By Mark Burden
I am pleased to report that InvenCaP’s initial survey of dissenting records in national and local record offices is now complete. During this early stage of the project it has been important to consider in some detail the relationship between original documents and later copies. As well as locating approximately 250 original church books, registers, and financial account books from the period 1640-1714, we have now compiled an inventory of over 100 significant manuscript copies of these documents. These copies, which currently only include complete or near-complete transcriptions of church books and registers, have often been relied on by historians, and are sometimes assumed to be the earliest documents of their kind. Such confusion must undoubtedly have led to mistakes in genealogies and church chronologies for several centuries, and it seems highly probably that the ideological assumptions of these later copies have also had an impact upon both diachronic and synchronic histories of dissent more broadly. Of equal significance to the Puritan Experience project would be a detailed consideration of the changes in narrative emphasis and structure between each source and its copies. Such changes can manifest themselves in the reordering and retitling of material, as well as in the rewording of key documents; more subtly, the changed function of information within a document can be affected by the identity and orthographic choices of the scribe, the quality of the paper and binding, and the slippage between autograph signatures and copies.
There are of course a substantial number of record office transcriptions compiled primarily for the purposes of producing indexes of names, aiding family and local historians, and preserving collections. Leaving these to one side, by far the largest number of copies of church books recorded by InvenCaP date from the nineteenth century; many of these were produced with a view to clarifying the history of a specific church, or in response to the request from the Registration Commission that all such documents should be deposited in London. As the frequent melancholy references to ‘lost’ documents makes clear, the individuals and associations involved with the copying of these texts shared our twenty-first century preoccupation with the conservation and preservation of valuable records. Nevertheless, the production of copies frequently had unintended consequences. For example, as individual churches discovered older (or more recent) transcriptions, or gave up their initial plan of keeping a version of the deposited records for the use of their congregation, the nineteenth–century Registration Commission found itself acquiring multiple copies of the same registers; keeping track of the provenance of all these items could only be achieved by pasting correspondence and survey returns into each book. These letters and forms provide today’s historians with a virtually untouched archive relating to the use of church books in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and tell us much about the owners and transcribers of these documents.
It was common for the transcriber to have close personal links to the church, and to have wider antiquarian interests in dissent or local history. Joseph Rix, who in 1855 completed a five-volume manuscript account of the nonconformist churches at Hail Weston and St Neots, was a member of a longstanding and powerful dissenting family with connections to Isaac Watts and Joseph Parker. His account was typical of contemporaneous printed histories of dissenting churches, mixing narrative sections with extensive transcribed passages from church books and other original documents. Another dissenting antiquarian – equally voluminous if less eminent – was Joseph Davey, who in the 1840s and 1850s transcribed verbatim a whole series of early dissenting church books from the east of England, including those of Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Bury St Edmunds, Woodbridge, Guestwick, Wrentham, Tunstead, and Wattisfield. Like Rix, Davey’s interests were primarily historical rather than genealogical, and he used his notes to write a lengthy manuscript account of Great Yarmouth church during the commonwealth.
Dissenting church books also enable an interesting exploration of the truism that there is no such thing as an original document. Researchers are now very used to the notion that no text can faithfully represent the events which it records, whether fiction or fact. This principle is no less true of baptisms, marriages, and deaths than it is of ordinations, church meetings, sermons, or cases of conscience. However, it is also verified by the content and structure of so-called ‘original’ church books themselves, many of which consist almost entirely of copies of earlier written documents. These sources may include trust deeds and licences, receipts and other financial briefs, church covenants and confessions, testimonials and recommendations, petitions by members of the congregation, and letters relating to church business. In some cases, the surviving church book is itself a near-contemporaneous fair copy of a rough minute book recording church meetings; the most important minutes could be written up in batches at the distance of a few months or even years. The same could happen with loose registers of baptisms and members, initially drawn up by the minister but later copied into a bulkier bound volume at his instruction or following his decease. We might tentatively conclude that the often-remarked discrepancy between different copies of the same biographical information is sometimes the result not of scribal error, but of a change in perspective caused by the passage of time between different records of an event.