Marking Memory in John Favour's 'Antiquitie triumphing over Noveltie'

I’m going to begin with a confession. I’m still trying to work out what memory is. Beginning with what I do know and what a wealth of theoretical literature has taught me: memory is constructed. To remember something is not just to bring forth a fact placed in storage; the memory itself is reshaped and remade in the very process of recall. In remembering something old we create something new. 

This is a central assumption of my work for the ‘Remembering the Reformation’ project, which focuses on ‘Lives and Afterlives’. In recording both their own lives and the lives of others early modern people were engaged, whether consciously or unconsciously, in creative acts which helped, in turn, to shape and crystallise broader collective narratives of the past. Yet the process by which this happened is much less clear. The transmission of memory through time, the selectivity of remembering and forgetting, and above all that crucial relationship between individual and collective memory, are all things that we can barely glimpse, but which are central concepts in my work. 

In this post I want very briefly to explore some of these ideas by attempting to identify just a few of the ways in which one single object functions as an act of memorialisation and as a repository of memory. The object in question is one copy of the 1619 work Antiquitie triumphing over Noveltie held in York Minster Library (shelf mark XVII/2.F.37). 

John Favour's Antiquitie triumphing over Noveltie (1619); Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York
John Favour's Antiquitie triumphing over Noveltie (1619); Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York


The text is an extended discussion of the Christian past, aiming to prove the superiority of the Protestant Church compared to Roman Catholic practice by demonstrating that Protestants adhered more exactly to scriptural mandates. Thus, the work claims, Protestants could answer the Catholic barb ‘where was your religion before Luthers name’ with the retort ‘it was in the Scriptures, where yours never came’ (pp. 52–3/ sig. E2v–E3r). The work itself admits that by 1619, over a century after Luther first posted his Ninety-Five Theses, this question was already ‘overtroden and outworne’ (p. 52/ sig. E2v). Yet the work also reveals continuing tensions between processes of reformation and wider cultures of memory. It bemoaned the ‘old superstitious people of Christ-Church in Hampshire’ who drew a connection between the ending of mass and a decline in the abundance of the salmon in their river (p. 8/ sig. B4v). There were also other issues of perhaps broader appeal than this fishy misconception. There was one question that, to judge by the underlining, particularly engaged one reader of this book: if the Catholic Church has, as the author claimed, fallen so short of a true church, then ‘what became of our ancestors, who lived and died in those dayes of darknesse, are they all condemned?’. Here was a fear that religious divisions might fracture familial lines of descent, and that the rediscovery of reformation ‘truth’ would obscure and reshape the memory of the dead.

Annotation in the contents pages
Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York


Yet this text is also about memory in more specific ways. It was written by the Church of England clergyman John Favour (c. 1557–1624). Favour, writing in his sixties and in the apparent belief that his life was drawing to a close, described this work as his own final mark upon the world. While he lived he would preach, but his writing ‘may haply pierce when I am dead’. Thus, ‘I would not passe like an arrow in the ayre, or a ship in the sea, and leave no monument behind me’ (sig. A2v). This is writing as an explicit act of self-memorialisation. Given this, the image of himself that Favour crafts is all the more interesting. The title-page describes him as ‘Doctor of the Lawes, sometimes Fellow of New Colledge in Oxford, now Vicar of Halifax’. He describes the many demands upon his time: poverty, he explained, had forced him into medical practice alongside his clerical duties. He compared himself to those who lived in cathedral churches, or who had lighter pastoral loads, and thus who had ‘more ease and leisure’ (sig. A5r). This account of a humble vicar rather underplayed Favour’s career. He was chaplain to the archbishop of York (a relationship acknowledged in the dedication of the book) and was appointed a canon of York in 1614.[1] His self-portrait was not necessarily inaccurate, but it was selective. He moulded his own life, and thus his memory, to wider reformation ideals of ministry.

Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York


Favour’s text also memorialised a relationship: the support given to Favour by Tobie Matthew (c.1544–1628), the archbishop whom he served as chaplain. The book is dedicated to Matthew, and records his encouragement of the work (sig. A2v). Again, Favour crafts an image of himself, this time as friend and associate of a great man. In praising Matthew Favour placed himself by his side. Noting his habit of annotating his reading with a ‘judicious pen’, Favour tells his reader that ‘mine owne eyes are witnesses’ (sig. A3v).

This mention of Matthew scribbling on his books brings me to another layer of memory, and moves me from considering this book as text to considering it as object. Although its provenance is not absolutely certain (and here particular thanks must go to Steven Newman of York Minister Library for all his assistance on this question!), it seems likely that this copy belonged to Matthew himself, and that it was one of the approximately three thousand volumes that he bequeathed to his wife, Frances, upon his death in 1628. She, in turn, gave the collection to York Minster.[2] If we think of libraries as depositories of memory, which in their own curation and selectivity shape what subsequent generations can know of the past — and Jennifer Summit’s Memory’s Library has taught us all that we should — then this, in turn, shapes how we see this book.

Yet, finally, there is also another way in which this book as object more directly invokes the memory of Matthew himself. We know that he wrote in his books; even if Favour hadn’t told us so, there is ample other evidence. This copy, as the images above show, is marked but not written in. This makes identification of the annotator impossible; as noted above, it is possible that this is not even Matthew’s book. It is therefore not memory but imagination that conjured up a particular image for me when I first opened this book: an image of Matthew carefully marking the place where Favour first mentioned his own support of the project, and himself remembering the occasion that his chaplain had preserved in print.

Matthew's markings
Image by kind permission of the Chapter of York


[1] Dates taken from William Sheils’s article on Favour in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[2] My own knowledge of the Matthew collection is drawn largely from the series of excellent essays by Rosamund Oates and Claire Cross prepared as part of the University of York and York Minister’s Neuton project: