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Eamon Duffy: Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers, 1240-1570


The Book of Hours – or the ‘primer’, or Horae – was the laypeople’s prayer-book, and undoubtedly the most popular book of the late Middle Ages. Popular, but valuable: they were prized objects that ran in the family, though sometimes bequeathed outside them in wills, or otherwise appropriated. (Henry VII’s mother Lady Margaret Beaufort took Richard III’s Book of Hours after the Battle of Bosworth, and simply scratched his name out from his personal prayer.) A high proportion of them were made for women, and for the very rich, they were status symbols, many of their lavish pictures with their heraldic and other symbols often specific to their owners. A satirical poem by  Eustache Deschamps went:
Get me an Hours of the Virgin,
Matched to my high degree,
The finest the craftsmen can manage
As graceful and gorgeous as me:
Paint it with gold and with azure
With gold clasps to fasten it down,
So the people will gasp when I use it
‘That’s the prettiest prayer-book in town.’
From the very rich they spread to the ‘merely’ rich, as the mass production of Books of Hours began well before the invention of the printing press. At the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, printed versions came to compete with the costly manuscripts. These printed versions were cheaper but more beautiful than their cheapest manuscript counterparts, and the Book of Hours turned from a luxury object into something that every proper Christian should own. Duffy tells that in 1500 a pauper woman was accused of stealing a Book of Hours from a domestic servant.

The Books of Hours were a part of everyday life: life was organised around prayer, but it went the other way round, too, as secular jottings made their way to the book’s blank spaces: births, deaths; debts, contracts, and other solemn oaths; even (puzzlingly enough) notes about bed-linen. But these books also signified the interiority of religious faith, and Duffy analyses to what extent these prayers signified a private or a social experience of religion. Other commentators have claimed that the Book of Hours bears the marks of individualist isolation and social hostility – what with the upheavals of Renaissance, pre-reformation Christianity and the Wars of the Roses. Duffy disagrees. He points out that the purpose of the Books of Hours was to share in the official Latin liturgy, not to replace it; though there were examples of private prayer, written specifically for the books’ owners,  the vast majority of the contents of Books of Hours was conventional and impersonal in form – however intense and personal the actual experience of prayer might have been.
If an effective prayer was needed for a specific situation, such a prayer was usually found, and/or adapted, rather than created from scratch. ‘Late medieval people collected prayers as we collect recipes, and for rather similar reasons,’ Duffy says, amusingly; and, ‘a “good prayer” was more like a well-tested cookery recipe than an eloquent poem which exactly or profoundly calculated one’s deepest feelings’. The prayers weren’t so much an expression of internal feeling, then, as a method of applying a general religious expression to a specific problem. They were supposed to work, after all. The most non-conventional, specific prayers usually addressed practical concerns (even tooth-ache!). They often contained superstitious material that was, according to Duffy, a distinctively English phenomenon.
The illustrations played as large a role as the text, and were supposed to encourage devout contemplation, often in a consciously self-referential way. A beautiful example is a picture from Mary of Burgundy’s Book of Hours, of Mary of Burgundy herself reading her Book of Hours and thinking about the vision that is shown in the window behind her, which almost reminds me of a thought bubble in a cartoon:

(Note the protective fabric, or ‘chemise’, for the precious book’s protection… and the rather disgruntled little lap-dog.)
The last section of Marking the Hours is devoted to the survival of Books of Hours in Protestant England. Duffy argues convincingly about the difference between theory and practice, and provides plenty of examples of how the old books were adapted to new purposes; most often this meant simple acts of deletion, sometimes of names, sometimes of illustrations (as in the picture below, where St Thomas Becket has been carefully deleted). But even after the introduction of the official Royal Primer in 1545, these old heirloom books continued to be in use, in more or less bowdlerised form. Eventually, of course, they faded away – but for a long time old habits stuck hard, even in demonstrably Protestant families.

I admit this book wasn’t quite what I expected. I ordered it on the basis of its title, and expected a more fully rounded history of the religious life of laypersons in the later Middle Ages. Marking the Hours is very much a history of the Book of Hours, and as such, it’s informative and interesting, with colour illustrations lavish enough to make one drool. Being so specific in its focus, the book does presuppose an interest in, and prior knowledge about, the topic at hand. The liturgical details might get a tad boring unless you’re really interested in them. On the other hand, the book is only less than 200 pages in total, with a large font, wide margins and lots of pictures. It isn’t quite long enough and it doesn’t dig quite deep enough to satisfy someone who wants a very thorough understanding of the subject.
All in all, I enjoyed Marking the Hours, and would recommend it – but only to readers who have more than a passing interest in mediaeval religion.
Yale University Press, 2011, paperback. 208 pp. ISBN: 0300170580
(The pictures are all badly photographed by me; they are all much more impressive in the book.)Filed under: Entries by Leena, Non-fiction: Art, Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction: literature

"Writing is learning to say nothing, more cleverly every day. "
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