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Response to Review of Trustworthy Men: How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church

I would like to thank Michael Burger for his insightful and thoughtful review. He represents the central arguments of my book well, and highlights some important areas for debate, for which I am grateful. 

The key thing that his review identifies is my approach to understanding the logic within the system of episcopal inquests, visitations and ‘trustworthy men’. This involves thinking about why repeated forms of action – such as inquests into the costs of repairs to churches – operated as they did, and what this tells us about how they worked and their likely effects on other areas of life. Thinking through the logical social and political implications of administrative actions allowed me to integrate ecclesiastical history with developments in social, economic and cultural life, as Burger generously describes. This approach is generally one that allows historians to say more than the evidence, at face value, chooses to reveal. It is here that the opportunities for disagreement, debate, and future research emerge, and Burger’s review points to several areas where further thought ought to be productive. I will follow up four points that he raises, relating to the meanings of fides, the relationship of institutions to inequality, the selection of the trustworthy men, and materiality. 

Burger raises a question as to whether the medieval meaning of fides was affected by the identity and behaviour of the trustworthy men, and the system within which they operated. This is a reasonable query, since there was a wide spectrum of meanings associated with fides and related terms. Aspects of the politics involved in inquests and visitations were indeed a long way from feelings affecting belief in the lives of those who wrote or read devotional literature. However, there was a continuum along this spectrum, with many feedback loops of meaning, some explicit, some implicit: those which seemed apparent to me are discussed in the book. It is hard to imagine meanings in one realm of experience not bleeding into others. Moreover, I think we should assume that the meaning of words is affected by the way they are used and their associations with particular actions and persons. Naturally there is huge scope for further debate and research into medieval meanings of fides

Michael Burger makes a very interesting point when he voices some scepticism about the evidence for church governance contributing to (as well as depending upon) inequalities within parishes, a key argument of my book. He is quite right to point to the scarcity of direct evidence for increased social status flowing from acting as a trustworthy man – though it is not entirely absent, and there is a lot of indirect evidence – and it is also hard to isolate the social effects of one factor among many intersecting inequalities. He also suggests that the geographical differences I describe provide evidence against my thinking on the causes of inequality, saying that where bishops could not latch onto pre-existing inequalities they found it harder to act and did not exacerbate inequality; he then transposes this reasoning to the regions where bishops found it easier to identify ‘trustworthy men’, saying – I think – that neither therefore did they contribute to inequality here. Again, this is all reasonable scepticism, but I do disagree. For me the important thing is the way in which multiple inequalities interlock and contribute to one another, for example wealth and status (or ‘social capital’). This means I don’t see there being a separate measure of ‘standing’, independent of this intersectionality, to which the status arising from institutionally-attributed trustworthiness can be said to have contributed. In my understanding, possessing status as a ‘trustworthy man’ is not just something that created the potential for actual inequality via economic gain, it was itself a tangible facet of hierarchy. In regions where economic inequalities were less pronounced, such as mountain and moorland landscapes, bishops found it harder to latch their institutional social capital onto some pre-existing hierarchy, making it trickier for them to operate inquests. It is true, as Burger says, that they therefore did less to exacerbate the formation of hierarchies here than they did in the lowlands, but that is because the symbiosis between economic and cultural/institutional hierarchies of value was less likely to take hold. It isn’t proof that institutional office-holding had no impact on hierarchies. There is a set of connected questions here, to do with the evidence for local hierarchies and its interpretation, which deserves further study. Church records usually only give us a snapshot of a moment in time, making it hard to isolate the ‘before and after’ status of trustworthy men within parishes, but in England manorial documents and common law files would permit longer-range and more detailed studies of the intersection between economic position and institutional status within those jurisdictions. I hope historians will take up this challenge. 

These issues are connected with that of how the trustworthy men were identified. As Burger accepts, there is no conclusive evidence of either my view (that self-selection predominated) or his (that clerics must have taken the lead). We have to fall back on the logic of the system, whose elements I take Burger to accept: bishops wanted ‘closure’ rather than truth, and to achieve this they needed informants who were locally incontrovertible, in the sense of being difficult to challenge. If we accept this, then even if clerics did play some part – and Burger is surely correct that they must have been involved – their preferences could not have departed much from the logic demanded by the system. Knowledge produced by men who didn’t otherwise fit the bill would not have stood the test of time. I suspect that there is actually much we would agree on here, but the questions are (largely) new ones, and so we may be talking past one another. 

Finally, I will make a brief comment on materiality. Burger doubts whether episcopal power was much considered when people looked at churches and thought about parish boundaries, using the contemporary example of his own university campus and its segregationist history: he reads in the university library without thinking about the history of segregation in Alabama. I can relate to this point (I am based at Oriel College, made infamous recently by the shadow of Cecil Rhodes), but I have a different perspective. I suspect there are students at Auburn who find it hard to forget the racial politics of the twentieth century when reading in its library, just as there are those at Oxford who can forget the role played by colonialism in our institution’s history, and those who cannot. For the latter group historic and continuing power relations are very much expressed through buildings, spaces and imagery. This is related to the point I was making in the book, but there I focussed on facets of the material world whose meaning was not just connected with certain individuals and power relations, but was dependent upon them (by consecration, dispute settlement etc.). While I take Burger’s point that episcopal power may not always have been consciously felt to be inherent in church buildings, for me it makes sense that people in the legally super-aware memory culture of the later Middle Ages would somehow feel power through objects and the physical spaces of religious life. As in the modern university, there were likely to have been different experiences of power and materiality in the medieval parish. Again, I recognise that there is room for disagreement and differences of emphasis in this field. I have my own scepticism about some aspects of the ‘material turn’ (for example that the word ‘agency’ can be applied to objects and people without major qualifications), and I suspect Michael Burger and I would agree on much about the medieval church, or if not then we would disagree productively.