SHS Book Prize Runner Up: The Social History of Trust in the Middle Ages


Professor Ian Forrest, University of Oxford

We are delighted to share this blog about Ian Forrest’s Trustworthy Men: How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church (Princeton University Press, 2018), the runner-up of the 2020 SHS book prize.

No-one had really noticed the ‘trustworthy men’, but as I pondered this medieval administrative term I came to realise its momentous importance for the social and religious history of Europe.  Some of that significance reverberates to this day.

I’ll tell two little stories to show them at work.

The medieval clergy were entitled to stay in post until they died. As you can imagine this left some churches in the hands of frail old men. They were given assistants who took church services, heard confessions and managed the parish’s income. One such, called Elias, was charged with caring for the disabled rector of Duffield in Derbyshire in 1327. Upon taking control of the parish Elias was asked to make an inventory of its goods and property, under the close supervision of certain ‘trustworthy men’.

In the summer of 1340 Alice Kirkbride complained to the bishop of Carlisle that she had been physically attacked by her second husband, a nasty piece of work called Thomas Lengleys. He’d pulled the hair and skin from her head, killed the unborn child in her womb, and broken the back of a child by her first husband. The medieval church courts adjudicated on domestic violence as it could be grounds for the legal separation of husband and wife. But instead of investigating Alice’s complaint, the bishop of Carlisle treated it as defamation of her husband, and put her under investigation instead.  The bishop asked a group of ‘trustworthy men’ to examine the case.

The ‘opinion of trustworthy men’ is such a banal phrase in medieval records that I only began to notice its ubiquity and importance slowly. In my book – Trustworthy Men: How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church (Princeton University Press, 2018) – I unravel the meaning of thousands of cases like those of Elias the assistant priest and Alice the abused wife. Who were these trustworthy men? What did they do? What did trustworthiness mean to the authorities who used such language? How was the trust of a bishop connected to the trust between ordinary people?

What began as a relatively simple set of questions soon turned into a vast and at times complex investigation of how governing institutions developed in the middle ages.  At the heart of the story lie alliances formed between institutions and the male elites of villages and towns, a relationship that was mediated by a lot of talk about trust.  The Latin term for this was fides, which can also be translated as faith, belief and promise.  Between 1200 and 1500 local elites were transformed by these alliances, institutional power expanded beyond recognition, inequalities of wealth and gender were commodified and deepened, and the culture surrounding promising and believing was put under severe pressure.

Talk about trust, I soon realised, was never benign or cuddly. Instead, whether it was deployed cynically or uttered with sincerity, trust was always political, always based in recognition of economic differences, always gendered, and always as much to do with law as with religion.

To write about trust then, required me to bring together some fields of history and modes of analysis that have become – sadly – utterly foreign to one another.  I write about a ‘social church’, hoping to show economic historians that beliefs and values worth taking seriously, and to persuade historians of religion that social analysis (and even a little bit of quantification) are necessary tools for understanding believers as well as beliefs.

In writing the book I became convinced that institutional growth and the intensification of governance depend upon existing inequalities, which they then exacerbate, in all historical circumstances, not just in the middle ages.  As such, I see this work as part of a much broader academic examination and critique of government in all its forms.  It was exciting to draw on the findings of historians working on every era from ancient Greece to the present day (such as Teresa Morgan, Francesca Trivellato, Geoffrey Hosking), and to enter into scholarly conversations about trust with philosophers, sociologists, economists and political scientists.  Trust is far too important a subject to be left to the a-historical disciplines (without concrete evidence they adopt all sorts of naïve positions), and the medieval period so momentous in its history that it cannot be side-lined in favour of so-called modernity.


About the author: Ian Forrest is Professor of Social and Religious History in the University of Oxford, and a fellow of Oriel College.  He is the author of The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England (OUP, 2005). His next book, Celibate Patriarchy, will ask how effectively women actually were excluded from influence in the medieval church.

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