St Denys Pencoyd, where Sir John Davies once taught the flock

Drive south of Hereford towards Ross, tracking the Wye but in rolling uplands above it, and after a few miles you’ll see Pencoyd signed off to the right. Follow the winding lane and you’ll come to small hamlet with a couple of good houses and barns – and a church, dedicated rather unusually, to St Denys. Nicholson’s 19th-century restoration hides most of its history, but the solid tower and font betray its late Norman origins, perhaps one of the many 13th-century builds and rebuilds that field up the corners of the countryside.

It’s of special interest to me, though, for something that happened there in two hundred years later, when one Sir John Davies was the curate. “Sir” not because he was a knight but because he was a non-graduate priest, and that was the courtesy title they were allowed as “gentlemen unto God”, and curate (as we would call him now) because Pencoyd was a chapelry not a parish church – and Davies himself had probably only been in orders a couple of years.

What’s so interesting is the the book he made to resource himself in his new role of teaching his flock – both the basics of the faith like the Ten Commandments and the Seven Sacraments – and the basics of Latin grammar still survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (now split as MSS Douce 103 and Douce 108). The main items are John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests and Festial, the ideal textbooks for a new cleric, but my object of study was an elementary grammar of Latin in English – one of a raft of them I edited for my doctorate – and here is part of its text in the Herefordshire dialect of the time (the words in bold are dialect markers):

How mony tymes byn there? V. Wych v? The tyme that ys noo, the tyme that ys nott fulliche a-gonne, and the tyme that ys a-gon, the tyme that more then a-goon and the tyme that ys to cum. How knowyst the tyme that ys no? For he betokynth the tyme that ys no, as amo ‘y loue’ . . . How knowyst an interieccyon? For he ys a party of speke vndeclynyd the wych shewt a monnys wyll wt a vnperfytt voyce, as wondur, drede or merwell.

So next time you drop in at Pencoyd, listen for the voices – of God’s whispered word, and the echoes of a priest and people teaching and learning long ago.

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