The National Catholic Review

Few things are more annoying to a bibliophile or even to an ordinary reader than to check a book out of the library and discover that a previous borrower has scribbled personal notations in the margins of the text. Believe it or not, these marginalia are the essential ingredients in Eamon Duffy’s latest book on the English Reformation, Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers.

“Hours” refers to a type of popular devotional book, known as a book of hours, used by the laity in late medieval Europe that contained prayers, psalms, Gospel passages and the like and, in many cases, decorative illustrations. These books of hours have been studied and analyzed extensively by church historians, liturgists, theologians and especially art historians, but Duffy approaches them from a fresh and even unique perspective. First he provides an informative description of the origins and varied contents of these prayer books, which began to appear in the 13th century as a spinoff of the monastic office and the breviary of the secular clergy. They were sometimes the most valuable possession of the lay man or woman who owned them.

Duffy’s primary interest, however, is not the Latin text or even the sumptuous illustrations but the markings, the marginal glosses that were made by the owners of the books or by scribes employed by the owners. This book is an attempt, says Duffy with his customary wit, “to trace a history written quite literally in the margins.” These annotations provide a rare insight into the personal religious convictions of those who used the books daily to sustain their spiritual life. The fact that many of these laypeople were women adds an extra dimension of interest and originality to Duffy’s research. The book of hours was popular with such dissimilar characters as the unscrupulous King Richard III, hard-faced London grocers, pious country gentry, devout widows, St. Thomas More and even Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless royal minster who engineered More’s downfall and execution.

For the most part the marginal annotations were personal prayers, and their content was as varied as the background of their owners. They included prayers to be used at the elevation of the host at Mass, expressions of contrition when sacramental confession was not available, petitions for relief from a toothache and for a woman to conceive a child and to prevent one’s house from burning down, and especially deliverance from mors improvisa, “a sudden and unprovided death.”

Sometimes the prayers crossed the line from intercessory prayer to magic, promising guaranteed results when performed properly, such as 100 Aves recited every day for 10 days. Few of the prayers were original compositions. Laypeople collected prayers as we do recipes today and showed “a magpie tendency” to keep the best ones. “They articulated their hopes and fears, however deeply felt, in the borrowed words of others,” says Duffy, “which they made their own in the act of recitation.” The prayer of laypeople in the late Middle Ages was essentially “ventriloquial,” to use Duffy’s evocative word.

John Talbot, the first earl of Shrewsbury and a professional soldier, filled his 15th-century book of hours with prayers for preservation from harm on the battlefield and the defeat of his enemies. He included the famous Charlemagne Prayer, which was still being carried into battle by both French and German soldiers in the First World War. In the 16th century, while awaiting death in the Tower of London, Thomas More made extensive annotations in the psalter that was included in his book of hours, making frequent comparisons between his own fate and that of the psalmist. On one of the blank pages in the psalter More composed an original prayer that Duffy calls “one of the high points of late medieval piety,” but he also points out that “it contains nothing that any devout early Tudor Christian, reflecting in their closet on their own mortality, might not have uttered.”

Duffy disputes the contention of some historians that the popularity of the book of hours in the late Middle Ages reflects a growing dichotomy between a communal spirituality centered around the liturgy and a personal spirituality based on the private recitation of the book of hours. “Interiority is by no means to be equated with individualism,” he reminds us and emphasizes that the late medieval church measured the success of its catechesis by the degree to which it enabled people to interiorize their religion. The book of hours was often recited communally in parish churches, and one of the most popular prayers was the one that was to be used at the elevation of the host at the consecration during the Mass. Even at home it was not unusual to use the book of hours for family prayer, as is evident from the famous Holbein drawing of the family of Thomas More gathered together for their morning prayers. Everyone is holding a book, and it is the same book, the book of hours.

Marking the Hours is Professor Duffy’s fourth book on the English Reformation and further enhances his reputation as one of the leading historians of Tudor England. Professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University and fellow of Magdalene College, Duffy revolutionized English Reformation studies almost 20 years ago with The Stripping of the Altars. In that magisterial work Duffy not only successfully challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that the English Reformation was a genuine grass-roots movement but also documented the rich spiritual heritage of late medieval English Catholicism. Marking the Hours is a valuable addition to our knowledge of that heritage, and it is served up with Duffy’s characteristic panache.

It should be mentioned that Duffy’s pursuit of marginalia has not led him to neglect the illustrations for which many editions of the Book of Hours are justly famous. No less than 114 of these magnificent illustrations have been beautifully reproduced in full color on coated paper and are a stunning visual delight.

Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a professor of church history at Fordham University in New York.