Personal Records

  1. Introduction
  2. The Nature of the Diary
  3. Accuracy and Coverage
  4. Village Background and People
  5. Major Themes of the Diary
  6. Further Topics in Josselin's Diary
  7. Previous Editions and Commentaries
  8. Sermon for Mrs Smithea Harlakenden


Ralph Josselin was vicar of Earls Colne, Essex, from 1641 until his death in 1683. The Diary which he kept during this period is one of the richest seventeenth century sources for English social history.

The Nature of the Diary

The Diary itself is written in a very small but neat hand, with a considerable use of abbreviations. There are 182 pages plus some endpapers, into which are crammed some 290,000 words. Although tiring to read because of the size of the handwriting, the difficulties are only considerable in the few places where the paper has worn thin and writing on the two sides has merged. Approximately the last fifth of the Diary is also less easy to read since Josselin's handwriting deteriorates with old age.

Document image

The diary starts with a summary account of Josselin's life from his birth in January 1617 until August 1644. During the next twenty years of his life there are usually several entries a week, many of them very detailed. The period 1646-53 is especially well covered and includes two-fifths of the total Diary: from the mid 1660s the entries usually occur weekly and are much briefer.

Accuracy and Coverage

Whenever it is possible to check either Josselin's figures or his observations against other sources it appears that he was almost always accurate. Although he mis-dated the attempt on the five members by Charles I by one day, he amended a mistake he had made when copying the figures from a London Bill of Mortality. If we compare his references to baptisms, marriages, and burials in the parish with entries in the parish register, or his description of crimes with entries in the Quarter Sessions records, whenever the event occurs in both courses Josselin's dating and description appears to be correct.

It is more difficult to evaluate the degree to which Josselin notes events which should have been in other local records and yet are missing, and vice versa. Josselin refers to a considerable number of burials, marriages, and baptisms which should have take place in Earls Colne, but do not appear in the parish register. He also mentions a number of sexual offences, thefts, and other crimes which we might have expected to find recorded in legal records but are not. His Diary provides a warning concerning the inadequacies of local records.

The reverse is also true, for it is possible to see to what extent Josselin noted the village events which appear in other records and which we might have expected to appear in the Diary. Apart from two references to people of Earls Colne being gaoled for 'highway trade' and 'robbery', Josselin only mentions three thefts in the township over his forth-two years of residence. Only one of these appears in the surviving court records. On the other hand, from Quarter Sessions and Assize records we find eleven thefts and robberies involving Earls Colne villagers in some way. One of these is mentioned in the Diary. It should be noted that only one of the cases was a major larceny.

Bastardy was another topic that might be expected to receive his attention. He did note this offence in 1645, but thereafter paid little attention to the subject. Thus there is no mention of the three bastards appearing in various records for the township in 1656, or of the Earls Colne woman presented at the Quarter Sessions for having a bastard in 1654, or of three other bastardy cases mentioned in local records. These two instances warn us that though Josselin appears to have been substantially accurate, he was very selective. He only noted a fraction of the events, even of an apparently major kind, that occurred within his own parish during his residence.

Village Background and People

Josselin was also selective about whom he mentioned; he named only a very small fraction of the total parish population. In the Hearth Tax of 1671 there were 239 taxable dwellings in the parish, which would give it an approximate population of 1,100 persons. Allowing for the rapid turn-over of population, both as a result of geographical mobility and a high mortality rate, it would be reasonable to assume that during his forty-two years, between three and five thousand people passed through the parish and lived there for at least several months. Yet Josselin only referred directly or indirectly to between two and three hundred of these. He mentioned by name approximately one-twentieth of his congregation in any context. Since he often omitted Christian names, or there were several members of the same family living in the parish, it is frequently difficult to be sure to whom Josselin is referring.

Major Themes of the Diary

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Diary is the daily interblending of different topics, from which we obtain a rounded, richly complex, picture of Josselin and his environment. This is largely because the diarist himself combined so many roles.

Josselin as Clergyman

Josselin was a clergyman throughout the more than forty years covered by the Diary and this, above all, gives it its shape. It is an intimate record of his ministry and his private doubts and triumphs as a Christian. A few specific aspects of this concern are worth singling out. During the years 1650-6 he was particularly interested in the promised Second Coming of Christ and speculated extensively on millenarianism. From 1655 to 1656 he was especially fearful about the Quakers and records their progress in the neighbourhood. Between 1660 and 1669 his Diary illustrates the insecurities of the Restoration for a man on the borderline of nonconformity.

Throughout the diary are descriptions of religious behaviour at the village level. The numbers who attended church and communion are frequently given, particularly after 1661. There are frequent mentions of the godly group, the 'Society', which met under Josselin's leadership, particularly during the period 1647-57, of whom he gives definite outsiders. Josselin's own backslidings, fears of death and damnation, attitude to the neighbouring ministers, all these and many other subjects are dealt with.

