In his book Lordship and Faith: the English Gentry and the Parish Church in the Middle Ages, Nigel Saul seeks to address one of the major debates surrounding medieval English parishes, the role of the gentry: were they involved in the parish or finding their spiritual sustenance elsewhere? Although the gentry were routinely buried in their local parish church, so the argument goes, they found routine religious fulfilment in monasteries, domestic chapels, colleges, or mendicant churches. In fourteen chapters, Nigel Saul argues that far from abandoning the parish, the gentry embraced it, albeit in ways that reflected their own spiritual, dynastic, and social goals and their financial means.
The first four chapters address the emergence of the parish system, the rise of the gentry from the knightly class that supported the Norman invasion, the impact of the Norman Conquest, and the Gregorian Reforms. Prior to the Conquest, local churches generally fell into two categories: proprietary churches under the control of thegns who built them for the men and women who worked their land, and minster churches, monasteries that oversaw the pastoral care of a wide territory. The Norman Conquest brought major changes to pastoral care, because it all but wiped out the Anglo-Saxon thegnly population, replacing it with a smaller and wealthier population of Norman knights. There was also a loss of local clergy, and a break-up of the minsters and their holdings. Bringing the incipient gentry back to the local church was a gradual process aided in part by the Gregorian Reforms, which largely eliminated secular ownership of churches in favor of monasteries, some of which were former minsters converted to Benedictine houses, others, new foundations. The loss of secular ownership, however, took revenue away from local churches, directing it to monasteries, which compromised pastoral care. The solution was the creation of advowsons, which patrons kept to ensure the pastoral care of the parish. This innovation kept elites invested in the local church.
Chapters 5 and 6 take up the gentry's interest in founding chapels, whether freestanding or in their houses. Saul argues that founding chapels was a continuation of the practice of founding proprietary churches. Chapels also reflected the breakup of the minsters' parochiae and the growth of the population, which needed access to a church, even if it did not have the full rights of baptism and burial. Thus in the first half of the book, Saul lays the ground work for showing the gentry to be fundamentally interested in religion as manifested at the local level.
With chapter 7 and the invention of the perpetual chantry, Saul hits the heart of his book, the formation of the gentry's interest in their parish churches. By the twelfth century, monasteries were overburdened with the intercessory prayers they needed to say for their benefactors. Moreover, the promotion of the doctrine of transubstantiation in 1215 meant that prayers were not enough: masses were needed to move souls out of Purgatory. Perpetual chantries were a personal intercessory foundation that solved monasteries' problems of liturgical backlog. They could be set up anywhere, freeing patrons from dependence on monasteries. The most obvious beneficiary was the parish. A consequence of this development is readily visible in the architectural expansion of parish churches, as the gentry "colonized" them with structures to house their chantries. Saul argues that perpetual chantries, with both their financial and architectural aspects, cemented the gentry's interest in their parish.
Chapters 8 through 12 look at the various manifestations and implications of this relationship: increased burial in parish churches rather than monasteries, the question of the gentry's attendance (about which he equivocates), their patronage of church building programs, parish involvement as a form of lordship, the gentry's interest in secular colleges (a chapter which seems out of place in this book), and the gentry's involvement in mundane parish affairs including parish guilds and parish offices. Taken together these chapters show that many gentry displayed their wealth, growing sense of their own importance, and piety through parish involvement in projects.
Saul has a deep love of the surviving church buildings and he uses the surviving churches themselves to great effect, drawing on individual church building history, architectural style, tombs, and heraldic decorations. This attention reveals aspects of the gentry's involvement that written sources do not. For written sources, Saul relies predominantly on wills and bishops' registers. He has also mined local antiquarian societies' publications and the Victoria County Histories. Yet his love of beautiful architecture drives his analysis and predetermines his conclusions. Given that money and status allowed interested gentry to do pretty much what they wanted in their parish, the best architectural examples are often gentry-dominated churches. The hundreds of less picturesque churches beg the question of what where the local gentry doing in those communities. Saul does acknowledge that parish churches can be divided into three broad groups: those built by monasteries, the gentry, and the "collective endeavours of the parish" (5), yet looking only at those churches built by the gentry does not ultimately answer the question of whether the gentry as a class (or status group) were invested in their parishes. Was parish religion gentry religion? What arguing from the best architectural examples does show is how some gentry, who were interested in the parish, spent their money. Saul all but ignores the scholarship of the last twenty years that has argued that ordinary men and women were also in involved in the parish and that their concerns and priorities were also built into the church fabric. We already understood that the gentries' resources made their parish participation different from that of the rest of the parish. What would be interesting to know is how gender inflected gentry involvement and how the gentry negotiated the interests and concerns of the rest of the parish.