The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 769-770
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Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia, c. 1470-1550. By Ken Farnhill. (Rochester, New York: York Medieval Press in association with The Boydell Press. 2001. Pp. ix, 237. $90.00.)
Guilds and their activities have figured prominently in the recent historiography of late medieval Catholicism in England—notably in furthering positive interpretations of the vitality of lay devotion on the eve of the Reformation and negative assessments of the impact of that cataclysm on popular religion. In this short study of guild activity in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century East Anglia, Ken Farnhill has provided a further regional study to complement those already available for Cambridgeshire, the West Country, Yorkshire, and London. His work is carefully placed within the growing historiography of the guilds, and adds to it a particular concern to examine guilds in their parochial setting, and to assess their contributions to the parish as a religious and social unit. To this end he explores the geographical distribution of the known guilds of Norfolk and Suffolk, their membership, officers, and activities, and the benefits to be derived from participation in them. Surveys of the evidence surviving for the rural areas of the two countries are supplemented by close studies of the roles of both guild members and parish churchwardens in the market towns of Wymondham and Swaffham and the rural parishes of Bardwell and Cockfield. The study concludes by tracing the impact of the Reformation up to the final suppression of the guilds by the Chantries Act of 1548.
Farnhill is a scrupulous and judicious scholar. He provides an excellent introduction to the historiography of the guilds and to the surviving sources for their study. He is particularly thorough in his assessment of the records available [End Page 769] for his chosen region, and he provides a good deal of detail regarding both the guilds and parish administration in his sample parishes. At the same time, however, the book is in some respects frustrating. Farnhill's emphasis tends to be upon the deficiencies and limitations of his sources. His analysis is stronger on bringing out the problems of the evidence than on constructive insight into its potential. He tests the interpretative ideas of other students of the guilds—notably Rosser—and brings out the variability of the relationship between guilds and the parish. He also suggests that there has been excessive emphasis on the devotional activities of guilds and too little on their variegated social and economic roles—notably in the strengthening of social networks, the provision of credit, property leasing, and charitable support. The distribution of Norfolk guilds appears to have been deeply influenced by commercial networks, and the decline of some guilds is attributable as much to changing economic and social circumstances as to religious hostility. To this extent "we ought to be reluctant to regard them purely, or even largely, as religious bodies" (p. 171). This is persuasive. Yet all too often there is a sense that Farnhill's rigorous source criticism reveals above all that the evidence is simply too thin, laconic, and ambiguous to answer the questions that he really wants to pursue. Perhaps the extension of his research to the guilds of the major urban centers of the region might have yielded richer material. As it stands, however, his book carries an important negative message: how little we really know about the functioning and meaning of these institutions. That is of no small significance when one considers how much interpretative weight has been placed upon them.