Books October 2007

Life in the Margins

Editor’s Choice: Finding the private lives of medieval men and women in the pages of their prayer books

The Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy has a genius for recovering worlds we have lost. In 1992 he published the revisionist The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400­–1580, a gigantic and subtle work of historical anthropology and a best seller in the U.K., in which he revealed the pull and vitality of pre-Reformation English Catholicism. His meticulous and beguiling reconstruction, along with his exploration of the psychological and spiritual devastation caused by the Tudors’ wrecking of the physical culture of the late-medieval Church, demonstrated that the Reformation was “a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past”—a past that over merely three generations became a foreign country, impossible for the English to regard as their own. The book stirred the English popular and scholarly mind from a historical and cultural complacency bred of Protestant and Whiggish triumphal­ism. In Marking the Hours, Duffy has pulled off the near-impossible: He lets us penetrate—perforce fleetingly and partially—the inner lives of women and men who lived when the world was over half a thousand years younger.

The Stripping of the Altars drew on a dizzying array of sources and concentrated on the externals of medieval Chris­tian­ity: sacraments, altars, processions, images. In this far more tightly focused book, Duffy examines a small, concrete body of evidence in order to illuminate the history of prayer—which, he acknowledges, “is as difficult to write as the history of sex, and for some of the same reasons”—and its relationship to the development of intimacy, interiority, and individuality. His source material is the Book of Hours—a devotional assemblage for the laity, first compiled in the 13th century. The book included psalms, prayers, biblical passages, the calendar of saints’ days, the Office of the Dead, and other set texts, almost exclusively in Latin. These were intended to be recited in a whisper, largely in private, at each of the eight monastic “hours” into which each day’s worship was divided. Books of Hours were originally owned exclusively by the rich and largely by women (the books were commonly passed down from mother to daughter, and remained strongly associated with women throughout their history). By the late Middle Ages they had become by far the most widely used texts; the small volumes, often cupped in the hands, are a ubiquitous prop in medieval and Renaissance paintings, in which they serve as an immediately recognizable symbol of prayer and the internal life.

The study of Books of Hours was confined mostly to art historians—the finest volumes, sumptuously illuminated and hand-scripted, contain some of the supreme paintings of the late Middle Ages. But in a feat of inspired scholarship, Duffy has turned to the very features of these books that have rankled those who study them as works of art: the jottings in the margins and on the flyleaves made by their owners, hitherto regarded as defacements at worst and proof of provenance at best. He’s examined the marginalia of a small number of the extant Books of Hours made for English use (some 800 handwritten volumes survive, along with a few thousand early printed editions), and has discovered “a series of unexpected windows into the hearts and souls of the men and women who long ago had used these books to pray.”

It’s surprising that previous scholars didn’t use the Book of Hours as Duffy has, because, although he doesn’t discuss this in Marking the Hours, for decades historians have asserted rather than probed its social, spiritual, and even psychological significance. Medievalists have recognized that the Book of Hours—“a script for the drama of personal religion,” as Duffy nicely puts it—was linked to the broader movement toward introspective devotion, especially among prosperous women, following the Fourth Lateran Council (1215); the move was exemplified in the council’s decision to alter confession from a ceremony of public penance to a private dialogue, followed by private self-correction. Engaging in speculation as squishy as it is fascinating, some scholars have seen those developments as engendering, in turn, a deeper and more complex internal life and new conceptions of privacy among the educated laity. (That at once stimulating and exasperating monument of French medievalism, A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World, tantalizingly asserts that the habit of intimate and meditative prayer that the Book of Hours encouraged “profoundly influenced the most secret aspects of private life,” but, alas, fails to tell us how.)

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic's literary editor and national editor.

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