England at Prayer

In The Stripping of the Altars—the single most important book in English Reformation studies in the past 50 years—Eamon Duffy demonstrates the vitality of popular religion in England in the years leading up the Reformation. Duffy’s thesis, comprehensively researched and cogently argued, turned inside-out—or, more precisely, upside-down—the received opinion concerning the Reformation in England, namely, that it was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by local Christians and that it swept away the decadent and incomprehensible practices of late-medieval Catholicism. Duffy’s study indicates that, in England at least, that picture of the Reformation is deeply misleading. A movement he somewhat hyperbolically describes as raising iconoclasm to the level of a sacrament, the English Reformation was not at all a popular movement, but rather its success involved for local religious communities a "reluctant conformity imposed from above."

 
Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, $25, 201 pages
 
In The Stripping of the Altars—the single most important book in English Reformation studies in the past 50 years—Eamon Duffy demonstrates the vitality of popular religion in England in the years leading up the Reformation. Duffy’s thesis, comprehensively researched and cogently argued, turned inside-out—or, more precisely, upside-down—the received opinion concerning the Reformation in England, namely, that it was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by local Christians and that it swept away the decadent and incomprehensible practices of late-medieval Catholicism. Duffy’s study indicates that, in England at least, that picture of the Reformation is deeply misleading. A movement he somewhat hyperbolically describes as raising iconoclasm to the level of a sacrament, the English Reformation was not at all a popular movement, but rather its success involved for local religious communities a "reluctant conformity imposed from above."
 
In his vast and learned book, Duffy brings back to life the late-medieval Catholic world, a world of enormous lay initiative in the form of parish guilds devoted to saints and feast days. A deeply sacramental world, in which doctrines concerning Mary, the communion of saints, purgatory, and the Eucharist arose not as top-down dogmas imposed by an alien hierarchy but as part of the very fabric of religious practice. The cult of the dead helped to "conserve a sense of the shared past" and of the continuing communal life of the parish. The liturgy itself involved the entire community, both dead and living, even as its annual calendar integrated nature and the seasons into the life of prayer. As Duffy puts it, the liturgy fostered a "convergence between inner and outer, private and public, the timeless and the meditative on one hand, the seasonal and external on the other."
 
By 1580, the process of destruction, by which Duffy means the systematic enforcement of deliberate oblivion of the past, was so successful that contemporary believers could imagine the Catholic world of a century before only as "another place, another country." How might we gain access to that lost world? Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, with its detailed reconstruction of parish life in England from 1400 to the mid-1500s, provides an avenue of entry, but his latest book, the richly illustrated Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers, 1240–1570, enables the reader to participate actively in the piety of the late Middle Ages.
 
The term "marking" in Duffy’s title has a dual significance. First, as prayer books to be used on a regular basis, these books assist their readers in marking time as a series of sacred moments, structured in accord with liturgical seasons and devotional habits. Second, owners of books of hours marked them with illustrations of scenes from Scripture or lives of the saints, often in pictures that included the owner in the sacred setting; owners also left marks on these books in the form of marginalia. Such "vandalism," as Duffy calls it, is instructive as to the ways in which ordinary lay Catholics appropriated the hours, indeed the liturgy of the Church, in deeply personal ways.
 
Such books, which allowed individuals to pursue a life of piety outside the "official" activities of the Church’s liturgy, have been described as fostering a pious individualism, which can be construed either in positive terms, as anticipating Reformation rebellion against the oppression of Rome, or in pejorative terms, as isolating wealthy individuals from corporate, Christian responsibilities. But, as Duffy shows, the increased popularity of the books of hours, which reached the middle class, was not so much a sign of "growing individualism, social anomie, and alienation, but the [sign] of individual participation in a varied but coherent public religious culture, in which private intensities are nourished by and consciously related to the public practice of religion." {mospagebreak}
 
Duffy’s book contains a number of instructive reproductions of pictures from books of hours. In one such scene, depicting the Annunciation, the owner is a participant in the scriptural event; reciting the Hail Mary, the owner is being introduced to Mary by the angel Gabriel. Transcending simple recitation, the owner has "climbed inside the scene and has become part of the scene which her prayer evokes and commemorates." Moreover, Mary herself is often portrayed as reading a book of hours, allowing the person praying over the hours to identify his own prayer with that of the Virgin. Thus does the book foster an "involvement with the sacred drama" to which many late "devotional regimes aspired."
 
The contrast between lay devotion, supposedly subversive of the Church hierarchy, and official Church religion is an anachronism. The popularity of books of hours reflects lay attempts to pray "after the manner of churchmen." Duffy includes a wonderful analysis of Hans Holbein’s famous drawing of the family of Thomas More, a drawing often taken to be a portrait of a Renaissance humanist household with its secular books. Indeed, each individual is holding a book. But, as Duffy convincingly shows, having set aside a variety of other books, everyone is holding the same book: a book of hours. The family of the humanist and soon-to-be martyr is about to begin a "communal recitation of Our Lady’s Matins."
 
So important were these books to the religious devotions of lay individuals that More took his with him to the Tower of London as he awaited trial for his silent resistance to Henry’s reforms. Duffy devotes a chapter to an analysis of More’s marginal notes, one of which, on Psalm 83 ("How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts"), reveals a deeply personal response: "the prayer of one shut up in prison . . . longing to go to Church." But the thrust of More’s own prayers, including the lengthy one he composed in blank spaces over a number of pages in the book of hours, is less telescoped to his peculiar situation than it is a reflection on "the human condition in general" and on the "universally applicable disciplines of the spiritual life."
 
Because of its rich illustrations, its inclusion of numerous marginal prayers and devotions, and its careful attention to the mediation between personal and universal in the liturgical life of Catholics, Duffy’s book does more than provide further evidence for the already compelling case made concerning the vitality of English Catholic life just before the Reformation. It provides contemporary Catholics with models for the life of piety.
 


Thomas S. Hibbs’s new book on film noir, Arts of Darkness, will be published by Spence this fall.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU