Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century by David Underdown - review by Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

Sex Mad Soap Opera

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


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In 1663, the cleric Henry Glover preached a sermon of reconciliation to the traumatised people of Dorchester: the war that ‘begins in the pulpit’, Glover warned them, ‘must be ended in the field’. But Dorchester didn’t need to be told that. The turbulent half-century through which they had lived had begun with a terrifying fire which had destroyed most of the town, and ended with a Civil War, which, because of Dorchester’s Puritan sympathies with the Parliamentary faction, many feared had stamped them with the mark of treason.

The writing of local history, with its promise of a more demotic, ‘worm’s-eye view’ of how ordinary men and women lived has recently enjoyed a vogue in early modern scholarship, and David Underdown has mined a rich seam of primary source material. The political wheeling and dealing in the town’s Corporation archives, the whimsy and sententiousness in the diaries and commonplace books of earnest townsmen, the hilarious rogues’ gallery disclosed by the Offenders’ Book – Dorchester has been a treasure trove for Underdown, and his story of the town’s doomed attempt to found a non-comformist, godly community of souls in the early decades of the century is a classic of storytelling.

It begins at two in the afternoon on 6 August 1613, when the local chandler was melting tallow in his shop, and allowed the fire under his kettle to burn too long unattended. The resulting blaze destroyed 170 houses: virtually half the town. But it was seen as ‘fire from heaven’, a divine warning to live godly lives, and the devastation was used as a kind of Puritan ‘year zero’ by the formidable Rector John White, a figure of passionate moral severity who bestrides the narrative.

Dorchester’s utopian experiment in the imposition of god-fearing civic values was in many senses a spectacular success: it resulted in charitable ventures in establishing schools and hospitals for the deserving poor that were hundreds of years ahead of their time.

But for all the care and concern lavished on them by their betters, the formidable appetite of many of Dorchester’s ordinary men and women for fornication, strong drink and general immorality was not notably diminished.

Sometimes, Dorchester seems like nothing so much as a seventeenth-century soap opera in which all the characters are sex-mad. Take this wonderfully petty episode, one among very many:

‘Joyce Yeomans had been at the river washing clothes and had seen Margaret Richardson, Mrs Bury’s maid, disappear into a chalk pit with John Edwards the gardener; when they resurfaced she saw Edwards “pluck up his breeches with both hands” … Word soon passed on to the magistrates, who promptly investigated the incident.’

Appropriately for his subject matter, Underdown’s prose style has a rather austere, almost Puritanical restraint. He has many anecdotes and incidents from which a more showy intellectual historian – Stephen Greenblatt for example – would seek much more mileage. But he rarely quotes at length from his priceless source material, preferring instead to paraphrase and recount in the third person. It gives his writing a pleasing savour, a deadpan quality particularly useful for moments of black comedy. Here is Underdown on the second Dorchester fire, in 1623, in which the only fatality is a tiler named Edmund Benvenewe:

‘Running home all black and deformed by the fire, William Whiteway tells us, Benvenewe was chased by anxious neighbours who wanted to help him have his wounds dressed. In the panic and confusion, a bystander thought he was a looter being pursued by an angry crowd, and beat him so severely that he died a few days later.’

Dorchester’s Rector John White believed that a town was the best setting for his Puritan experiment because ‘bodies nearly compacted are more easily and better governed … than a people scattered and dispersed abroad.’ The same is true for the local historian. It is in some ways easier to write a history of an enclosed society with ‘bodies nearly compacted’ than diffuse rural communities or the nation as a whole. The town offers a more manageable field of ‘knowability’, although the fuller harvest of complex and contradictory data makes the responsibility of relating this local narrative to a larger context far more difficult.

Underdown tackles these methodological difficulties with aplomb, and his story of the birth of Dorchester’s Puritan idealism, and how it was battered and compromised by the 1649 Revolution and the 1660 Restoration, is told with a masterly historian’s poise.

This book by David Underdown was originally called “Fire from Heaven: The Godly and the Ungodly in Seventeenth Century Dorchester” but has since changed. The print edition of this review used the former name when it went to press in June 1992.

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