Saturday, 17 October 2015

John Schorne and 'popular religion'.

I've been wallowing in a bit of nostalgia recently.  In a wonderful handling session in the Ashmolean museum, Jim Harris (Teaching Curator) showed us an intriguing little object.  It seemed to show a rather cheerful looking little devil popping out of a boot.  The boot was held by a solemn looking priest.  It was actually a mould for the thousands of pilgrim badges which were produced as little keepsakes for the hugely popular pilgrimages of the later Middle Ages.  The strange little image triggered cascades of memories from 1990, when I was at primary school in North Marston.

My old home.  Source, wikimedia.

North Marston is a small village in Buckinghamshire.  For me, it's the site of idyllic memories playing in the fields, scouring the hedgerows, hearing about ghosts who frequented our spare bedroom, and a very happy little primary school.  At the school, we were divided into three teams: Verney (the Green team, and named after the Verney family of Claydon House); Campden Neild (the Red team, named after a nineteenth-century miser who bequeathed all his fortune to Queen Victoria : she built Balmoral with the proceeds), and Schorne (the Blue team, named after a medieval rector and miracle maker).  Oddly, we seemed to associate particular character traits with each team: the Greens were seen as a bit plodding but straightforward (I was a green); the Reds were a bit showy; the Blues were a bit self-righteous.  Did this have anything to do with some sort of odd unconscious social memory of the characters who gave names to our teams? - probably not, but it's tempting to think so.

John Schorne pilgrimage badge replica: sent to me by the very kind North Marston History Club

John Schorne was rector of North Marston from 1282 until his death in 1314.  He had been a master at the University of Oxford, and we can trace him in the records there.  At that point, North Marston was a poor and fairly unremarkable parish.  One year, there was a terrible drought.  John Schorne banged on the ground with his staff, and water came gushing, miraculously out.  It was said to have all kinds of healing properties, and very quickly, North Marston became an extremely important pilgrimage centre.  People came from far and wide, and the village rapidly became very wealthy.  It explains the large and rather magnificent Church, otherwise strange in a small Buckinghamshire village.

North Marston Church: source, wikipedia

A second legend emerged, that John Schorne had conjured a devil back into a boot.  This became the abiding image of Schorne.  Hundreds of pilgrimage badges were produced depicting this scene, sometimes said to be the origin of the modern jack-in-the-box.  Around 70 of these badges have been discovered by archaeologists.

Image from rood screen at Gateley in Norfolk: source

Such a situation could not last for long.  Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury and Dean of Windsor had his eye on the relics.  They were, after all, extremely lucrative.  In 1478, the relics were moved to Windsor, and North Marston reverted to its dependence on farming.

But John Schorne was never officially canonised.  There is no surviving 'Life of John Schorne' and very little written evidence.  But we know that the cult was extremely widespread - there are references from the North of England, and images in Suffolk.  Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century, and Cromwell's men in the seventeenth, were unimpressed, and we have several references to what they perceived as the continued gullibility of people regarding the cult.

The water authorities deny the healing properties of the water.  But not everyone is prepared to accept such a blunt denial.  In 1820, the Gentleman's Magazine published an article on the well and declared that the water had traces of chalybeate, potentially explaining its curative properties for gout.  In a lovely booklet by David Drewett produced for the 700th Anniversary celebrations in 1990, we hear that 'In 1973, several people told me that they had never had a good cup of tea since the well closed'.

I remember the Anniversary celebrations.  At primary school, we made a huge puppet with a devil coming out of a boot - we used to recite over and over 'John Schorne, gentleman born/ Conjured the devil into a boot'.  In 2004/5 the village fund-raised enough money to build a new and fancier cover for it.

The Schorne well: source, wikipedia

Schorne's relics may have been moved to Windsor, but he remains a powerful symbol of community in North Marston.  As a study in social memory, the after-life of his cult is fascinating - he has become a central point of village identity, a rather reassuring symbol of a more frightening struggle between good and evil, and a reminder of the importance of access to water in a primarily agricultural community.  And the well has never run dry.

As historians, we become so reliant on written sources that we are in danger of forgetting the range and intensity of popular religion.  We assume that anything truly significant must have been sanctioned by the proper Church authorities.  But medieval society was so much richer, more complex, more entangled than that.  And when we do acknowledge the importance of 'popular' currents, we tend immediately to associate them with subversion.  But the cult of John Schorne shows that if something is not officially sanctioned, that doesn't automatically make it subversive.  It gives us a picture of wonderful and rich complexity, of the different strands of society weaving together and pulling apart, of the ways in which people actively shaped, and were shaped by, their religious beliefs.


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  2. Wow, what an amazing story!! I can't believe I have never heard of this before. I grew up in North Marston and left when I was 9 years old in 1981!!! Why were we not taught this in school? Thank you for sharing. :)