Professor Margaret Spufford (10 Dec. 1935 - 6 Mar. 2014)

Research Professor in Social and Local History, University of Roehampton (Jan. 1994 - Apr. 2001)

Professor Margaret Spufford (1935-2014)

When she came to Roehampton, Margaret had already taught for a number of years in both Keele and Cambridge. In Cambridge she had had a remarkable group of research students in the 1980s and early 1990s. At Roehampton, she was able to recruit able new research students. What attracted potential doctoral students to her, in both Cambridge and Roehampton, was the reputation of her writings, which brought her research students from Canada, California, Australia and Japan, as well as those with first degrees from British universities.

Her reputation was made by a series of pioneering books and articles. Her Contrasting Communities, 1974, changed the way that historians looked at local communities in early modern England. William Hoskins had already moved community history onwards from the manorial pattern of the Victoria County Histories by adding an economic dimension. Margaret moved it on further by adding a social dimension and wrote about the religious beliefs and education of her rural people. She also made it important to place any individual community in its geographical context, to know how typical or atypical it was. All following histories of local communities, have built on this work, like Keith Wrightson's study of Wickham, a mining community on the Tyne. Her remarkably influential Small Books and Pleasant Histories, 1981, drew the attention of students of English literature, to the immense quantity of ephemeral literature that underpinned the literary canon. Her next landmark book, The Great Reclothing of Rural England, 1984, brought the attention of historians to the chapmen who toured rural England before the proliferation of shops, carrying with them the essential linens for clothing and a range of haberdashery and other small objects, including her small books. This has produced similar studies in other parts of Europe. The World of Rural Dissenters, 1995, was an attempt, with a number of her research students, to look at the continuity and social range of dissent in rural England from the Lollards to the early 18th century. She herself contributed an influential introductory chapter, summarising her particular views on the importance of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. She and James Went wrote Poverty Portrayed which tied together documents about rural poverty with paintings by the two Egbert Van Heemskerks, father and son, portraying rural society in Holland and England. In 2000 many of her more influential articles were republished in Figures in the Landscape Rural Society in England 1500-1700. Immediately before Roehampton, she had spent a year at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study as a visiting Fellow and extended her work on literacy to a European level, demonstrating that it was business that was the prime driver, rather than religion as had previously been thought.

While she was at Roehampton, she began the Centre for Hearth Tax Studies, later adopted as British Academy Research Project, which launched a series of edited texts, with critical introductions, of the hearth tax records of late 17th century England. Seven county volumes had been published by the time of her death, and a two volume edition for the hearth tax of London and Middlesex, was published shortly afterwards.. Her vision resulted in identifying introducers and enlisting volunteers to undertake the transcription of hearth tax returns, and her work continues to underpin the work of the British Academy Hearth Tax Project and Centre for Hearth Tax Research. One of her Roehampton research students, Dr Elizabeth Parkinson, continues to contribute to the work of the Hearth Tax Centre and Project, writing a chapters on the administration of the hearth tax in these volumes. When she became too ill to complete it, she had nearly finished the Clothing of the Common Sort, which will be another landmark volume, and is being prepared for publication by her last research student at Roehampton, Dr Susan Mee. Margaret's contribution to early modern social history, to local history and the hearth tax will be celebrated by a conference to be held at the University of Roehampton in June 2014, bringing together her colleagues, students and new researchers who have been influenced by her work.

She told one of her Cambridge doctoral students Motoyasu Takahashi, now a Professor, that when he returned to Japan, he should apply what he had learned of the Leicester methods of undertaking local history, to a study of a local community back in Japan. He assembled a group of archivists and university lecturers to work on the village of Kami Shiojiri in Nagano province. It was at the south western end of the silk weaving region of Japan. The village specialised in the breeding and sale of silk worm eggs and did not itself make much silk. The prodigious quantity of documents from this single village, meant that it was not a 'one man' enterprise, hence the need to gather a whole team of people. The Kami Shiojiri group came more or less annually for several years to visit her, either in Roehampton or in Whittlesford and in 2003 arranged for her to spend a term based at the University of Ehime, in order to visit Kami Shiojiri. Margaret took great delight in visiting the village, and had long conversations with lots of the inhabitants, using Moto as a translator. She showed great courage in undertaking this visit as at the time she was on crutches. On this occasion she was the guest of the Japan Academy and paid for jointly by the Japan Academy and the British Academy. The group held a seminar in the Japan Academy to present their findings on Kami Shiojiri. This research will result in a multi-volume work in Japanese, of which the first has already come out, eventually to be followed by a single volume in English.

Margaret Spufford had an MA with distinction, and a Ph.D, from the University of Leicester. In addition, the quality of her writing was recognised by the conferment of the higher doctorate for the humanities, the Litt. D., by the University of Cambridge in 1986. She was elected to Fellowship of the British Academy in 1995, whilst she was at Roehampton, and received an O.B.E. in 1996 and Honorary Doctorates from the Open University and the University of Keele.

Quite another side of her life is represented by her book Celebration, 1989, which dealt with the problem of pain and religious belief, based not only on her own experience of a lifetime of illness, but also on that of her daughter, Bridget, who died at the age of 22, a week before Celebration came out. It was a deeply moving and thoughtful account, which bravely discussed major issues in medical ethics and intervention. She was an Oblate of the Anglican Benedictine Nunnery at West Malling in Kent for most of her adult life. She is survived by her husband Peter, Emeritus Professor of European History in the University of Cambridge, and her son Francis, the famous contemporary author.

The Department of Humanities at the University of Roehampton is planning a conference in June 2015 dedicated to Prof. Spufford and her work.