This blockbuster guidebook to not one, not two, but FOUR churches, was published in summer 2017. Its author is Alan Bott, veteran of an extraordinary number of guides/histories of churches in the south-west Surrey area (plus his alma mater, Merton College Oxford), as well as co-author of at least one more specific scholarly article derived from his research. It’s a lavishly illustrated production, and covers an impressive amount of ground in terms of the features covered – everything from usual fare like monuments and plate to more esoteric things like stained glass and heraldry. Having helped to write the current church guide leaflet for Puttenham church (which went on sale in 2015), I’m happy that this book has appeared and believe they complement one another nicely. It also serves to augment what has been available regarding the histories of the other three churches. All in all, an ideal Christmas present!
I was heavily involved in reviewing the drafts of the text for the section of the book on Puttenham church (which, gratifyingly, is the subject of by far the longest account out of the four). I won’t bore you with details of what wasn’t included that I think should have been and vice versa. Suffice to say that some of my recent research into Puttenham church in the Middle Ages that I have premiered on Surrey Medieval (e.g. the revised list of its medieval rectors, and re-identification of an early 15th-century grave slab) did make it into the published version, which is hugely satisfying, and underscores how there are still many things that can still be learned about an “ordinary” medieval parish church without having to strip the walls or pull up the floor. What I do wish to note here is a more general point about conceptions of the medieval period and consequent approaches to writing about it.
The book is far from the first of its kind to lavish more attention on the historical testimony from the post-medieval period (in addition to the implications of extant or destroyed architectural fabric) than the preceding centuries. So it is that, as far as the Puttenham portion of the book is concerned, the subsections covering the 12th to 16th centuries discuss all the relevant architectural evidence but largely fail to factor in pieces of relevant documentary history (and remember the title of the book is explicit about it not being simply a work of architectural history). Granted, the volume of medieval documentary testimony is not great, but nonetheless the relevant texts do supply little vignettes that can help to provide a different narrative to a solidly architectural analysis. In my opinion, the accounts for the 13th and 14th centuries would have been far more rewarding had they incorporated even brief mentions of respectively the private landholding status of the earliest known rector of Puttenham and the rather desperate measures enacted in 1307 in response to the grave illness of the elderly incumbent.
Making the medieval history of Puttenham church (to take it as a typical example of a broader trend) almost exclusively an architectural history has the effect of casting the medieval centuries as murky and remote — unknowable in any real human detail. The medieval rectors are reduced to no more than names and dates, giving the impression that the sources contain no details about where they came from and any significant events in their lives. Certainly, I want to avoid overstating the case for how this is in some way symptomatic of broader patterns of miscomprehension of the medieval period (deliberate or otherwise) and, in extremis, some of the horrifying effects these have had. Instead, for me as a medievalist who has been fortunate enough to receive training in a number of disciplines, what it has underscored is the importance — and, on a good day, thrill — of being able to show to those whose specialisms/interests do not lie in the medieval period that we both can and do know much more about the medieval centuries than it may appear at first.
Having read the above, I’m sure you’re itching to get your hands on a copy of Mr Bott’s book. Unfortunately, so far as I can ascertain, it’s not currently available to buy online. It is on sale in the four churches for those who live within easy reach or who fancy making a trip to a fab corner of South-East England. An alternative option might be to contact the Parish via its website for advice on how to purchase the book. Surrey Archaeological Society members already have access to a copy held at the Abinger Hammer library.