Student Research: Visiting Shakespeare’s Birthplace to Study Religious Tolerance

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Senior Jesse Abruzzi was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded a Summer Research Fellowship to investigate diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Nurtured by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are entirely funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

August 20, 2015

Jesse Abruzzi, a senior history major, has long been fascinated by the intersection of religion and politics. So as a 10-week Norwich University Summer Research Fellow, he chose to study the lives of English Catholics during the Protestant Reformation in the second half the 16th century.

Abruzzi focused on the small English market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the Catholic hotbed of Warwickshire. While practicing Catholicism could be a capital offense, a number of Catholics held seats of power in town government.

To conduct original research, Abruzzi used funds from his $4,000 fellowship stipend to visit two storied archives in England: the British Library in London, the world’s largest, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Record Trust Office in Stratford-upon-Avon.

In Stratford, Abruzzi spent days pouring over ancient manuscripts full of details about village life in the 1500 and 1600s. A main source was the Minutes and Accounts of the Stratford Corporation, or town government.

Notes recorded in the 16th century tome describe an array of ordinances that illuminate the concerns of the growing market town. Decrees ranged from efforts to control dogs, trade, and firearms to rules that sought to advert religious tensions or keep tavern owners from watering down their beer.

“Everything I was looking over slowly began to change the questions I was having,” Abruzzi says. “My question changed from a religious one to a more political one.”

He refocused his scholarship on the central issue of how Stratford-upon-Avon formed an autonomous government in such a religiously charged era.

Abruzzi found that despite anti-Catholic rhetoric and actions by the monarchy in London, religion took a back seat to political and economic interests in Stratford-upon-Avon. “[This] fostered an environment that allowed a stable town to form,” he says.

“What I just found really interesting was how a religious reformation that began in Europe resulted in a political reformation in this small English town. [One] that ultimately created, oddly, this religious diversity” imperfect though it was, he says.

Norwich University Assistant Professor of History Emily Fisher Gray advised Abruzzi on his project.

“This is a story that has been investigated by other historians relating to the larger rural county of Warwickshire, but Jesse [is] the first to ask these questions of the town of Stratford,” Gray says.

To help him with his project, Gray visited the British Library and the Shakespeare Birthplace Record Trust Office ahead of time to secure research access and canvas source material on his behalf.

“Jesse was interested in researching the experiences of ordinary people,” Gray says. “I was excited because the stories of regular folks rarely get told, and they are often the most interesting.”

Of his research, Abruzzi says, “I was doing work that I’ll probably be doing at the PhD level one day. So it was great practice actually being in the ‘field’ on my own and getting firsthand experience having to solve certain problems without help.”

He says his greatest takeaway from his fellowship experience this summer was a greater sense of personal and academic independence. “I had some help in the archives the first few days,” he says. “But after that, I was on my own.”

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Photograph courtesy Emily Fisher Gray, PhD