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19.06.21 Forrest, Trustworthy Men

19.06.21 Forrest, Trustworthy Men

"In 1200 the adjective fidedigni was already an old word, used in the first millennium to refer to the gospels and their authors, and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to refer to living informants by historians and collectors of miracle stories. But it did not yet form part of the discourse of church administration, and was notably absent from the vocabulary of Gratian..." (2-3).

These words will alert any medievalist to the agenda of this book, but might also lull the reader into failing to realize quite how important, and how original, it is. As they imply, it is a major and richly detailed account of an unnoticed aspect of the intensification of governance that transformed Latin Europe from around that date, based on an exhaustive examination of a set of the documents, formidable in quantity and variety, that were both the instrument and the product of transformation. The term fidedigni was used in the second half of the twelfth century, in some continental chanceries as well as in England, to describe witnesses to judgments or grants, but from around 1200 it appears regularly and frequently in English episcopal registers and ecclesiastical court records to describe groups of laymen from whom bishops sought specific local information in cases of conflict relating to every aspect of church property and governance, including clerical discipline. So this is, in the first place, another use of the inquest, the device being deployed everywhere in Latin Europe to enable governmental authority, secular and ecclesiastical, to penetrate local communities, here attested in a wide range of materials not hitherto exploited in this way, and in Forrest's hands extraordinarily revealing. It is hard to think of an aspect of everyday life or thought that is not sharply, and often entertainingly, illuminated. The wealth of source materials at his disposal is considerable: some 120 bishops' registers from England between 1200 and 1500, published and unpublished, are cited, and elucidated with the aid of abundant court and other records, letters and so on, ecclesiastical and public. If that were all, this would be a notable scholarly achievement. But as the subtitle claims, for once fulfilling the customarily grandiose promise of the genre, there is a great deal more. What makes this study exceptional, and of interest far beyond the particular aspect of episcopal administration in late medieval England with which it is ostensibly concerned, is the rigour and imagination with which every piece of evidence cited is scrutinized and contextualized from every possible point of view. If there is a word, for instance, whose meaning medievalists might expect to take for granted in one context or another without extensive preliminaries, it is "faith." Forrest devotes a chapter to the social implications of its developing theology, and its index entry has some thirty sub-headings, from "articles of the" to "and uncertainty," including "fragility of," "hand gestures of," "and the heart," "as personal attribute or possession," as well as numerous cross-references. What people understood by "faith" when they spoke of it, swore by it, considered how and in what ways it might be vested in or expected from others, becomes a spotlight on every facet of their social and personal existence.

By asking with that thoroughness and precision who the trustworthy men were and how they were selected--what made them trustworthy--, how they went about their work, and with what consequences and repercussions, Forrest illuminates the dynamics of local standing and influence in intimate detail, in every kind of community from every part of England, though especially in lowland rather than upland England, where, as in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, "bishops had less opportunity for intensive engagement with local society" (217). They were, without exception, invariably men, though women were not routinely excluded either from similar roles in the activity of secular government, or from other roles in the affairs of the church. They were selected ad hoc on each occasion, but some people were selected more often and more regularly than others, generally though not exclusively from among the more prosperous and established families of their neighbourhoods. Selection reflected their standing and influence, but also reinforced it, creating, recreating and entrenching village hierarchies, and in doing so demolishing what remains of the myth of the stable, egalitarian village community. As ever, the exceptions, anomalies and contradictions bring the generalities alive, and a multitude of micro-histories vividly and sensitively retraced bring out with forensic precision the dynamics of communal reputation, rivalry and standing, shaped by the histories, and by the particular economies and ecologies of their communities, to which Forrest is acutely attentive. This is a foreign country, and his exploration takes nothing for granted. At its core it is the story of an elite, largely created by patronage skilfully used on both sides. If the fidedigni needed the bishop he needed them quite as much, for they were the people, to be found in every community, without whom nothing could be done, and without whose acceptance no change would endure. Through them the prescriptions and expectations of the post-Lateran church were carried into the parishes, in the form of the verdicts pronounced on the basis of the evidence they supplied. But it was not a one-way process. Their testimony, shaped by their memories, values, and interests, in turn moulded the conclusions and expectations of the bishops and their officers, in continual interaction, creating a stable but malleable body of accepted custom and precept to sustain and bolster parish life, including the inequality inherent in its production.

Such a wealth of material so skilfully presented makes for compelling reading, but the historian who commands it has an obligation to the bigger picture. Forrest does not shirk it. Readers of TMR will not be disposed to dispute that "a medievalist's perspective on the study of trust," which is developed throughout, "immediately disrupts a whole series of complacent assumptions about 'modernity'...[and makes it] possible to confound some of the more developmental and celebratory accounts of 'Western' history" (6). This is only one example of the range of theoretical discussion, exceptional even in these multidisciplinary times, which Forrest deploys to shape his curiosity and refine his questions. Some of it, indeed, might have been left in the already exhaustive notes, or even in the notebook, trusting the fieldwork to do the job. The word "fieldwork" is used advisedly, for the meat of this book is genuine historical anthropology, conducted with the scrupulous flair of a Douglas or an Evans-Pritchard. Its richness lends weight to its claim to offer "a new sort of institutional history...that could be summed up in the phrase 'a social church'...that treats as inseparable the influence of actions and phenomena usually studied disjointedly, a religious, social, political, economic and institutional history" (4). The aspiration, including recognition of the need to relate "lived religion" to institutional development, is perhaps not quite as new as Forrest suggests. Few medievalists in recent decades have failed to lament the traditional division between the secular and the religious in historiography--but fewer still have succeeded in making a serious dent in it. Forrest sets about it in a more systematic manner than has often been attempted, taking full advantage of the post-1200 record culture to throw a vivid and searching light precisely on that crucial but still obscure question about all European societies of this period--and not only European societies: how the social fabric was rewoven, and what was the role in that process of the formation, structuring and dynamics of local hierarchies. Where such elites already existed in 1200, how far they were created or re-formed later, how they interacted with those within and beyond their communities, and especially with the holders of power, in whatever guise, are questions at the centre of a growing range of current concerns throughout and well beyond the European middle ages. Anyone who is thinking about them will profit immensely, and enjoyably, from the wealth of Forrest's material and the exemplary skill and persistence with which he interrogates it.