We’ve all heard the romanticized story of how Jenny Geddes, the rustic Scotswoman, was so disturbed by the King of England’s imposition of English Anglican prayers on the Scots Presbyterians, that she threw her stool at the minister in St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1637.
Sorting legend from historical fact here is tricky, but I’ve always wondered why she had a stool in the first place. Seating in churches was a relatively late development–churches throughout the early church and medieval times would have been bare of seating, for the most part. Pews are a modern development. So, if you wanted to bring seating, you had to bring your own. But, there’s a more depressing side to Jenny Geddes and her stool. According to William D. Maxwell, the noted liturgical historian of the early 20th century, women were sometimes not allowed to sit with the men in Scottish Reformed churches. I will quote him at length, because he really messes with a few of our mental pictures for Scots Reformed worship:
“The attitude at prayer everywhere was kneeling, on both knees or on one knee; hats were removed for prayers, psalms, and reading, but were usually though not always worn during sermon by the preacher and the men, and the women wore plaids or shawls on their heads, and in many places sat separate from the men.”
He continues in a footnote, quoting the decision of board of elders in Glasgow, in 1589: “‘The session ordains that no woman sit upon or occupy the forms the men should sit on, but either sit [i.e. on the floor] or els bring stools wi’ them’. Forty-eight years later [Maxwell comments] Jenny Geddes (?) obediently brought her stool with her, but allowed it to be put to more aggressive use, and this method was not the last time stools were used as weapons in church, as records of this and the succeeding century show” (William D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland, 97).
So, not only did we have Scots Presbyterians kneeling to pray (I thought that was a Roman Catholic thing!) and wearing hats in church, but we had women often segregated from the men, forced to sit on the floor or on stools they brought to church with them. Well, hopefully their husbands carried their stools to church for them. Humorous at the least, but also revealing how much of our worship is dictated by our historical context and culture.