for women, to participate in and belong to a community that was at once identifiable, stable, and perpetual. At the same time each stage of a parishioner's life was normally affirmed by public ritual conducted in the local church (wedding, baptism, churching for newly delivered mothers, and funeral). In addition, while the parish church provided a primary and local focus for citizens' loyalty and identity, the periodic functioning of guild and civic ritual within a parish context brought awareness of the city's business, while individuals, through municipal office, trade interests, networks of extended kin, and friendship, necessarily maintained links that stretched beyond the immediate locality. (3)

This short introductory discussion is not intended to over-emphasize the role of the parish church, but simply to point out its capacity to transform those who believed into those who belonged. Thus each local church housed a wide variety of men, women, and children, all of whom might be brought, through its functioning, to some sense of confident community, rooted in an immediate and local context, but sensible of wider municipal concerns. Drawing on material for Salisbury, I shall further argue that parish-based customary or ritual activity acted to minimize social tension, balancing parish identities and loyalties against their civic counterparts. These circumstances, however, were substantially altered in the wake of the Reformation: first, fundamental changes occurred in the nature of the parish and its community; second, there was a shift in the popular perspective from parish to city, a process set in motion in the fifteenth century but accelerated by the impact of reform on parish life. …

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