Author: Turrell, James
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
David George Mullan and John McCallum have offered fresh perspectives on the process of reformation in early modern Scotland. While the cultural turn in reformation historiography has lagged in Scotland behind that in England (see, for example, Michael F. Graham, "The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland by Margo Todd," The Sixteenth Century Journal 35 [Summer 2004]: 637-38), Mullan and McCallum, each in their own distinct way, are part of this renewed approach.
McCallum's is in some ways the more straightforward. Taking a discrete geographic area and chronological period under examination, he relies heavily (though not exclusively) on kirk session records and other official, institutional records to map the process and progress of the reformation in Fife. Fife, he argues, is an appropriate object for study because of the quantity of records surviving, the importance of the region, and the variety of types of parishes (5-6).
McCallum's chief argument is that the process of reformation was a gradual one, both in terms of the provision of qualified ministers (and therefore preaching) and in terms of the imposition of reformed discipline in the parishes. Initially, reformed clergy might serve several parishes at once (13), and there might be long interim periods between ministers, in which a parish would have no one to preach or provide the sacraments unless they shared a minister with a neighboring parish (16). In several parts of Fife, it was only in the 1590s that the majority of parishes had their own ministers (17-23). Most of these ministers, even in the early period of the reformation, were university graduates (often but not always in theology) and had served an apprenticeship under a senior, reformed minister (145).
The provision of reformed discipline in the parishes was likewise a gradual process, with kirk sessions being slow to take root outside of St. Andrews in the first twenty years of the reformation (47). The mere existence of the sessions did not guarantee that all violators were being addressed. Even in St. Andrews itself, "it took until the end of the sixteenth century to establish a thorough and strict system of parish discipline" (51), and it was not until the 1630s that an effective system of discipline was in place in rural parts of Fife (71). McCallum offers careful analysis of the kirk sessions themselves, discussing their membership, the typical offenders they disciplined, and the effectiveness of that discipline. The kirk sessions, in McCallum's estimation, did not have particular biases shaped by class or gender, but treated infractions as they were detected, and in general McCallum finds that the disciplinary system was accepted by all, even those who fell afoul of it (214, 219, 227-30).
McCallum also examines parish worship, using the kirk session records to portray both the patterns of worship activities and the efforts to ensure attendance at them. The picture that emerges is of a didactic, word-based liturgy, week in and week out, punctuated by rare celebrations of the Lord's supper. Most parishes did not, until quite late, meet the church's standard of quarterly communions (81-2).
It is only by the 1620s and 1630s that McCallum is willing to see "most of the features of a reformed church" present (233). Nevertheless, for all that the reformation was slow, it was in his eyes ultimately successful.
While McCallum focuses on kirk session records to portray the reformation in a particular geographic area, David George Mullan has a different scope. Mullan examines Scottish autobiography from 1600 to 1730, crafting a far more intimate depiction of religious life. Mullan draws on the writings of clergy and laity, men and women. The multiplicity of these narratives gives Mullan a variety of perspectives with which to work.
Mullan prefaces the book with a careful discussion of the issues involved in using autobiographical writing as a historical source. The retrospective nature of autobiography (as opposed to a diary) complicates the historian's task, while the constructed, even fictive, nature of autobiography tells as much or more about the mental world of the fabricator as it does about actual events. Mullan casts a wide net in his methodological discussion: he not only maps the place of autobiography in the seventeenth century, but also draws on literary analysis of autobiographies of early twentieth-century Russian communists (24-7).
An early chapter examines political events through the lens of autobiographical accounts, while subsequent chapters look at the relations between ministers and parishioners, the experience of childhood and parenting, and adolescence. In each of these, Mullan devotes space to the writers' religious reflections on the events they described. For example, in the chapter on childhood, Mullan describes the perils faced by children (fires, illness, injury), but also the way that authors were concerned to show their own religious experiences as beginning as early as possible (168-9). Not all of the material on childhood is strictly autobiographical; Mullan also notes that there were a number of posthumous accounts of the deaths of godly children, marketed as inspirational reading. The description of the deathbed of Christian Kerr, a ten-year old girl who apparently spoke with theological sophistication (if the account is to be believed), offers a window into the norms of a godly childhood and a godly death (170-1). The reader does wonder if the intended market for these accounts was adults or other children.
Subsequent chapters address the practice of piety and the spiritual life. In these, Mullan discusses conversion, Bible reading practices, communion services, and the making of covenants, as well as such psychological phenomena as despair and depression.
Throughout the book, Mullan is able to engage to a surprising degree with the interior life of his subjects. He reads the autobiographical narratives with a sensitivity that allows him to bring nuance to what otherwise might be a dry description. He also is able, because of the sheer volume of material examined, to present something of a composite picture. Autobiographical sources may lack the seeming objectivity of McCallum's kirk session records, but in Mullan's hands they become useful tools.
While each has a very different scope and subject, both books add considerably to our understanding of the Scottish reformation.
University of the South