Marginal interest

Marking the Hours, by Eamon DuffyToday was devoted, as is traditional for the feast of St John in this realm of England, to post-Christmas sales shopping, in our case in Leeds.

It was a successful trip, and part of my haul included Eamon Duffy’s book Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 1240-1570″ (which neatly used up the book tokens I’d been given for Christmas). I greatly enjoyed Prof Duffy’s classic book on pre-Reformation English Christianity, The Stripping of the Altars (even if I think Duffy’s thesis in that book involves a degree of straw-manning in his depiction of the “common-accepted view” of late medieval Christianity), and this looks like being another treat.

It’s a gorgeous book, full of reproductions of beautiful medieval Books of Hours. However, Prof Duffy’s subject in this book is not a conventional study of Books of Hours. Rather, his focus is on the handwritten amendments made to these books by their medieval owners, and by later protestant censors (and just plain vandals – one Book of Hours that Duffy came across in his research had been signed in biro!). As Prof Duffy writes in his preface:

[T]he additions were very varied: portraits of the owners, or customised prayers into which their names had been inserted: extra prayers in Latin, French or English…: detailed information about times of birth for use in the casting of horoscopes: charms and cures and recipes: notes on financial transactions…

Here was an extraordinary archive, a series of unexpected windows into the hearts and souls of the men and women who long ago had used these books to pray.

Prof Duffy goes on to point out that the history of prayer “is as difficult to write as the history of sex, and for some of the same reasons”:

Both activities are intensely personal and in the nature of things not readily accessible to objective analysis. As a consequence, the history of prayer, like that of sex, is prone to elicit from historians a good deal of slack thought and overheated comment.

Hence Prof Duffy’s concentration on “a very concrete body of evidence”, the marginalia of Books of Hours, “beyond all question the most intimate and important book of the late Middle Ages”.

This did cause some confusion among the librarians who assisted Prof Duffy in his research, however. One librarian emailed Prof Duffy to say that:

…she felt sure some mistake had been made. The order I had placed for photographs … listed pages on which the pictures had unfortunately been scraped or blotted or cut out completely, and some had no pictures at all, only ugly scribblings. So she wondered if I had inadvertently written down the wrong folio numbers, and suggested that I might prefer pictures of some of the more handsome adjacent pages.

Another librarian’s reaction to being told of Books of Hours being defaced by Tudor protestants was to exclaim, “Well, I only hope they were they own, and not borrowed from a library!”

So I’m now looking forward to embarking with Prof Duffy on what he describes as:

…a journey through the odd but revealing things that people write in, on or outsider their books, hoping, in the process, to catch a glimpse of the inner lives of people who lived in an even more turbulent age than our own.

But I’ll try to resist the temptation to add bizarre and inconsequential notes in the margin for the purpose of confusing future historians…

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