Marking the Hours

June 28, 2007

Marking the Hours:English People and their Prayers, 1240-1570
Eamon Duffy (Yale University Press, 2006)
215 pp. First reading.

About fifteen years ago Eamon Duffy published a treasure-trove of a book called The Stripping of the Altars, a gripping study of the English Reformation on the basis of parish records rather than those of the state. It was recognized immediately as a work of great importance for our understanding of the period, for the picture that emerged was notably different from that written by the Protestant historians of the 18th and 19th centuries. The standard history went something like this: the Catholic Church was corrupt and its vigour spent; it oppressed the people under a weight of obligations and religious ignorance; the aims of the reformers were embraced and encouraged by the common man, who was only too glad to be rid of the papistical hocus-pocus of a foreign potentate. The history told by Duffy failed to support any plank of this platform: the religious life of the common people was healthy and educated, the parish played a central role in their lives, and, most significantly, they tenaciously resisted the program of reform for years, and in some cases for generations. It is a remarkable book, full of fascinating windows into late medieval devotional life and practice, sobering in its portrait of resistance to reform, and convincing in its steady scouring of the “official” history of the English Reformation.

In Marking the Hours, he returns to many of the same themes of the previous book, but from a particular angle and on a smaller scale. He lets us see the religious life of late medieval England through the particular, and enchanting, lens of the Book of Hours. The Book of Hours was an aid to Catholic devotions, containing a number of prayers, psalms, and offices for private use. Though manuscript Books of Hours, like all books, were expensive items and therefore the preserve of the rich only, the advent of printing in the generations prior to the Reformation saw a proliferation of Books of Hours at lower and lower cost, as the devotional practices they encouraged were taken up by more and more people. They are small books, easily held in the hands and carried about, and were frequently very beautifully illustrated with appropriate devotional images. Though they were used in private devotions in the home, there is also evidence that parishioners would meet at church to pray certain offices from the Book of Hours together, much as modern Catholics gather for communal praying of the rosary.

But Duffy’s interest in this book is not so much in the typical content of a Book of Hours. He wants to study not how publishers expected people to use them, but how they were actually used. He therefore devotes special attention to the marginal notes and additions to be found in surviving Books of Hours. Into the calendar of Church feasts we find records of family births and deaths (evidence that the Book of Hours played a role somewhat similar to later family Bibles), stitched into the books we find prayers pertaining to local pilgrimages, or prayers related to indulgences sought by the book’s owner.

Customizations were not limited to additions, however, and when Duffy turns to examine the effects of the Reformation on the kinds of devotions encouraged by Books of Hours, the story takes on sad overtones. New laws required that the name of Thomas Becket and of all Popes be deleted from prayer books, and most (though not all) Books of Hours show them dutifully crossed out, often with minimal effect on readability. In some cases the names were restored under Mary, only to be deleted again under Elizabeth. Indulgenced prayers were forbidden, and they too are defaced (though frequently only the preamble promising the indulgence, and not the prayer itself, is deleted). It gives us a remarkably tangible picture of how official policies affected the private devotional lives of English people.

It is a poignant picture, of course, laden with much sadness for those who, like myself, consider the English Reformation to have been a mistake launched by a bit of indefensible impetuosity. The tensions of the time are on display in a few very special surviving Books of Hours. One belonged to a member of the court of Henry VIII, and Queen Katherine of Aragon herself has written, on a blank leaf, a request that the owner, her “most assured friend”, remember to pray for her; as it happened, this “most assured friend” rubbed out Katherine’s signature after Henry divorced her. Another volume contains a brief poem hand-written by a young Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife. But the poignancy reaches a crescendo in the Book of Hours which St. Thomas More had with him during his imprisonment in the Tower. I was astonished to learn that this book has survived. In it, he has written in the head and foot of a long series of pages a beautiful prayer for strength and courage in the face of death, beginning

Gyve me thy grace good lord
To sett the world at nought
To sett my mynd faste vppon the
and not to hange vppon the blaste of mennys mowthis

It would be worth acquiring Marking the Hours just to look at the photographs of this one Book of Hours.

Did I mention the photographs? Did I mention that Marking the Hours, dedicated to the beautiful Books of Hours, is, fittingly, itself a thing of beauty? Even if one were to ignore the text, one could pass pleasant hours simply leafing through the over 100 high-quality plates. Not that one would wish to ignore the text, of course. This is an absorbing, beautifully presented historical study.

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One Response to “Marking the Hours”


  1. [...] College, Oxford, author of the important history The Stripping of the Altars and, more recently, of Marking the Hours, is the host. The segments, which are each about 15 minutes in duration, discuss the lives and [...]


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