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.)
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.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.