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Global in the local

21 March 2014

William Whyte praises a window on the past

"Moderate reformer": the effigy of Bishop Hugh Oldham (died 1518) in Exeter Cathedral. An illustration from Professor Orme's new book

"Moderate reformer": the effigy of Bishop Hugh Oldham (died 1518) in Exeter Cathedral. An illustration from Professor Orme's new book

The Church in Devon 400-1560
Nicholas Orme
Impress Books £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT477 )

LOCAL history can seem just a little bit parochial. With global history now all the rage, and publishers keen to produce big bestsellers on vast expanses of space and time, Nicholas Orme's decision to focus on the fortunes of a single county - albeit over a thousand-year period - is deliberately unfashionable.

It is also brilliant. In this volume, Professor Orme, a noted medieval historian, triumphantly demonstrates the continuing importance of local history. This is a book that is essential reading for anyone interested in Devon and the West Country.

More than that - and more remarkably - this is a book that will be of genuine use to all those who want to learn about church history more generally. The result of a lifetime's work, The Church in Devon 400-1560 vindicates the enterprise of thinking locally about the past.

Take the Black Death, for example. A genuinely European-wide cataclysm, the scale of its impact - not least the millions of deaths it occasioned - is almost impossible to comprehend. Yet its terrifying presence is superbly captured here in a story about the little almshouse for aged priests at Clyst St Mary, on the road from Exeter to Honiton.

On 25 December 1348, 11 residents celebrated Christmas. One died of the plague on 1 January 1349, another on the 2nd, another on the 6th. Three more passed away in February, and a further three in March. "By the time that Easter came on 12 April, only two of the priests were alive."

This book is packed with similar illuminating examples. Indeed, it is the great achievement of The Church in Devon that, far from being narrow, it is in fact a wonder-ful history of religious belief more generally. This may not be global history, but it opens up the world of the past to great effect.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John's College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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