Two flagons, 1724, silver. York Minster Library: (Museum) 8.3

Two eighteenth-century flagons: why remember?

Why do we – and why did people in the past – remember? And why might we, and they, seek to inscribe the memories of loved ones into objects and so fix them into our physical world?

Two flagons, 1724, silver. York Minster Library: (Museum) 8.3 Image by kind permission of York Minster Collection
Two flagons, 1724, silver. York Minster Library: (Museum) 8.3
Image by kind permission of York Minster Collection


These are questions that I think are raised by my choice for the first of our ‘Object of the month’ blog posts. These posts will draw upon the digital exhibition launched by the Remembering the Reformation project in September last year. This is hosted by Cambridge University Library and includes objects not only from their collection but from those of Lambeth Palace Library, York Minster Library and other UK museums and libraries. Across these posts we’ll tell you a little more about these objects, how we selected them and what we think their significance might be.

The object that I’ve chosen for my first blog is in fact two objects: a pair of communion flagons held by York Minster Library as part of their collection of sacred silver originating from (and much of it still owned by) parishes from across their diocese. This matching pair carry coordinating inscriptions: one declares ‘The gift of John Hutton Esq to the Church of St Maries Castlegate York, in memory of Barbara his Wife daughter to Thomas Barker Esq., obijt [died] December the 14th 1723’, while the other is inscribed ‘Given to the Church of St Maries Castlegate York in memory of Eliz. Daughter of Thomas Barker Esq. obit February the 4th 1717’. Clearly designed as a set, these decorative flagons were intended at least as much as a memorial to these two sisters as for their ostensibly practical purpose of pouring out communion wine to dispense to the congregation of this church.

There are several reasons why these are among my favourite objects in the exhibition. Firstly, their beautiful physical form. As the type of historian who is more used to touching books and manuscripts than silver, pulling on gloves to examine these flagons — kept so beautifully by the Minster that you can see your own face in them — was a thrill in and of itself. There is also the poignancy of them: I know nothing further about Barbara, Elizabeth, Thomas or John, but the flagons themselves give just enough detail to imagine the story of a grieving family, hit by two losses in only just over five years, and of a father and husband acting together to mark their sorrow.

But I think they also point to something significant about change and continuity in memory, and about the purposes of commemoration. Remembering the dead was woven into the fabric of early modern culture, as one category in the exhibition highlights. Though few — and exceptional — British examples now survive, the giving of sacred silver, and other decorative and liturgical objects, ‘in memory of’ a named person was widespread in pre-Reformation churches, just as the names of the dead might be inscribed in memorials in the walls and floors of the building. For medieval Catholics, though, there was an obvious benefit from ensuring such remembrance either of yourself or of a loved one: those who saw the name might pray for the deceased and those prayers might speed the journey through purgatory. This was part of the bargain, whether explicit (like the London clergyman who gave a silver cup to his church on the agreement that the other clergy would pray for his soul daily) or implicit (as suggested by the preference for putting a name on the foot or rim of a gifted chalice, so that the priest would read it as he performed the mass).[1] Sixteenth-century reformers, though, in their rejection of Catholic teachings on salvation and purgatory broke this link between living and dead: the living, Protestants argued, could do nothing to aid those already in the afterlife.

The complex interaction between shifting doctrinal beliefs, attitudes to the dead and memory is an immensely important subject (one that has fascinated me ever since I read Peter Marshall’s Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England as an undergraduate), and far too big a subject to deal with here. As other objects in the exhibition show, many aspects of how early modern Protestants mourned and remembered the dead differed fundamentally from the pre-Reformation past. Such gifts to churches continued, however, as these eighteenth-century examples, along with many others like them, show. People continued (and continue) to want to write their own names (see here for another example of early modern sacred silver, this time inscribed with the name of the giver, and perhaps a little of her personality) and those of their loved ones into the walls and fabric of the places where they worshipped, and to do so in ways that were both visible and durable.

The urge to remember and be remembered — even as a name, as all other memory of the person themselves fades — persisted and persists, and is perhaps a fundamental human impulse, one that had been present alongside the more apparently ‘functional’ requests for prayers in medieval memorials. Many modern memorials to those lost in war or other tragedies work on the premise that it is both meaningful and important to recall the names of individuals, even if the person doing the ‘remembering’ knows nothing else about them.

These flagons, then, and the remembrance they represent, point to change and continuity through the Reformation. They also point to remembering as a cultural practice and emotional comfort. It is an idea deep-rooted enough that many readers, like me, will feel that there is something pleasing about the fact that, even after centuries have passed, and even though the church to which these flagons were given is now a deconsecrated exhibition space, the names of these sisters still endure, marked out in gleaming metal, just as their families had hoped.

[1] Both of these examples are taken from Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (2nd edn.; New Haven and London, 2005), pp. 329–30.