This collection is made up of texts where were in the public domain between 1560 and 1720. Most were printed but, for example, parish registers and wills were handwritten; memorial inscriptions were, normally, cut into some durable material such as stone or metal.
Although some of the 'exhibits' deal with entirely mundane topics like bookkeeping, there is a strong sense of interaction between the natural and supernatural worlds in many of the texts I have reproduced. There were sceptics, of course, but most of them had the good sense to keep their doubts to themselves-Alexander Agnew, a Dumfriesshire man who said he knew no god but salt, and oatmeal and water, was executed for blasphemy by the English army of occupation in 1658.
The words in the dossier are overwhelmingly those set down by men educated at grammar schools and the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Assured and articulate, they wrote in the course of their professional duties, out of religious conviction or to make money. It could be argued that of all the documents I have included, wills take us closest to the beliefs and intentions of ordinary men and women; some of them had very few possessions to dispose of-and a good many of them could not write for themselves. Some wills, nuncupative wills as they are called, were memorised by the witnesses and committed to paper later on-a reminder that memories were better trained three or four hundred years ago than they are today.
There are good reasons to believe that many more people could read than write. However, like writing, the skill and habit of reading were probably acquired by a minority of English men and fewer still women; most households contained no books at all. Nevertheless, some at least of the texts I have included were familiar to non-readers. The Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies were continuously 'broadcast' in churches; Gouge's Of Domesticall Duties, Baxter's The Poor Man's Family Book and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are, in a sense, extended sermons in print. Sometimes an echo of a heard text comes across in a will. William Griggs, a farmer from Orwell in Cambridgeshire, made his will in 1649. Compare his statement that 'nothing is more certain than death, yet there is nothing more uncertain than the time of the coming thereof' (Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities. English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 321) with the words of the Homily on Repentance and True Reconciliation with God (see p. 159). Poor Robin's Almanack, William Hicks' Oxford Jests and Abel Boyer's Wise and Ingenious Companion retell the kinds of joke which might have been swopped on a building site or over a drink in the alehouse, including an early example of a 'good news, bad news' story.