Book Review: Old Parish Life: a guide for the Curious by Justin Lovill

Malcolm Airs, OHCT Trustee,  was inspired by this highly enjoyable book and invites the church lovers of Oxfordshire to seek it out.


The aims and limitations of this extraordinary book are clearly set out in the introduction. In the words of the author, ‘from medieval to Victorian times the parish, embodied in its church, dominated every local community in England and was the most significant institution in most people’s lives’. In addressing how that dominance manifested itself, he explores the objects and artefacts to be found in and around the parish church and charts the changing perceptions and attitudes of the parishioners to the events and concerns that they encountered. Based largely on their own words as captured in contemporary documents, it provides a lively commentary on the role that religion played in the lives of ordinary people across the whole of England. The approach is anecdotal rather than analytical and draws extensively on churchwardens’ accounts, extracts from which are quoted at length. Other documentary sources include parish registers, vestry minute books and individual wills together with extracts from commentators such as Samuel Pepys, John Stow  for London and Anthony Wood for Oxford.

It begins by taking the reader on a tour of the churchyard and the ways that it was used before entering the church itself where there are sections on its physical appearance and the artefacts that it contained such as pews, pulpits, rood screens and so on. This is followed by chapters on bells, vestments, upkeep and daily routines. Each entry is supported by extensive lists of quotations which can be rather repetitive but are often enlivened by entertaining anecdotes. In the section on pews, for example, it is recorded that in 1584 in the church of St Ebbe’s in Oxford, a woman complained that when she tried to sit down at evening prayer another woman ‘jostled further into the seate and wolde not let her come into her owne place there, whereupon this respondent sayed unto her, ‘if yowe will not let me come into my owne seat I will sit upon yor lappe …’ and thereupon grew further words of inconvenience between them, as whore and basterd & suchelike’.

A lengthy chapter explains the festivals that punctuated the religious year at regular intervals with subsequent chapters on the rites associated with baptism, marriage and death. The arrangements for supporting the parish poor and for dealing with outsiders, vagabonds, abandoned children and pregnant women are considered and there is a graphic section on disorder with chapters on misbehaviour in church, witchcraft, fornication and complaints against ministers. The chapters on dilapidation including lead theft and the damage caused by birds inside the church will be familiar to many modern congregations although, thankfully, the practice of bodysnatching is no longer an issue. The final section focusses on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and deals with the iconoclastic changes brought about by the Reformation and the Civil War together with the cataclysmic effects of plague and the Great Fire of London. There is a helpful glossary and an extensive bibliography.

Lovill and his publisher have succeeded admirably in their stated aim to provide the reader with an enhanced sense of the varied activity found in and around parish churches in their heyday. At a very modest price they have produced a guide that will inform and amuse the curious church visitor even if they do not fully share the author’s enthusiasm for quite so many quotations from the churchwardens’ accounts. It is a book which will be sampled for information on specific aspects of parish life rather than read from cover to cover. As well as the insights that it offers it can be thoroughly recommended for the wealth of relevant pictures that appear on almost every page and graphically illustrate the observations contained in the text.

Old Parish Life: a guide for the Curious,  by  Justin Lovill, (The Bunbury Press)  November 2022. Pages: 626 pages, over 350 illustrations, ISBN 978-0-9562046-2-2, Hardcover £20.

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