Josselin as Farmer

Josselin gradually built up a large farm in Earls Colne, starting with a land purchase in 1646. The Diary thus provides description of farming life in the middle of the century. The price of commodities, state of the harvest, debts and loans, yearly accounts of his estate, the weather, manorial transfers, farming methods, all these topics are dealt with, often at considerable length. The second half of the Diary is especially full of these subjects. The descriptions enable us to piece together a unique picture of yeoman farming in this period.

Josselin's Family Life

Josselin was married before the Diary proper commenced. His wife had ten livebirths during the period 1642-63, but survived him. There are numerous allusions to the rearing of the children. These range through the agonies of pregnancy and childbearing, weaning and teething, apprenticeship, and final marriage. There is also a very great deal of information concerning relations within the nuclear family, especially between husband and wife. Ties with other kin, both Josselin's own and those of his wife, can also be studied. It is thus possible to build up some estimate of the nature and importance of family and kinship relationships in this particular instance. Josselin's role as father and husband generates a series of observations which also seem unique for this period.

Josselin as Villager

Josselin's role as a villager of Earls Colne has already been alluded to. He was a member of a certain status hierarchy and was tied to his co-villagers by numerous neighbourly bonds. His descriptions of various village events, for example smallpox epidemics, small accidents, crimes, witchcraft beliefs, fires, provide us with a rare chance to see what it was like to live in a seventeenth-century parish. His terms of reference to various neighbours and the frequently of his allusions to specific persons and categories - the Lord of the Manor, the prosperous, the poor, and the wicked - all indicate his notions of rank and status.

Josselin was clearly interested in local, national, and international politics. He served with the parliamentary army as a chaplain on two occasions, though he also disapproved of putting the King to death. His frequent comments on events occurring on the Continent as well as in England indicate how well-informed and absorbed were the lower levels of the 'political nation' at this period. The full Diary contains long summaries of political events which have not before been published, though much of this material was selected for the Camden Society edition.

Pain and Illness

Throughout the Diary, but particularly in the years 1648-50, there are very long and graphic descriptions of the author's reactions to the almost constant series of minor and major afflictions which he and his family suffered. Intimate details of Josselin's own health, moving descriptions of the frequently fatal sickness of his children and numerous comments on epidemics which afflicted the village, all are included. The overriding importance of death and disease in the seventeenth century have seldom, if ever, found such a chronicler.

Josselin as Schoolmaster

Josselin was schoolmaster of Earls Colne from 1650 to 1658 and a certain amount may be gleaned concerning this activity, especially the economic aspects. The diarist's interest in reading, which provides a useful sample of educated taste in this period, had preceded this appointment and most of the titles he gives fall in the period 1648- 50. It was during his schoolmastership, which also coincided with much of his millenarian speculation, that Josselin recorded most of the dreams that are mentioned in the Diary. These are most numerous in the years 1655-6.

Further Topics in Josselin's Diary

Among many other topics to which he turns our attention are the following: accidents, food, geographical mobility, gifts, gossip, imagery, insanity, the poor, pregnancy, servants, wages. Anyone interested in seventeenth-century thought and society is likely to find information of interest. The Diary is, above all, unique as a total document. With all its redundancy and repetition, it can still be read through with great enjoyment. We can enter Josselin's world, so strange and yet familiar.

Josselin himself does not emerge as lovable, or even endearing - his conscientious and suffering figure simply stands before us, to wonder at, pity, and for all its frailty, respect. Posterity will judge his right to stand beside Pepys, Heywood, Woodford, Kilvert - the great English Diarists of all time.

Previous Editions and Commentaries

In 1908 Hockliffe edited the Diary for the Camden Society, in which he explained that 'Less than half the original diary is here published'. (E.Hockliffe (ed.), The Diary of the Rev. Ralph Josselin, 1616-83. Camden Soc., 3rd ser., xv, 1908) This remark gives a slightly false impression for in fact approximately three quarters of the original was omitted. Hockliffe described these omissions as 'many entries of no interest whatever - endless thanks to God for his goodness "to me and mine", prayers, notes about the weather or his sermons, innumerable references to his constant "rheums" and "poses", trivial details of every day life, records of visits to his friends, etc. etc. Such has been the shift in historical interests that many of these topics are precisely those about which we wish to learn. By omitting the apparently repetitious religious exhortations much of the essential flavour was also lost.

Although Josselin's Diary was known to specialists on seventeenth-century England, he was generally regarded as of minor importance on the basis of the Camden Society edition. In 1970 a full- scale study of Josselin and his religious, economic, social, and political world was published.(Alan Macfarlane, Family Life of Ralph Josselin; A Seventeenth-Century Clergyman. Cambridge, 1970) The complete Diary of about 290,000 words was first published by the British Academy in 1976 (Alan Macfarlane, ed., The Diary of Ralph Josselin 1616-1683. British Academy 1976; paperback edition, 1991). This edition contains extensive annotations, indexes and retains the original spelling and punctuation.

To complement the other sources for Earls Colne, the spelling has been modernized in this version though the original punctuation has been retained.

Sermon for Mrs Smithea Harlakenden

An address to the widower, William Harlakenden, together with extracts from the funeral sermon given by Ralph Josselin on 28th June 1651.

[Transcript reproduced by permission of Dr A.D. Mackinnon]