Coster, Will 1963- (W. Coster)

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Coster, Will 1963- (W. Coster)


Born March 18, 1963.


Writer, historian, lecturer, and educator. De Montfort University, Bedford, England, instructor in history; Bedford College of Higher Education, lecturer in history.


Family and Kinship in England, 1450-1800, Longman (New York, NY), 2001.

Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England, Ashgate (Burlington, VT), 2002.

(Editor, with Andrew Spicer) Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 2005.


Writer, historian, lecturer, and educator, Will Coster is an instructor in history at De Montfort University, Bedford, England. As a writer, Coster explores issues of family and kinship, both of the secular and spiritual kind. In Family and Kinship in England, 1450-1800, Coster looks at the multifaceted ways in which families developed and evolved in early modern England. He considers the many scholarly viewpoints and theories that address the rise of the family, and in his book "offers an important and timely synthesis of the various arguments and provides answers to the questions they raise," according to a description of the book on the Pearson Education Web site. The book is divided into four parts. In the first part, "Methods and Structures," Coster offers a variety of different approaches to historical studies of the family, and establishes a number of useful definitions. He considers the rise of the nuclear family, the emotional life of the family, the family life cycle, family residences, reproduction, economic roles of the family, and the kinship system. In part two, "Analysis," he examines the family in depth and offers detailed explorations of how families are formed, the role of men and women in family units, marriage and sex, the routines of married life, parenting and children, the status of widows, widowers, and orphans, and the influence of aging in family lives and structures. Part three, "Assessment—Continuity and Change," contains information on how various ideas have affected family life in periods such as the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Coster also explores the application of theory and practice to family life in greater detail in this chapter. Finally, part four, "Documents," contains a number of important primary source documents, a glossary, and a bibliography for researchers.

Coster looks at a more ethereal form of family, that connected to spiritual kinship, in Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England. "This book is the first scholarly study of godparentage in early modern England, and it may, for a while, be the last word," remarked David Cressy, writing in the English Historical Review. At the heart of the book, Coster wonders what spiritual, social, and religious changes occurred when sponsorships by godparents became commonplace in early modern England. He also considers what those changes reflected about the nature of the English Reformation. He notes that in some historical views, "godparenthood, like many other traditional religious practices, held a strong place in the lives and affections of English people" as the country entered the age of the Reformation, noted R.H. Helmholz in the Catholic Historical Review. In this interpretation, godparenthood served to create a strong social and spiritual connection between families, parents, children, and those who acted as godparents. When Protestantism surged to prominence during the Reformation, these cherished family ties were weakened and greatly reduced. Coster finds these ideas to be "romantic assumptions," Helmholz observed, that are not necessarily supported by the reality as it existed.

To uncover the true nature of godparenthood and the spiritual family, Coster turned his attention to several contemporary sources of information, including parish registers, wills, and records from Ecclesiastical courts, with the greatest attention paid to three parishes in Yorkshire: Almondbury, Bilton in Ainsty, and St. Margaret's, York. He combed these records looking for statistical data and answers to questions such as who served as godparents, their social status, their duties as godparents and how well these duties were performed, and what legacy the godparents left to their godchildren. The author's research uncovered important information on the class and status of the chosen godparents; their biological relationship to the godchild, if any; the number and sometimes nature of any bequests from godparent to godchild.

Coster's research led him to a number of conclusions based on the characteristics of godparents and their charges. For example, he found that "spiritual sponsorship became an element of female sociability," and that "sponsors seldom assumed any substantive role in a child's life," noted Susan C. Karant-Nunn in Church History. The selection of godparents sometimes had ramifications beyond the spiritual, as "families in early modern England sought theirs and their children's best advantage in a combination of strategies, which could include the selection of godparents," Karant-Nunn reported. As a reflection of the general reality of the time, "these strategies could shift, along with economic and social conditions, as quickly as the next child of a couple could be conceived and born," Karant-Nunn stated. "Godparenthood, it seems, was not a particularly powerful tie, though it could be employed to reinforce kinship bonds and to strengthen links between local families. This finding is not surprising, but it has not been demonstrated before in such detail," Cressy stated. Coster, Cressy noted, also serves as an "insightful guide to the system by which people acquired their Christian names" during this time period. In assessing Coster's work in this book, Helmholz remarked that "what he has done, he has done well, and for it he deserves our admiration and thanks." Karant-Nunn observed that "Coster has admirably scoured the documentary possibilities as well as the existing secondary literature" to reach his conclusions.

Coster served as the editor, with Andrew Spicer, of Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, a collection of fourteen essays that examines the creation, maintenance, and use of sacred spaces in early modern Europe and Great Britain. These sacred spaces included "the more obvious churches, burial sites, shrines, and monasteries," but also "taverns, villages, cities, the natural landscape, and the human body itself," reported Martha L. Finch in a Church History review. The essayists "consider sacred space in the context of other categories—time, gender, the human senses, art, architecture, ritual, pilgrimage, literature, cartography, politics, power, private and public, religious and civic, rural and urban—exemplifying that studies of sacred space must not be purely conceptual and theological, but grounded in the physicality of human lives, experiences, and productions," Finch stated. The authors and editors demonstrate how early modern European Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox members oriented themselves by "actively creating and re-creating sites of religious meaning in relationship to larger social and cultural forces," Finch wrote. Finch concluded that the book is an "important contribution" to scholarly studies on the Reformation, early modern Europe, and Christianity.



Catholic Historical Review, October, 2004, R.H. Helmholz, review of Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England, p. 787; January, 2007, William A. Christian, Jr., review of Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, p. 84.

Church History, March, 2006, Susan C. Karant-Nunn, review of Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England, p. 196; March, 2007, Martha L. Finch, review of Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, p. 187.

English Historical Review, April, 2004, David Cressy, review of Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England, p. 510.

History, January, 2007, Graeme Murdock, review of Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, p. 113.

Journal of Ecclesiastical History, July, 2006, Diarmaid MacCulloch, review of Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, p. 596.

Journal of Historical Geography, October, 2006, Adrian R. Bailey, review of Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, p. 876.

Reference & Research Book News, May, 2003, review of Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England, p. 24.


Pearson Education Web site, (May 22, 2008), author profile.

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