If you're planning a trip around the UK to look at old churches, shed a few pounds of baggage to make room for this book's 600 pages. It summarises the fruits of one man's lifetime love affair with his subject.
There are other major overviews of England's religious buildings (Richard Morris's 'Churches in the Landscape', for example) and of the devotions of their congregations (notably for the later Middle Ages 'The Stripping of the Altars' by Eamon Duffy). Both treat their topics in greater detail than is possible in this book, weighty though it is in both senses of the word. Where Norman Pounds has magisterially broken new ground is in bringing the archaeological and devotional perspectives together - and then adding some of his own. He belongs to that special breed, the historical geographer, but has an instinctive sense for social and cultural history to boot.
This is a book which sets out to write a history of the English parish as a living organism - a collectivity of people having in common their faith and the buildings in which to express it. As such, it's a bottom-up account of religious history in contrast to those which begin at the other end of the spectrum with international events and trends - the reforms of the Fourth Lateran Council, say, or the impact of the Friars. So it moves within its stated period (from Augustine's mission to the reign of Victoria) from the Anglo-Saxon minster to the lord's church in the Domesday village, to the later beautifying and enlarging of public places of worship, and ultimately to the masterpieces and influence of Wren and Pugin. It describes the roles and conduct of rectors and vicars and other servants of the parish. It examines how the medieval parish was run, the payment of tithes and other dues, and the place of charity. For this reader, the strongest sections are those in which Pounds' training as a geographer guided his hand. So we are introduced to the extent and bounds of the parish, the number and siting of churches in towns, the layout of churches and churchyards, and some fascinating spatial patterns of social interaction. Only a map can demonstrate so clearly, for example, the restricted local recruitment and careers of medieval parish priests.
Yes, the reader with specialist knowledge may find a topic here and there whose discussion echoes rather long-established ideas (about medieval wall-paintings, for example) or lacks the depth which might be expected in such a comprehensive survey (as with the scant or absent treatment of church dedications, hermitages and anchorites, and bells). There's the odd misplaced footnote and an occasional oversight in the text (Alkerton and Eastington are in Gloucestershire, not Worcestershire). But these are quibbles. The author amply compensates with 68 pages of notes in which he lays out chapter and verse to equip the reader to pursue further their particular quarries.
There is much to be admired in this book - its variety of topics (a cornucopia for the informed as well as the general reader), the direct and unpretentious style, and its emphasis on the people of the parish rather than dry stones and dusty documents (solid foundations though these have been in its making). In this it reflects recent scholarly interest in uncovering the secrets of the parish chest. It's an exaggeration to say that all human life is to be found between the lines of churchwardens' accounts - but only just. There's new interest, too, in parish festivities.(Maybe your appetite has been whetted by Ronald Hutton's 'Stations of the Sun' or David Cressy's 'Bonfires and Bells'.) Pounds reflects this also, together with the wealth of new insight (much of it his own) stemming from the study of bishops' registers. The list of cited registers fills the best part of four pages.
It's with his freshness that Norman Pounds impresses this reader most. Here is a man with decades of research and teaching to his credit: born in 1912, honorary fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, past-president of the Royal Archaeological Institute, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Geography at Indiana University. He has been publishing in this field since before the Second World War. Yet his impulse is as strong and inquisitive as ever, and his enthusiasm infectious. In his Preface he thanks the helpers who have guided his wheelchair around 'countless uneven churchyards and churches'. With such a companion, who could resist so stimulating a task?