Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeeth Century
YALE University Press
, 1994 - History
- 308 pages
The town is Dorchester in Dorset; the time the beginning of the seventeenth century. Two hundred years before Hardy disguised it as Casterbridge, Dorchester was a typical English country town, of middling size and unremarkable achievements. But on 6 August 1613 much of it was destroyed in a great conflagration, which its inhabitants regarded as a 'fire from heaven', and which was the catalyst for the events described in this book. Over the next twenty years, a time of increasing political and religious turmoil all over Europe, Dorchester became the most religiously radical town in the kingdom, deeply involved, emotionally, with the fortunes of the Protestants in the Thirty Years War, and horrified by the Stuart flirtation with Spain. It was, after all, barely a generation since the defeat of the Great Armada. David Underdown traces the way in which the tolerant, paternalist Elizabethan town oligarchy was quickly replaced by a group of men who had a vision of a godly community in which power was to be exercised according to religious commitment rather than wealth or rank. They succeeded, briefly, in making Dorchester a place that could boast systems of education and of assisting the sick and needy nearly three hundred years in advance of their time. The town achieved the highest rate of charitable giving in the country. It had ties of blood as well as faith with many of those who sailed to establish similarly godly communities in New England. But the author's gaze is never focused narrowly on the local: he skillfully sets the story of Dorchester in the context both of national events and of what was going on overseas. This parallel vision of the crisis that led to the English Civil Warand of the incidence of the war itself opens fresh perspectives. The book's most remarkable achievement, however, is the re-creation, with an intimacy unique for an English community so distant from our own, of the lives of those who do not usually make it into the history books: Matthew Chubb, the hub of the old order, and his friend Roger Pouncey, 'godfather to the unruly and unregenerate of the town', on the one hand, the great pastor John White and the diarist William Whiteway on the other. They stride, fully rounded characters, from one end of the book to the other. Even further down the social scale we glimpse the daily lives of the ordinary men and women of the town drinking and swearing, fornicating and repenting, triumphing over their neighbors or languishing in prison, striving to live up to the new ideals of their community or rejecting them with bitter anger and mocking laughter. Above all, in its subtle exploration of human motives and aspirations, it shows again and again how nothing in history is simple, nothing is black and white. And it shows us, by the brilliant detail of its reconstruction, how much of the past we can recover when in the hands of a master historian.