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Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century.

"This book," Professor Underdown states at the outset, "is about people who tried to build a better world." It is also, he need hardly have added, about the people who got in their way. Like the town it so brilliantly recreates, the book teems with memorable characters, from the rector John White, architect of reform, to the defiantly unreformed and unrepentant members of the Pouncey family. Told with obvious relish and tremendous erudition, it is the story of seventeenth-century Dorchester, and of the rise and fall of a great Puritan crusade that made it, for a time, the best reformed town in England.

Dorchester was set on the high road to reform by a great fire that destroyed half the buildings in 1613. As in other communities brought low by disaster, the material and economic damage was quickly put right: spiritually and emotionally, however, the fire marked a very real turning point. Inspired by John White's preaching, a radical new civic spirit swept the town. Before long, the easy-going Elizabethan elite was edged aside by a rising party of new men, godly activists determined to purge the town of idleness and disorder. But it was never going to be easy. Dorchester doubled in size between 1570 and 1620, and kept growing until the population touched 2,500 by 1642. This growth, coupled with high inflation for much of the period, produced a host of severe social problems, including chronic unemployment and grinding poverty. Virtually every town in England faced these difficulties, but it is Underdown's contention that in no other town were these problems tackled with quite the same energy and commitment. Forged in the fire, fanned by White's eloquent sermons, the collective zeal of Dorchester's closely-knit "cousinhood" of godly reformers made great things possible.

One of the most important contributions of this book is to redirect attention to the relatively neglected constructive aspects of the Puritan agenda. The godly of Dorchester, committed as they were to community-wide religious and moral reform, understood that their best efforts would be wasted unless the condition of the poor could be eased. The war on sin, then, proceeded on two fronts. Naturally, the city fathers made life as miserable as they could for the Pounceys and other drunkards, fornicators, sabbath-breakers, and assorted miscreants in their midst. But their campaign was never wholly negative and repressive. Dorchester's Puritan elite is said to have displayed a "striking concern" for the deserving poor: "Many men's bowels began to yearn in compassion" was the way the local diarist put it.

Money was the root of all reform. Much of the reformer's strength came from their ability to turn concern and compassion, first to cash and then to action. John White had something of a genius for soliciting funds from the faithful, but perhaps in the heady days of his ascendancy the townsfolk did not need much encouragement. The local economy was far from buoyant, but the people of Dorchester gave money on a truly heroic scale. And by and large it was put to good use. The most ambitious undertaking was a new "hospital" or workhouse, where as many as fifty poor children and adolescents could be kept off the streets, taught the rudiments of religion, and trained in a variety of trades congenial to the town's major employers. There were other new projects, old projects were revived, and there were ingenious schemes to help pay for it all. If, in the new Dorchester, charity was much more carefully targeted so as to exclude those deemed undeserving, it was still the case that the poor, the aged and the indigent who stayed in the regime's good graces were provided for as never before.

By the 1620s and 1630s there were signs that the town's emotional physical and financial investment in godly reform was beginning to pay off: drinking remained a problem, but church attendance was up, and, most tellingly, illegitimacy and bridal pregnancy were down sharply. As the author suggests, "the decline of sexual laxity must surely reflect the reformer's ability to reach, and change the habits of, large numbers of people in the town." It was a remarkable achievement, but it did not last. The second half of the book provides an equally masterful analysis of the unmaking of Puritan Dorchester, of the process by which the urban community became caught up in, and then overwhelmed by, the great national crises which arose just as the reforms were beginning to bite. In the end, the foundations of godly reformation crumbled under strains from both inside and outside the town. Despite being on the winning side, war and revolution took their toll, as did the scarcely less corrosive forces of pragmatism and compromise that came after. And, all along, there were those within the town who had never made their peace with God's self-anointed.

It only remains to say that this is a marvellous book, one that offers by far the best account of life in an early modern English provincial town. The style is elegant, droll, and compelling. Much of the most telling evidence has been painstakingly gleaned from humble civic accounts, but there are no charts or graphs, tables or appendices: numbers have instead been discreetly crunched and digested offstage for smooth incorporation into the body of the text. A book about people, it is also a book for people - as well as historians and their students. Attractively priced and soon to be available in paperback, it should delight all three constituencies.
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Author:DesBrisay, Gordon
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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