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Response to Review no. 587

I would first like to thank Professor Arnold for his generous review. It’s nice to be appreciated for some of the things I set out to do. I’d like to use this response to answer some specific points that Professor Arnold raises in his review, to defend the picture of heresy detection that I present in my book, and then to make some observations about the problems of writing institutional history in this day and age.

One of the areas that Arnold fixes on as something I could have said a lot more about is, quite rightly, that of legal scholarship, manuscripts, and the transmission of ideas across Europe. There are two complementary potential avenues here for further research by historians interested in heresy and inquisition in England. The first is to trace in detail the legal education, knowledge, manuscripts, and contacts of the English episcopate and canon lawyers in the period. There is, as Arnold suspects, a great deal of untapped and little researched legal material available to the researcher in college, university, cathedral, and public libraries in the UK, including manuscripts of the decretals made or used in England, legal commentaries, lecture notes, formularies, and compilations of texts (see Stephen Kuttner’s Repertorium der Kanonistik, college and cathedral descriptive library catalogues, Barbara Bombi’s forthcoming work on English MSS of the Liber Extra, and Ken Pennington’s online biographical encyclopaedia of medieval canonists for a start. In addition, Christopher Cheney’s and Leonard Boyle’s work provides useful starting points for the pastoral miscellanea context). There’s also a lot of scope for further placing the detection of heresy in the wider context of the administration of canon law in England, its local peculiarities and chronological contingencies, although researchers embarking on this course might find themselves understandably sidetracked by the wealth of equally interesting subjects contained in the records of ecclesiastical courts, visitations, episcopal registers, archidiaconal correspondence, and so on (see Charles Donahue’s The Records of the Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts and David Smith’s Guide to the Bishops’ Registers for an introduction to this material). This is the direction I’m currently travelling in, and Shannon McSheffrey has made the same move with her new work on London church courts. The other potential avenue for further work on the legal context of inquisition in England is continental. Prospective researchers might focus particularly on the experiences and contacts of the English delegation to the Council of Constance: a truly neglected subject.

Now for the defence. I think Professor Arnold attacks my book from the wrong angle. He could have told me off for not going on into the later-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries when changing circumstances forced adaptations in anti-heretical procedures and discourses, but instead he criticizes me for presenting an unrealistic and idealized version of the medieval church, which I don’t think I do (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?). In the first half of his review, Arnold praises me for saying that, ‘local application was always subject to the particular politics of the moment’, that, ‘legislation was localized and adapted to circumstance’, that, ‘the process was not simply top-down’, and that I don’t overemphasize ‘the practical applicability of power’. He then has a rethink and accuses me of ‘making the prosecutional [sic] machinery appear more coherent and logical than it in fact was’, and assures me that the discourse of anti-heresy was ‘less transparent and coherent’ than I assume. I’ll say more on this in a moment. The specific thing that I really don’t think I do is to present heresy detection as, ‘clever chaps … working out how best to do things and then communicating that to equally talented lay people’. In fact I spend a great deal of time discussing the ways in which legislators and administrators tried to create systems (and they’re always acknowledged—by inquisitors—as imperfect systems, because only God was perfect) that dealt with the ignorance, waywardness, and gullibility of lay people. Some of my best stories are about cases in which lay people divert the purposes of inquisition, and one of the main arguments of the book is that lay participation, while being valued (if never gratefully acknowledged) by Arundel, Chichele, et al, was only good enough to get suspects into court, not to convict; and the legal mechanisms played as much on emotions, feelings, and ignorance as on know-it-all lay busybodies.

The interesting point here, I feel, is that even though I went to great pains to write a work of institutional history that was primarily a social history, and a realistic representation of how things really worked (second-best, thwarted proposals, responses, revisions, mistakes, etc.) and didn’t work (non co-operation, ignorance, other priorities), the reviewer—and he’s not alone—thinks I have created too perfect a picture. I’m glad that Professor Arnold raised this issue, as even though I think the criticism is overdone, I think I’ve still a lot to learn in this area, and it’s worth discussing. I’d be annoyed with myself if I thought I’d written an institutional history of the old kind, such as A. L. Brown’s Governance of Late Medieval England 1272–1461, which explains very clearly how this and that office of state worked in theory, and which my late supervisor, Rees Davies, remarked would ‘probably be the last of its kind’—although he was wrong about this. I might just be flattering myself, but I think that the difficulty is partly in writing institutional history at all. Institutions are distrusted these days; they attract conspiracy theories and are the focus for rebellious inclinations in all of us. Also, the fashion in religious history today is for the individual, piety, belief—heresy even. The Church is out of fashion; anything that savours of persecution even more so. So writing about an institution is hard to do without making it look, to some extent, a little bit institutional, a little bit idealized. Heresy detection and canon law were systems, institutions. The fact that systems never quite work as intended does not obliterate the fact that people put a lot of effort into trying to make them systematic, into trying to enforce rules and norms, and into learning what the systems were. Canon law can’t be understood as if it were an inflexible code, of course, and I say as much at every opportunity, but then neither can it be understood if one takes away the institutional and systematic side to it. I still think that the best way to write this book was to try to explain how the system was supposed to work, how and why certain procedures were put in place, as well as how and why these procedures did and didn’t work as intended, paying heed to conflict, contingency, and peculiarity. But then I still think Maitland is interesting; we are very old-fashioned in Oxford after all, as the reviewer now and again reminds me.