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Homes and families

02 January 2015

Nicholas Orme looks at religious history inits domestic aspect

Religion and the Household (Studies in Church History, Volume 50)
John Doran, Charlotte Methuen, and Alexandra Walsham, editors
The Boydell Press £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50 (Use code CT870 )

"WILL Faith, Hope and Charity bring us to heaven?"asked little Betty. "Yes," rejoined her sister Mall with confidence, "but Faith and Hope must go back again and only Charity must enter into heaven."

Thus the young children of William Blundell, a Roman Catholic gentleman of Lancashire, taking their own parts in the plays that he wrote in the 1660s to teach them religion and morality, not without warnings of whippings.

This is an example from the book under review of the countless ways in which religion has permeated the home. Jesus visited the Temple and the synagogue, but most of his recorded teaching was done in people's houses, often during a meal. St Paul, too, emphasised the family as a building-block of the Christian faith, as well as the larger community.

Religion and the Household is a volume of 31 essays based on papers delivered at conferences of the Ecclesiastical History Society in 2012-13. They range in coverage from apostolic times to the late 20th century, although their origin means that they address discrete topics rather than form a continuous narrative.

Most of the essays deal with lay households of families and servants, and show how religion affected their life in a particular way or period. A few study artificial households, effectively religious communities, including those of two popes, the Cathars, and the nuns of Syon Abbey, who lived in groups for some years after the dissolution of their monastery.

All the essays are concerned with Christianity except for three that address medieval Jewry, 19th-century Islam, and modern China. Not surprisingly, the families studied are wealthy ones whose records have survived, like those of the Blundell family. Most, too, are from England. There are some gaps, such as the history of family religion in the Middle Ages, although the sources for this are substantial by the 15th century.

Nevertheless, the volume is an impressive and wide-ranging collection of studies. Besides dealing with core issues such as religious education and practice, it embraces domestic architecture and furnishings, the reading of books, and the parts played by music and the visual arts. The RC families of the 17th century are illuminating here. Forbidden to worship in public, they devised ingenious ways of being religious indoors.

When the essays reach the 19th and 20th centuries, it is possible to move from surveys to biography. There are touching accounts of Gladstone's sister Anne and her Bible, the death of a child in the Bloomfield family, and the marriages of John Keble and Isaac Williams. An analysis of the census of 1881 in Lincolnshire shows that the average clergyman employed two or three servants; Nonconformist ministers, on the other hand, were confined to one.

This collection will be a valuable resource in the future. One feature that emerges is the continuity of religious life across the great divide of the Reformation. We are shown more than once that Catholics and Puritans had much in common. Saying prayers when rising, grace before meals, fasting, reading godly works, and displaying religious art continued from one era to another.

What we need next is for historians to peer lower down in society. How godly were the homes of the lower orders, given their lack of the time and resources enjoyed by their betters?


Professor Orme's recent books include histories of the Church in Devon, medieval clergy, and the teaching of Latin in early modern England.

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