Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Dolly MacKinnon, Earls Colne’s Early Modern Landscapes (Ashgate, 2014)

Dolly MacKinnon, Earls Colne’s Early Modern Landscapes (Ashgate, 2014).  ISBN 978-0-7546-3964-0, 323 pp. +xvii, £95.00.

Reviewed by Philippa Woodcock

[1] In contrast to ‘the new trajectory of landscape history’ (6) by Walsham, Whyte and Tilley, which survey and analyse changes to a large geographical sweep of the religious or economic landscape, MacKinnon’s work is the result of over twenty years of research on one particular Essex village, Earls Colne. MacKinnon acknowledges that she is not the first historian to have focused on this village: in fact, its history is ‘A Well-trodden field’. (1) Yimageset, she is one of the few to have perhaps such a close connection to it, as she allows the text to be peppered with anecdotes of her own time in Earls Colne: when she visited the priory wall in 1993 (256); or a walk of the village in 1991. (288) What clearly attracted MacKinnon, and others to this village is never hidden by the author. As well as the remaining physical traces of the early modern landscape, it is fabulously well documented.

[2] Owing its name to the de Vere Earls of Oxford, MacKinnon says she aims to tell the cultural history of the village in the seventeenth century, to ‘determine the ways in which certain people inscribed meaning into the creation and renovation of the landscape.’ (4) She begins by outlining the village’s pre-history, its physical boundaries, and its rise as a centre of medieval religious and economic activity, when it boasted a Priory, two manor houses, and a parish church. She then tells us what is missing from today’s landscape, the Priory church long having disappeared, along with a grammar school and the de Veres themselves, whose influence was written over by ‘the forward thinking aspirations of new families intent upon writing themselves into the landscape’. (35) Thus, given these gaps, she argues the way to access the past is ‘to step from the page into the sensual world’ (6) of the accounts of those ‘men, antiquarians and historians, who variously relied upon the evidence from the landscape, material culture, word of mouth, memory and the written records of the village’. (7) She adds a caveat that the words of women must also be listened to, and indeed, throughout the book. MacKinnon gives us the voice of the village’s marginal, or silenced characters. She overturns ideas about a ‘heterotopic landscape’ (4) to ‘reconstitute aspects of the lives of some families and individuals from Earls Colne, predominantly but not exclusively from the gentry and below…whose life experience both in and beyond the village, form threads throughout the book’. (10)

[3] However, the strongest voice, binding these experiences is that of the vicar, Ralph Josselin, who arrived in 1640, and remained in Earls Colne until his death in 1683. His likeness remains, flanking the west door to the parish church, St Andrews. MacKinnon is not the first to explore his diary, which chronicles life through the religious upheaval of the Civil Wars, the Republic, and the Restoration, in an often surprisingly liberal way, but she does use it as a vital narrative thread to link what is really an exploration of the religious landscape through extremely close reading of documents in the Essex Record Office.

[4] The text is organised in three parts, each made up of short case study chapters. MacKinnon begins by exploring how people in the past wrote about and represented their world, in antiquarian accounts, maps, and formal legal texts such as manorial records and religious testaments. Chapter five explores the trespass of ‘goodman’ William Death in 1652/53, a yeoman farmer, and MacKinnon masterfully reconstructs a map to his economic activity, social reputation, and his physical occupation of space, as well as the contemporary renovation of the landscape. This is a lesson to fully understanding records in their manorial and religious context, neither of which can stand separately, for the manor was ‘the bounty of God’s landscape’. (57)

