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

Duffy largely eschews such speculation and instead concentrates on the nitty-gritty. The Book of Hours was in many cases its owner’s most expensive and most intimate possession, carried about tucked in a sleeve or belt. Although a deeply personal artifact, the book, soon grubby and well thumbed, was also shared—known as “the primer” in England, it was the primary volume children used in learning to read. Both the way the books were handled and the scribbles that filled them signified the permeability of the secular and religious life, especially among women (a point Mary Erler stresses in her Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England), and also the intermingling of the quotidian and the eternal, the individual and the communal, even the Christian and the pagan. One woman, in her marginalia, laments the destruction of a shrine and details the contents of her linen closet. The books are crammed with pressed flowers, recipes, notes on debts and rents due, charms and incantations, souvenirs of pilgrimages, affectionate messages from family members (the young Catherine Parr, the future queen, playfully jotted to her uncle, “Wen you do on thys loke / Pray you remember wo wrote thys in your boke”; it’s the equivalent of every bad yearbook rhyme), dates of marriages and deaths (“my moder departed to God”), and often very precise information about the times of births, to aid the casting of horoscopes. Moreover, these prayer books, a means to converse with God, testify to the vicissitudes of temporal power. Richard III’s book was taken at Bosworth Field; the victor, Henry VII, gave it to his mother, who scratched off Richard’s name and wrote her own on the flyleaf. A onetime devoted court friend of Catherine of Aragon blotted out the queen’s autograph after Henry VIII repudiated her.

Duffy is loath to draw overelaborate conclusions based on what he calls these “traces of lives.” Even if at times, confronted with the apparently modern sentiments these notes express, he feels as though the centuries between himself and the books’ owners had been “swallowed up,” he adheres to the approach advocated by the French medievalist Philippe Braunstein (whom he never mentions):

Anything that brings us closer to the intimate feelings of people who lived centuries ago tempts us to abolish the distance that stands between us and a lost world. The trap of modernity is to assume that nothing is ever new, that men expressing themselves in private speak the same language across the centuries.

Occasionally the books offer far more than a trace of that elusive quarry Duffy calls “the innermost thoughts and most sacred privacies of late medieval people.” While imprisoned in the Tower, awaiting his trial and eventual execution, Thomas More pored over and annotated his Book of Hours. Its remarkable survival (it was in private hands until 1929) allows us, as Duffy writes with forgivable hyperbole, to watch More “in the very act of praying.” Duffy’s scrupulous exegesis of More’s poignant notes about the verses in the psalms that captured his attention and of the prayer More wrote in the margins (“Gyve me thy grace good lord / To sett the world at nought …”) clearly shows a devout and isolated man using his Book of Hours in his struggle “to come to terms with a frightening fate.”

The Senses in Late Medieval England, by C. M. Woolgar (Yale), is another book that summons a lost world. Perceiving reality in ways profoundly different from the modern experience, the men and women of the late Middle Ages attached moral qualities to colors, sounds, tastes—even rocks—and they saw a bright red and a bright blue as more similar than a pale red and a bright red. In a triumph of historical empathy and imagination, Woolgar mines an array of English sources—household accounts; literary, artistic, and architectural works; archaeological evidence—and deploys the insights of anthropology and linguistics to illuminate aspects of daily medieval life and assess the religious, philosophical, material, and psychological forces that shaped the ways medieval people experienced their physical world. Yale University Press, the preeminent house for English medieval history, publishes both this and Duffy’s book, and both exemplify Yale’s remarkably intelligent and well-designed use of carefully reproduced, incisively annotated illustrations.

Woolgar could have lapsed into the flighty and speculative, but he uses the same sober, almost materialist method, anchored in what he calls “a history of the day-to-day,” that served him well in The Great Household in Late Medieval England—a book in which he married an exquisitely detailed description of the daily life of the gentry and nobility to an analysis of the social and material forces that influenced it over time. With a precision born of his curatorial training, a dexterous imagination, a sensitive weighing of often-confusing and generally sparse evidence, and a conscientious effort to abjure the condescension of posterity, Woolgar allows the reader to enter an intensely alien mentality.

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

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