Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The World of Rural Dissenters, 1520-1725

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The World of Rural Dissenters, 1520-1725

Article excerpt

The World of Rural Dissenters, 1520-1725. Edited by Margaret Spufford. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1995. Pp. xx, 459. $79.95.)

In The World of Rural Dissenters Margaret Spufford has put together a volume of material with much greater coherence than most collections of essays. Professor Spufford and a group of her former students, and other historians working in similar areas, address key issues pertaining to what one might call the sociology of religious nonconformity in rural and small-town England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.These questions have long puzzled historians: what was the social, economic, status, or occupational profile of preReformation Lollards and later Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, and Familists; what types of communities fostered religious dissent and what does the geographical typology of dissenting communities tell us about the propagation of nonconformity; and what connections (if any) were there between the places which experienced heresy early in the period and other forms of dissent after the Restoration?

These are complex and weighty problems in their own right. In order to address them adequately, the authors need to confront other ancillary problems as well; the circulation of cheap printed material of religious and other sorts, the nature of road networks and communications in the late Tudor and Stuart periods, and surname turnover in different types of agricultural environment are just a few examples. In short, Spufford and her colleagues have brought to bear upon the problem of rural nonconformity the best of current English local historical practice.The results are stunning in their detail and provocative in their implications, and will pre-empt any tendency historians may have in future to make simple generalizations.

One badly damaged generalization is the notion that the later Lollards were predominantly humble people, alienated from the society in which they dwelt: "Lollards were not insignificant members of isolated communities.They were found at all levels of rural and county society and they were totally intergrated into that society" (p. 132). Likewise, those who were involved in later nonconformity spanned the gamut of social types in Tudor/Stuart English society; the later seventeenth-century sectarians and the Elizabethan followers of the Family of Love in rural Cambridgeshire emerge as neither "the meaner sort" nor a proto-bourgeoisie nor as splinter groups divorced from their parish communities. …

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