[5] Section II is a close analysis of the parish church, St Andrew’s, seen as the backbone of the landscape, and built from agricultural wealth, such as a medieval endowment from saffron fields. It became the focus of village religious life when the Priory church was dismantled, and the de Vere tombs moved to the parish church nave. Its bells defined the soundscape and were ‘one of the ways in which the views of the parish were heard’, even providing ‘sonic slander’. (75-6, 252) Indeed, the church was more important than the manor house, for it was a space accessible to all, rather than just the private space of the Harlakenden family, the lords of the manor. One of the great strengths of MacKinnon’s approach is to attempt to repopulate this church with people and their political concerns, which the seventeenth century church mediated. For example, by re-contextualising ‘specific archives’ she is able to provide a guide to seating patterns and social distinctions through disputes over pews, and more innovatively, ship money petitions. We can now answer that question so often attached to religious space ‘Where did the women sit?’. The answer is at the back on narrow planks, unless incredibly deaf, in which case they enjoyed excellent seats near the front. When focused on burial, MacKinnon is intent on bringing the entire village back into the church, and not just those names which remain in memorials, but also of the women who buried their children in unmarked graves. Sources such as the ‘discordant polyphony’ (227) of graffiti, brass slabs, brickwork, ‘a dilapidated duster’ (177) from a heraldic funeral, and oral histories of those excluded from holy burial are re-read, restoring their creators to a place in the community, and supporting MacKinnon’s argument of an incomplete Protestant Reformation.

[6] However, just as much as this is a virtuoso display of how to read and work with documents of all natures, it also carries a warning. Landscapes change, and buildings change, for ‘the parish church, like the landscape, was not a static entity but rather was subject to constant reforms.’ (160) All these records ‘reflect bias of the record keepers through their inclusions and omissions, and offer perception of others’ lives in terms of moral achievement and failure.’ (197) Judgements were evolving as to who belonged to the community, and this community’s ideas about transgression, public, private and communal space. We are reminded strongly of this in part three, where MacKinnon explores events which now seem ridiculous or obscene, and groups which have sat beyond the traditional narrative. Thus, MacKinnon dissects presence of the devil in a mysteriously tolling bell in the 1630s, recorded in 1691 by the credulous Harlakenden family tutor Thomas Woodcock. Once Puritan Divines had intervened “the Noise never gave any disturbance after.” (253) The suicide of a single woman, seen as evidence of diabolical influence, is explored with sympathy as the act of a socially and economically marginalised individual. Likewise, records of Afro-Caribbean parishioners, and the growing Quaker population, one of whom protested by urinating in the parish church, remind us to think of the early modern landscape as a vast network, connected to an expanding British global presence, where more recent social exclusion did not have a place.

[7] This text will inevitably be of interest to local historians, focused on East Anglia, and those working on the socio-cultural landscapes of the seventeenth century, but they may prefer to consult it in a library, given the cost. Indeed, MacKinnon reminds us that it is a shame that ‘family historians and academics rarely collaborate.’, illustrating the resources available from non-academic societies studying Earls Colne. (287) Having established the landscape, it is as much a biography of Earls Colne’s inhabitants, as that of Josselin, an outsider who reached into their lives, just as MacKinnon now does. The text is also very engaging, arranged in short chapters, and there are only a very few proof errors. Yet, I do have reservations. Other critics have pointed to a lack of framework, but I felt that the book was pulling in perhaps too many directions at once. Is it an attempt to repopulate the landscape with people and their beliefs, or is it a history of the religious landscape, including its physical monuments and ever-evolving place names? Perhaps given its narrow geographical focus, it can be both. Equally, whilst we have the landscape of Earls Colne, more could be done to think about the village beyond its bounds. Various characters belonging to London or to other parishes come into Earls Colne – for example, Ashwell, previously vicar of Assington in Suffolk, the Cressenden and Harlakenden families, or even Josselin, but how and why do they arrive here? What value do their connections to other places have in the village itself? Finally, for a text on the landscape, which discusses maps, and physical geography, no readable map of the village is itself provided. Perhaps this is deliberate, leaving the reader to make their own mental map, Mackinnon having told us of her landscape, ‘leaves the reader to deal with theirs.’ (4)

The University of Warwick, September 2016

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