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  • Trustworthy Men: How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church by Ian Forrest
  • J. A. T. Smith
Ian Forrest, Trustworthy Men: How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2018) xiii, 502 pp.

Trustworthy Men is Ian Forrest’s second book, after The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England (2005), and, in many ways, it picks up where Forrest left off in his previous study. In The Detection of Heresy, Forrest argues that viri fidedigni, trustworthy [lay]men, played a prominent role in the prosecution of heresy because they were the initial source of reports of theological errancy. In Trustworthy Men, Forrest once again examines the relationship of the viri fidedigni and the bishops with whom they worked, but this time he widens the scope and examines all aspects of the episcopal-fidedignus relationship, spiritual as well as material.

Forrest, self-consciously interdisciplinary in approach, insists on a synthetic narrative that joins social history, ecclesiastical history, economic history, and most importantly, the history of ideas. The idea at the center of Forrest’s book is trust and its determination by personal credibility in the absence of direct knowledge. The viri fidedigni, or trustworthy men, as prominent members of the community, were first to be called upon by English bishops to report on and provide testimony as synodal witnesses about a wide variety of local issues during visitations or inquests (i.e. inquisitions), from transfer of willed property to the maintenance of the church and the quality of the parish priest. These men, therefore, were instrumental to the day-to-day governance of the Church at a time when episcopal governments were itinerant and needed to depend on local knowledge to exercise judgment in matters of faith and conduct. Trustworthy men allowed bishops to negotiate geographic distance as well as local culture.

Forrest terms this dynamic the “social church” with an emphasis on the complex nature of interaction, which, though fundamentally hierarchical in nature, was not a one-way or top-down system. Trustworthy men benefited as [End Page 216] much from the bishops’ dependency on the information that they supplied as did the bishops themselves. Therefore, while the picture provided reaffirms a view of medieval society in which most social capital is held exclusively by men and the well-to-do, it is also one that depicts power as geographically distributed among parishes and arising out of a collaboration between a multitude of lay people and their episcopal leaders, and not as emanating from a few urban centers and a handful of very powerful bishops. Forrest highlights how this system reinforces the power of a social elite and separates the merely faithful from those who are both faithful and trustworthy, i.e. those who have enough social capital to raise an issue for formal consideration or whose collective testimony could establish sufficient truth about a situation.

The book is divided into four parts and fourteen chapters—three chapters in each of the first three parts and five chapters in the final. The three chapters of Part I, Late Medieval Cultures of Trust, address three different medieval cultures of trust: faith in God, trust in legal relationships, and trust in personal ones. In many respects, the first chapter is the most tenuously related to the rest of the book. While the people involved may be people of faith, the book is largely about the cultivation of trust as a necessary component to governance and not about religious faith as such. That is, a person’s greater faith did not necessarily confer greater trust unless that faith corresponded with other worldly measures of trust.

Part II, Identifying the Trustworthy Men addresses the important question, “How and when do institutions trust the people?” (92). It begins with a systematic survey of the rise of and application of the term fidedignus in the legal sphere followed by a description of how bishops interpreted the term. The section finishes with a series of case studies of those local elites in which Forrest establishes that, as one would expect, the fidedigni were usually older, from the same families one generation to the next, local office-holders, landholders, and wealthier...