University of Nottingham

The early modern parish church and the religious landscape

Project outline

Even in today's largely secular society, parish churches are still readily identifiable landmarks within the rural and urban environment. This was even more true during the early modern period when they were frequently the tallest and most substantial structure within any given community.

Drawing on the disciplines of History and History of Art, this project examined the relationship between the parish church and a broader religious landscape (marked by shrines, crosses, pilgrimage sites) during the early modern period, a time of profound religious, economic and environmental upheaval. In doing so, it considered the impact of religious wars on the landscape, and asked how industrialisation changed the religious world.

The Parish Church at Visby, Denmark Parish church, Visby, Denmark


Project activities have included: a series of public lectures on the history of the parish church; a conference hosted at the University of Oxford in 2009; an experimental wiki that enables members of the public to explore images of parish churches and their landscapes (still live as of December 2013); a number of scholarly publications. Broadly-speaking the project has contributed to debates over 'continuity and change' during the Reformation.

Research has revealed interesting synergies in the place of the parish church within the religious/sacred landscape of early modern Europe and has indicated the renewed importance of the parish church in relation to places of pagan worship or other ancient cultic sites during this period. The project has demonstrated how the economic exploitation of the landscape (through lead mining in Scotland and land reclamation in Schelswig) influenced the location and shape of new parishes to be accessible to and meet the needs of the community.

The supposed permanence of parish churches within the landscape has also been revealed as somewhat illusionary, with parish churches demolished as a defensive measure in order to meet military demands (particularly in Cambrai). This did not mean that they were erased from the collective memory of the town. In other parishes (Le Mans) and historical times, the strategic position that some churches occupied meant that they were important defensive sites, modified architecturally and adapted to serve a role in the French Wars of Religion.

Contributions have been made to the academic debate over 'continuity and change' during the Reformation. The perception that there was a radical change from modes of Catholic worship, with decorated buildings and furnishings, to a simpler and plainer church interior is being questioned. It seems that the traditional assumption of the 'word' replacing the 'image' at the Reformation is too simple a construction and that Protestantism was far more orientated towards material culture than has been previously acknowledged.

A series of public lectures were organised in local churches in conjunction with the Open Doors weekend and a project conference took place at the University of Oxford in 2009. This provided the public with information about the history of the parish church, and about conservation and maintenance issues past and present.


Ongoing influence

Outcomes have demonstrated the importance of examining the restructuring of the religious landscape and restoration of the parish churches in the wake of confessional violence and political change. It is hoped that further research will be undertaken on this area.

Involvement in the Archaeology of the Post-Medieval Religion conference led to connections with the National Museums of Scotland and an application for a Collaborative Doctoral Award.

The project's wiki space of theme-based church images remains live (as of December 2013), enabling visitors to compare images across dioceses, and research particular themes and parishes.

Award details

Duration: 2007-2010 (39 months)

Principal Investigator:
Professor Andrew Spicer

Higher Education Institution: School of Arts and Humanities, Oxford Brookes University

  • Dr Margit Thofner, University of East Anglia (Co-I)
  • Dr Louise Durning, Oxford Brookes University (Co-I)

Case studies

  • Cambrai (the Low Countries)
  • Le Mans (France)
  • Oxford
  • Schleswig (Denmark)
  • Scotland 

Selected publications

The project team have published research findings in a number of edited collections, journal articles and monographs.

Spicer, A (2014 forthcoming). Conflict and the Religious Landscape. Cambrai and the Southern Netherlands, c. 1566-1621. (Leiden: Brill)

Spicer, A. (ed). (2014 forthcoming). The Parish Church in the Early Modern World. (Ashgate).

Spicer, A. (ed). (2012). Lutheran Churches in Early Modern Europe. (Ashgate).

Spicer, A. (2010). "God hath put such secretes in nature": The reformed kirk, church-building and the religious landscape in early modern Scotland. In: Clarke, P. and Claydon, T. (2010). God's Bounty? The Church and the Natural World. Studies in Church History 46. (Boydell).


Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071