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The Beliefs of the People

One of the most common, but most difficult, tasks facing any historian is how to work out the thoughts, beliefs, hopes and fears of people in the past. Marketing and advertising companies operate elaborate systems of data gathering and analysis to categorise people and work out how best to get them to part with their money; trying to construct a similar sort of profile for people who died long ago requires similar ingenuity. Queen Elizabeth once said she had no window to see into men’s souls; historians, however, need to construct just such a window because upon the deepest beliefs of ordinary people whole historical theories, interpretations and, indeed, reputations are built. Nowhere is this more true than in the history of religious belief. How can we actually know what people have believed in at different periods of history? Political historians can point to opinion polls and election results as evidence and while both have major flaws, they do at least involve people committing themselves to one side or the other of an issue. But does attendance at a particular church indicate a commitment to its beliefs? There are strong social pressures (sometimes including the law and threat of punishment) which can lead people to attend church even when they do not believe in God; some people might attend a particular church rather than another because it is nearer, even though they do not entirely hold to its doctrine; some might attend church out of curiosity or in a state of uncertainty; some might go through the motions, others might believe deeply in what they are doing. Until we can decode these patterns of behaviour, no historian can make any sort of judgement with confidence about whether or not (for example) ‘England was Catholic under Queen Mary’ or ‘medieval people lived in fear of Hell’ or ‘people took their opinions from the Church of England’.

A better guide might be offered by people who change their religion. As long as this is done voluntarily (which is by no means always the case) this is usually a good indication of genuine belief; indeed, it is often said that the most zealous people within any particular religion are converts. Here too, however, the historian must tread carefully: conversion and excessive religious zeal can have a distorting effect and may reflect a reaction to other factors such as repression or poverty.

The historian wanting to get at people’s beliefs must therefore exercise a certain degree of ingenuity, even lateral thinking, in finding the best clues. If attendance at worship is not enough on its own to determine people’s views, what about the place of worship itself? Do people pour out their deepest beliefs in journals, diaries or letters? Does fundraising for religious objectives provide reliable evidence? What about participation in pilgrimages or processions? What about protests against religious change, or should we pay more attention to those who did not protest? We may have the text of sermons congregations listened to, but can we be sure they listened, or if they did, that they understood? Sometimes the religious authorities have undertaken checks on the state of belief among their communities, but how much credence should be given to such official investigations? These extracts give two contrasting approaches that two historians have taken to this issue. Both have chosen a small village to investigate in depth, one in south western France at the end of the thirteenth century and the other in south western England in the sixteenth century.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou >>
Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath >>