Trustworthy Men

How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church

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Ian Forrest
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , July
     520 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is an act of faith to deem a person trustworthy. This fundamental concept takes center stage in Ian Forrest’s latest monograph, Trustworthy Men: How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church. In it, Forrest seeks to answer an important question about the medieval English church: How did bishops implement their vision of the church at the local level from the 13th to 16th centuries? Forrest suggests bishops placed their faith in local leaders of the community called “trustworthy men” (fidedigni). These trustworthy men were vital sources of local information and played crucial roles in the ecclesiastical courts. They were responsible for giving an account of the parish to officers of the courts, including the moral failings of their neighbors and the quality of the parochial clergy. Trustworthiness, embodied by trustworthy men, was the “glue that bound parish to diocese” (349).

Forrest has greater ambitions than just understanding the roles trustworthy men played. He seeks to create a new institutional history, which he calls “a social church” (4). The history envisioned by Forrest combines “religious, social, cultural, political, economic and institutional history” (4). Forrest redefines institutions to include their actions and habits of thought as well as their organizational structure (5). The church was simultaneously an assortment of institutions, an identity to which people belonged, and a web of dynamic relationships. In this framework, the parish and the diocese were engaged in a symbiotic relationship. Bishops received information and recognition of their authority from trustworthy men, while trustworthy men received a special status that gave them some real power over the parish.

Forrest argues that bishops relied on social inequalities as markers of trustworthy status. This generally meant being male, older, and the head of a household. Trustworthy men represented their communities, but they were not representative of those communities. Individuals and families, largely from the top echelons of peasant society, tended to monopolize positions as trustworthy men. Subsequently, being a trustworthy man exacerbated inequality since it provided them a special relationship with authority.

In truth, Forrest’s conclusion about the type of people who became trustworthy men is fairly obvious. It is only natural that local elites would also occupy positions as trustworthy men. The main value of Forrest’s work in this regard is to provide proof to support his conclusions. Through two brilliantly researched chapters, Forrest convincingly shows through case studies of several parishes that trustworthy status was largely limited to taxpaying householders, concentrating power in the top echelons of peasant society. He draws on tax records and land records in conjunction with ecclesiastical court records to sketch the relationship between wealth, social status, and trustworthy status. He demonstrates that in most parishes only a small minority served as trustworthy men in ecclesiastical inquests—these were also the same men who were leaders in local society. For example, only 4–6% of the total estimated population in the parish of Searby served as trustworthy men at ecclesiastical inquests in the mid-14th century. Only a small minority of men in a parish could realistically serve as trustworthy men.

Forrest suggests that trustworthy men were selected through “a combination of self-selection and the exercise of episcopal and lordly power” (188). Those in charge of self-selecting trustworthy men were, naturally, local leaders. They helped instill inequality in the process by ensuring that men who would support their interests were chosen, even if that meant choosing themselves. Forrest’s explanation of how trustworthy men were chosen does seem to be viable, but by no means is it conclusively proven. It is likely that parishes had their own unique customs to choose their trustworthy men. Inequality was likely inherent in these local customs, but without more evidence no definite statement can be made.

Forrest is careful to note that being considered a trustworthy man did not necessarily mean telling the truth. Local leaders and bishops were willing to engage in degrees of self-deception in order to maintain the system. “Bishops understood they were not seeking the most honest of virtuous collaborators” (127). Rather, they wanted local leaders whose word would be accepted, even if it was not entirely true. Forrest provides a few examples involving the validity of a local marriage in which trustworthy men gave information that they would have undoubtedly known to be false. The information was accepted by the bishop, seemingly without question. “Trustworthiness was … all about creating an impression of consensus and impartiality” (127).

A major weakness in Forrest’s argument is derived from his sources. Many of the primary sources that he uses to construct his idea of trustworthiness are administrative documents, which tend to use perfunctory rhetoric. Did church administrators really imbue fidedignis with the same importance and definition as Forrest? Or was it simply hollow rhetoric? It is a valid question that is unable be conclusively answered.

Despite this weakness, Forrest still presents a convincing argument for viewing trustworthy men as an integral part of the institutional church—and one ultimately ingrained in inequality. If trustworthy men were key in linking the parish to the diocese—and Forrest does seem to prove this point as well—then inequality played an important role in making the medieval church. Whether this lives up to the title—that inequality and faith “made the medieval church”—is debatable. Inequality and faith both played an important role in “making” the church, but were they the sole ingredients? Even if the title is overly ambitious, Forrest still has created an impressive study of the medieval church that provides a better understanding of how the medieval church operated.

Forrest’s idea of the social church also succeeds. Forrest not only shows that trustworthy men played a vital role in the medieval church, but he also demonstrates that viewing the medieval church as a social church provides new insights. It has allowed him to provide a comprehensive view of trustworthy men that places them in their proper position within the church. Additionally, the framework shows promising signs that it can shed insight on other subjects, such as the development of medieval states.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin S. Kirkland earned a PhD in history from the University of Iowa.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ian Forrest is Fellow and Tutor in History at Oriel College, University of Oxford. He is the author of The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England.


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