MS 262: The Little Gidding Harmonies

This Special Collections post explores the biblical harmonies compiled by a religious community at Little Gidding in the seventeenth-century. One of the harmonies, The Whole Law of God, resides at St John’s College. The Little Gidding community provides a fascinating insight into the creation of this manuscript, and the many individual harmonies the community produced.

The Little Gidding Community

The Little Gidding community refers to the Ferrar family and their servants, who set up their Anglican religious community at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire (modern-day Cambridgeshire) in 1625. The head of the familial community, Nicholas Ferrar, was a member of the Church of England. He was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Laud in 1626. Ferrar preferred leading his own religious community within his family, selling his London home shortly after his ordination to focus on restoring the Little Gidding Church and household.

While Nicholas Ferrar and his nephew (also named Nicholas Ferrar) headed the community, the importance of women at Little Gidding cannot be overlooked. Nicholas Ferrar’s 73-year old mother was of vital significance in the establishment of the community at Little Gidding, overseeing the restoration of both the church and the house. Upon discovering that the church had been converted to a hay-barn, she insisted that all restorative efforts should be focused on the church, before moving on to the house. Her supervision of this dual restoration allowed the Ferrar family to take up full-time residence at Little Gidding in the autumn of 1625, although the full restoration took two years to complete.

The restoration of the church involved the chancel and the reading desk being set out at equal heights at opposite ends of the Church, suggesting an equalising of prayer (with the focus on the individual’s relationship with God) and of preaching (with the focus being the Word of God transmitting through the preacher to the collective). One of the ways in which the house mirrored the efforts of the church in equalising prayer and preaching was through the creation of biblical harmonies and concordances. These were a pivotal part of the community, particularly concerning the female contribution to the religious community. Two of Nicholas Ferrar’s nieces, Mary and Anna Collett, were tasked with the physical creation of the biblical harmonies. The activity was intended as one to keep the hands and minds of these women busy in prayer, but it also gave them an element of religious autonomy. The creation of the manuscripts allowed them power within their prayer, as their prayers had the external, material result of the manuscripts.

This sense of female religious autonomy is interesting when placed in the context of the rise of mysticism within Protestant discourse throughout the seventeenth-century in England. Nicholas Ferrar had been influenced by mysticism during his travels through Europe earlier in his life, in which direct intercourse with the divine was emphasized. One of the key “moral guidebooks” for pious women in seventeenth-century England was Richard Allestree’s The Ladies Calling (first published 1673), in which mystic influences can be seen through his advocating for the ‘divine spark’ in humans which does not distinguish between genders. This (inadvertently) led to female  writers later in the seventeenth- and into the eighteenth-centuries arguing in favour of female dignity and autonomy, as the focus was on finding their connection with the divine through each individual’s inner dialogue with God, rather than through external [patriarchal] structures. While The Ladies Calling and the proto-feminist dialogues that it inspired were published much later in the seventeenth-century than when the Little Gidding community began making their biblical harmonies, Ferrar’s travels through Europe meant that he was influenced by the mystical tradition earlier than the majority of England. It is easy to see how the women’s activities at the Little Gidding community were influenced by Ferrar’s encounters with mystical ideas, which would in turn later on in the century inspire arguments for some female emancipation from the confines of a patriarchal society.

The Harmonies

Biblical harmonies are an amalgamation of varying biblical verses. The crafting of the biblical harmonies rearranges the structure and order of the bible, and thereby encourages different thought patterns and interpretations about these biblical passages. The crafting of these would therefore encourage not just differing thoughts of the Bible, but also how various biblical passages could relate to each other. To create the biblical harmonies, the women would cut, arrange, and paste various biblical passages and verses, often alongside illustrations of biblical scenes onto pages which were then collated and bound. While Nicholas Ferrar and his nephew directed the creation of these harmonies, it was the women who were in charge of the manual labour of the books. In the equalising of preaching and praying, it was therefore the male role to preach the direction, and the female role to carry out the prayer. In carrying out the prayer element in the creation of the harmonies, Mary and Anna engaged directly with these religious texts.

As well as the books being created by the women of the Ferrar family, a female binder lived with the Little Gidding community for some time. She is believed to have been the daughter of Buck, the Cambridge University binder, and was a resident at Little Gidding for a year, instructing the community on bookbinding, gilding, and laying out text and illustrations. This further emphasizes the female influence upon the entire journey of creation for these books, and the level of responsibility placed upon the women.

While the books were originally tasked as a religious hobby, they were increasingly gifted to various friends and visitors to the community, particularly from the 1630s onwards, when the books would be commissioned for friends and wealthy patrons. The inner circle of people who gained access to the Little Gidding texts went as high as King Charles I, who visited the community and commissioned several harmonies, including the last harmony created, which was given to his son: the future King Charles II. Another high-profile recipient of the harmonies was George Herbert (the metaphysical poet), who was a friend of Nicholas Ferrar’s. Upon his receipt of a harmony Herbert commented that he ‘most humbly blessed God that he had lived now to see women’s scissors brought to so rare a use as to serve at God’s altar’, highlighting the value which was placed upon accessing a female connection with God.

The Whole Law of God

While the gospel harmonies were the most popular format which the Little Gidding community created, other copies included a concordance of Kings and Chronicles, several multilingual harmonies, and two typological works looking at the first five books of the Bible. St. John’s Little Gidding manuscript is a copy of the latter, being a biblical harmony of the Pentateuch, otherwise known as the first five books of the Bible. Entitled The Whole Law of God, it combines passages from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, to be read as one interlaced narrative, alongside illustrations of biblical passages – many of which are engravings collected by Nicholas Ferrar in his travels earlier in life. This harmony of Mosaic law was created by the community in 1640, and is beautifully bound in a gilt-decorated purple velvet binding. It was presented to Archbishop Laud, who deposited it at St. John’s College.

Select Bibliography/Further Reading

  • Apetrei, Sarah. “Mysticism and Feminism in Seventeenth-Century England”. The Way 46/4. Oct 2007. pp. 48-69.
  • “Appendix: Little Gidding.” A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 1. Eds. William Page, Granville Proby, and H E Norris. London: Victoria County History, 1926. 399-406. 
  • Gaudio, Michael. The Bible and the Printed Image in Early Modern England: Little Giddng and the Pursuit of scriptural harmony. Routledge, 2017.
  • “People – Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding.” Little Gidding Church, http://www.littlegiddingchurch.org.uk/lgchtmlfiles/lgpeople1.html.

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