Tuesday’s tip – When one person’s theory turns into a ‘true’ fact

My post today is about trusting your own judgement when you researching – whether your research is for a local history topic or is a genealogical project.  Just because you have read something by someone else – even if it is in a published book by an academic – if you don’t agree with others’ interpretations and theories, then have the courage to follow your own line of thorough and comprehensive research.  Because, unfortunately, sometimes the suppositions of one historian (or genealogist) can, overtime, become the established ‘truth’.

Secondary literature interest in Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts
When I was researching my dissertation, I spent a great deal of time tracking down, reading and researching all the secondary sources that had cited Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts.  Because the accounts are such a rich and fruitful source, there are countless academic books and journal articles whose authors have used them.  The secondary source interest had started in the 1870s when the then vicar of Great Dunmow, W. T. Scott, wrote a small book on the history of the church of St Mary the Virgin.  At that time, the accounts were still in the parish chest in the church at Great Dunmow.  I have in my minds’ eye a vivid picture of our Victorian vicar, Scott, night-by-night sitting in front of the blazing vicarage fire, reading and scrutinizing each folio by candle-light and puzzling over the writings of his predecessors from 350 years earlier.  During my research, I found his book, Antiquities of an Essex Parish: Or pages from the history of Great Dunmow(1), to be one of the most accurate in terms of using the churchwardens’ accounts in building a reasonably correct history of both Great Dunmow’s church and the parish.  However, unfortunately there are some incorrect suppositions in his book that, over time, have been picked up and reused by other researchers.

Front cover of W T Scott, Antiquities of an Essex parish or pages from the history of Great Dunmow

Frontispiece W T Scott, Antiquities of an Essex parish or pages from the history of Great Dunmow

My own, much-loved and much-read, copy of
W T Scott’s 1873 history of Great Dunmow

Whilst Scott’s book was a local history book, other commentators and historians have also used the churchwardens’ accounts for their own research too.  In particular, because of the accounts’ extensive entries for Corpus Christi plays, historians of medieval drama have much cited and quoted the accounts for hypothesises on early English drama and pre-Shakespearean plays.

During my own research phase, I daily read folios from the churchwardens’ accounts alongside reading the secondary literature.  To my surprise, I found that I very rarely agreed with any modern-day interpretations of the accounts.  I read section after section of the accounts directly from the originals written 500 hundred years ago.  Then I read the secondary literature.  The originals  simply did not tie up with secondary sources.  I was puzzled and baffled by this.  It took me some time to realise that I should trust my own reading of the primary sources.  Just because the secondary sources were in published books and academic journals, it didn’t necessary mean that these historians interpretations were correct – particularly as only a few of the historians had gone back to the original primary source.  Unfortunately, the suppositions of Scott had, over time, become the hard-facts of others.

The church steeple’s scaffolding
For instance, in Clifford Davidson’s 2007 book Festivals and plays in late medieval Britain, Davidson cites the entries in the churchwardens’ accounts regarding Great Dunmow’s Corpus Christi Plays and quotes the earlier research of both W. A. Mepham, (a 1930s/1940s historian of Essex drama) and the 1972 research of John C Coldeway.  Davidson comments:

Already in 1526-1527 there is a mention of a scaffold that may have been used for playing [ie Corpus Christi plays](2), perhaps in a single location in the village since, as W.A. Mepham notes, Great Dunmow “was not sufficiently extensive to warrant the use of moveable pageants.(3)”’(4)

Leaving aside that the date is slightly incorrect – the entries for the scaffolding was in 1525-6 (folio 4r and folio 5v) – by only examining the drama elements within the churchwardens’ accounts, the entries for scaffolding have been taken out of context.   As we have seen on folio 4r, there was an entry for money received in by the church for scaffolding, not paid out by the church – which it would have been if it was scaffolding used for the church’s regular Corpus Christi plays.  On folio 5v (still in the same year) we have also seen that there were several items for the making of scaffolding and the building of a windlass.   Putting the entries for scaffolding back into context, we know that a great deal of scaffolding was used to help the construction of the new church steeple.  The same steeple which had been paid for by the entire parish in the 1525-6 parish collection (fos. 2r4r  Thus, any entries in the churchwardens’ accounts for scaffolding cannot be used to support a hypothesis that the Corpus Christi plays were played in one fixed place in the town.

