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English Holy WellsEnglish Holy Wells: A Sourcebook (Heart of Albion Press, 2008), by Jeremy Harte

Over the summer of 1990 I roughed out the draft for what would become 
The Living Stream and though it acquired more detail and polish in the couple of years before it was handed to Boydell & Brewer the basic argument remained unchanged. It was a polemical statement by an obsessive undergraduate and, for all its championing of 'real history' over the fantasies which had afflicted the study of holy wells, involved an awful lot of flailing around in the dark in the hope of hitting something worthwhile (I like to think it often did). Jeremy Harte's book is the first major corrective to that study, and a smashing one.

Behind the pages of English Holy Wells lies an incredible amount of work. Jeremy has spent years chasing down the original source reference for every Christianised holy well known in England, excluding Cornwall. What this achieves (if that were not enough) is to strip away the accretions of misinterpretation, exaggeration, garbling and blunder to expose the secure bedrock of our knowledge about England's sacred springs. Armed with this information, he establishes a new and convincing chronology for the Christian well-cult in England, concluding that 'Holy Wells' so-named generally preceded those dedicated to saints, and fanned outwards from an original centre in the Midlands. The book has less interest in what happened after the Reformation, but later events and the creation of more modern holy wells nevertheless feature as part of the story. This is a pretty narrow focus, but the triumphant result shows what can be done by concentrating historiographical fire.

The argument is involved, but the book wears its great learning very lightly. Jeremy writes in an engaging, human, and in fact, when dealing with the strange and delightful characters we meet through the story, humane way; so, far from being a stodgy academic tome, English Holy Wells trots along very amiably. The really knotty discussion is relegated to footnotes, and even there none of it will cause any problems for a non-specialist with a basic understanding of British history. There's a sprinkling of black-and-white illustrations, mainly from obscure old works of local history, which few well-enthusiasts will have seen before, and these help the text along - not that it needs it. The author's willingness to think outside established categories and boundaries is constantly exciting.

The three printed volumes together will set you back a little under sixty quid, so Heart of Albion have compassionately appended to the first the second two on disk. Don't neglect them, though - that's where the bulk of the splendid stories are hiding. The only quibble with this excellent book is the slightly wonky production which has left the cover picture askew and the author's name off-centre.

It is difficult to exaggerate the service Jeremy Harte has done the study of hydrolatry in English Holy Wells. His approach to what we actually know is certainly severe, and the picture will need nuancing with credible speculation, drawing on information from other, non-documentary sources. But, to adopt a Rumsfeldian tone, once we know what we know we know, we can guess at what we don't know yet. That's how history should work. This book does not end the study of English holy wells: it stakes out a base camp. I hope that, in years to come, the first, automatic thought of future investigators, embarking on their own explorations and coming across an unfamiliar well, will be 'Is it in Harte? What does he say?'




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