Book Review: The Social Life of Early Modern Protestant Clergy

The Social Life of the Early Modern Protestant Clergy

Special issue of The Journal of Religious History, Literature and Culture

Jacqueline Eales and Beverley Tjerngren

University of Wales Press, 2020 (ISBN: 9781786837141, 119pp, £24.99)

William Gibson’s work has been commented on favourably in this column (EC8083). To add to his roll call of accomplishments, Gibson serves as a co-editor of the Journal of Religious History, Literature and Culture, now in its sixth year of life. This special edition of the journal, which Gibson arranged, presents an esoteric collection of articles, each originally delivered as a lecture in Belfast in 2018. The occasion was the European Social Science History Conference, a periodic gathering convened by the International Institute of Social History, itself a division of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Eales and Tjerngren assembled an Anglo-Swedish panel of academics to present papers at the 2018 conference, with corresponding national interests, which has the saving grace of preventing the resulting work from bearing an anachronistic reference to ‘Anglican’ clergy. Indeed, many of the challenges and novelties experienced by the Churches of England and of Sweden were alike in the period under review – common to all the Protestant churches. This edition focuses particularly on the two matters of clerical marriage and clerical finances. 

The outstanding essay in the collection is Gibson’s itself, in which he demolishes the popular conception (largely fabricated by Victorian Tractarians) that eighteenth century English bishops were ecclesiastical plutocrats, living lavishly off their sees Leo X-style. By contrast, Gibson demonstrates the financial hardships experienced by those taking on episcopal office, from the numerous legal and administrative costs on appointment, from expectations of hospitality and largesse, and from demands of itinerancy both around their diocese and back and forth to parliament. Those like Bishop Thomas Sherlock who were able to leave fortunes to their descendants were the exception rather than the norm, but proved a rich source of satirical humour, as seen in the cartoon rather counter-intuitively featured on the cover. 

Among the other essays presented, those by Rosamund Oates on clergy wives at the Reformation and Jon Stobart on the material culture of Georgian clergy are intriguing, while those from Tjerngren and her Swedish colleagues offer some English language insights on Scandinavian church history. Individual subscriptions to the JRHLC stand at only £25 per annum, which, assuming regular editions are of equivalent standard, represents good value for a journal of this quality.

Edward Keene, Little Shelford