This doesn’t mean to say that there wasn’t a fixed ‘playing area’ (or stage) of sorts assembled in the town.  Indeed, my own hypothesis (to be explored in later posts), is that there was most certainly one central area in the town where the plays were performed – and this could quite possibly have been on a fixed scaffold/stage.  Moreover, my hypothesis is that villagers  from the surrounding villages from miles around came into Great Dunmow to watch the Corpus Christi plays in this one central area (which directly conflicts with both Scott’s and Mepham’s interpretations).   However, putting the entries for the scaffolding properly back into their original context means that any entries for scaffolding in the 1520s churchwardens’ accounts must not be used to support a hypothesis of a fixed playing area or stage for Corpus Christi plays within Great Dunmow.  The scaffolding documented in the churchwardens’ accounts was, quite simply, just for the construction of the new church steeple.

Corpus Christi Moveable Pageants
In the extract above, 1930s historian Mepham (whose work, as can be seen above, is still quoted today) said that Great Dunmow was not big enough to have a moveable pageant.  I don’t know where Mepham lived in the 1930s but he almost certainly could not have paid a visit to Great Dunmow!  If he had, he would have known that Great Dunow was (and always has been) large enough to have had moving pageants passing through the town.  As we have seen from the 1525-6 parish collection for the church steeple, several areas of the parish are identified.  Then, as it is now, the parish church in Church End was nearly one mile distant from the town’s High Street. Ample room for a moving pageant, if there was one, to pass through from the starting point of the town’s small pre-Reformation chapel (located in the High Street), moving through the ancient Causeway (the road is still there today) and down through Church End via Lime Tree Hill (again, this road is still there) and onto the church.  When my son was a baby, I walked this precise route (from the town to the church) many many times trying to get him to go to sleep.   I can assure you there was/is certainly room enough for any size of  moving pageant whether a walking pageant or one on horseback and horse-drawn wagon!

Indeed, in modern times, every year the same route is used by the September Dunmow Carnival with movable (and very large) lorries and floats.  Moreover, every four years there is a very large moving walking procession around the entire town area of Great Dunmow when the ancient custom of the Dunmow Flitch is performed.  Again, all the roads used by the modern-day September Carnival and Dunmow Flitch procession existed during the Tudor period – as demonstrated by the entries in Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts for the 1520s parish collections.

So the moral to my post is that sometimes peoples’ suppositions and theories unfortunately end up becoming the historical truth.  Trust your own instincts when you are conducting your own research.  Always research others’ theories, but if they don’t ‘add-up’, then, provided you have performed your own high-quality, thorough and diligent research, believe in your own work.

The other morals to this story is,

  • If possible, always always always go back to any original primary sources; and
  • If your research is connected to local history (or the genealogy of a family based in a certain location), always physically walk the area you researching – particular if the geography of the area has been used in any secondary literature or someone else’s research.  If you can’t physically walk it, then use Google maps and/or a contemporary map to help research your area .  Or, better still, make contact with someone that does live in the area and ask them to walk the high-ways and by-ways for you!

Bibliography and Further reading
1) Scott. W.T., Antiquities of an Essex Parish: Or pages from the history of Great Dunmow (London, 1873).
2) Coldewey, J. C., ‘Early English Drama: A History of its rise and fall, and a Theory regarding the Digby Plays’ Unpublished PhD dissertation (University of Colorado, 1972).
3) Mepham, W.A., ‘Villages Plays at Dunmow, Essex, in the sixteenth century’, Notes and Queries, 166 (May 1934), 345-348 and 362-366.
4) Davidson, C., Festivals and plays in late medieval Britain (Aldershot, 2007), p.55.


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You may also be interested in the following
– The craft of being a historian: Research Techniques
– The craft of being a historian: Analysing primary sources
– The craft of being a historian: Using maps for local history
– The craft of being a historian: Online resources
– The craft of being a historian: Palaeography/handwriting

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