Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Review of Eamon Duffy's book on the Hours

Marking the Hours: English people and their prayers, 1240-1570
Eamon Duffy (from The Tablet)

Reviewed by Christopher Howse

Yale University Press, £19.99

In 1500, Elizabeth Sekett, a domestic servant, lost her book of hours. A pauper woman, Avis Godfrey, was accused of stealing it, but told the court she'd picked the book up in Pudding Lane. To us, probably, the surprising thing is that a servant should possess a book of hours, which we picture as a gloriously illuminated, fabulously expensive manuscript codex. Yet, with printing, the price of a modest book of hours had come down to 3d or 4d.

Up to 1530 we know of 760 separate editions of books of hours, 114 from England alone. But, even before printing, "production line" stationers' scribes produced books of hours - with miniatures turned out like paintings on eighteenth-century china - that suited the pocket of townspeople like the funny old mystic Margery Kempe of Lynn, Norfolk (who died in 1438).

Nineteenth-century collectors valued these books more for their appearance than their contents, sometimes carelessly mistaking them for missals. So, what did the books of hours contain? Everyone, aristocrat, burgess or pleb, used the same book, with variations. It gave the eight monastic hours (matins, lauds, prime, and so on) simplified, in honour of the Virgin Mary, plus vespers, matins and lauds for the dead (the Dirige), the seven penitential Psalms, the litany of the saints, the 15 gradual Psalms (119-133), and a collection of short prayers to the saints, with devotions added according to the taste of the client, if it was a commissioned manuscript, or to the judgement of the bookseller-publisher.

By examining what was written by their owners in margins, flyleaves and blank spaces, Eamon Duffy brings alive the prayer-life of the English men and women who used these books of hours, or primers as they were sometimes known. Some of the additions look to us like vandalism, but were intended as useful customisation to suit the owner's spiritual life, with reputedly reliable prayers copied in like recipes.

Annotations might reflect family attachments, as with the simple moving note on a liturgical calendar page, opposite 27 November: "My mother departyd to god". Or they might act as ties between relations, as with the note written (in a style resembling that in a modern autograph book) to her uncle by Catherine Parr, the future queen, under a page decorated with an image of her patron St Catherine of Alexandria: "Oncle wen you do on thys loke/Pray you remember wo wrote thys in your boke."

Professor Duffy finds in some of the prayers in English added to the Latin body of these books "a characteristic late-medieval combination of penitential abasement and confidence in salvation". Indeed, one cannot help coming away with the impression that late-medieval believers were no less mature in the conduct of their spiritual lives than the art with which their books were adorned was admirable.

The spiritual outlook of these books has in recent times been sometimes comically misrepresented. In a chapter called "Sanctified whingeing?", Duffy examines the ideas of Jonathan Hughes, the author of The Religious Life of Richard III (1997), developed from a suggestion by the historian John Bossy that books of hours give off a "dense smog of self-centredness, malice and sanctified whingeing". From the denunciatory language of many of the Psalms contained in these books Dr Hughes judged that "it is likely that merchants in using such prayers had in mind their competitors, creditors and craftsmen".

Since these Psalms are still used in Christian worship, it is easy to appreciate Duffy's amusement at the reductionist notion that they were used by grocers as formulae of commination against rival tradesmen. Duffy is more inclined to think that "the deliverance prayed for, and the enemies prayed against, are likely to be conceived of as spiritual, and the rescue hoped for otherworldly".

Far from being an "egocentric and abrasive expression of social hostility", as the last generation of historians interpreted them, these Psalms of complaint (which figured most prominently in the communally recited

Office for the dead) served to cement communitarian values. Duffy gives the example of John and Joan Greenway who commissioned a sculptured memorial for themselves in Tiverton Church, with their own images shown kneeling with their books of hours. |This memorial was not placed in their own private chantry, but publicly above the south door, where marriages and the first part of baptismal ceremonies were performed in a fully social way.

Historians seem intent on pinpointing the growth of "the self" or "individualism" - at the Renaissance, or with printing, or Protestantism. This seems to me a futile quest, since it is hard to think of a book more focused on the individualised self than the Confessions of St Augustine (who died in 430), which never became unfamiliar to Christians in the succeeding thousand years or more.

Duffy notes that Holbein's drawing for the family portrait of the household of Sir Thomas More in the late 1520s shows them, young and old, holding uniform copies of a printed book. More's daughter-in-law is helping his father find his place. The book is not some humanist edition of a classical work, but a book of hours. The family is about to recite prayers communally.

Duffy spends a chapter on More's own, modestly printed book of hours, which he took with him to the Tower, and in which he wrote a moving prayer in English. Certainly it was written by a man in isolation, but Duffy picks out the prayer's connection with similar compositions that emerged from the contemporary culture of devotion. "If we go to the prayers of the late-medieval laity", Duffy concludes, "we find not growing individualism, social anomie, and alienation, but the signs of individual participation in a varied but coherent public religious culture related to the public practice of religion."

Once again, the author of The Stripping of the Altars has given us a newly convincing picture of a misunderstood period of religious practice. The colour illustrations are beautiful, fascinating, properly explained and perfectly integrated into the exposition. It is a delightful book that will change perspectives.

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