Sunday, 12 March 2017

Marking the Hours, by Eamon Duffy

Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 2006 Yale University Press

The subject of prayer primers or 'Books of Hours' came up quite a bit in Duffy's classic work The Stripping of Altars. This book offers a more sustained look at the history and use of primers. These books, which were first published in the Middle Ages, were prayer manuals for the laity. They varied in their contents, but usually contained the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin and the Office of the Dead, together with various devotional prayers and prayers for specific needs. At times they caused concern to ecclesial authorities because of extravagant prayers that made promises of almost magical efficacy. Originally they were fabulously expensive and a luxury for the wealthy. In the late Middle Ages they became more affordable as mass-produced manuscripts. With the advent of printing, they became something that anyone could afford to own. This large book is heavily illustrated, showing us the rich artwork that decorated the pages of Books of Hours. He also comments on how they were used and what written comments, marks and scribbles on the pages revealed about their owners lives.

The most interesting part of the book for me came towards the end, when our author addresses the impact of the Reformation on the popularity of primers. At the time of Henry VIII, they were at the height of their popularity, with printed copies being imported from France. At first their use continued, with the majority of owners dutifully following the royal command to remove references to the Pope. Indulgences were also crossed out and prayers to Saint Thomas Beckett, who was particularly hated by the king and his government. Their were attempts by Protestants to create modified versions of the Book of Hours which removed objectionable elements. These would culminate in the Edwardine Royal Primer, which was based upon the Book of Common Prayer. During the reign of Mary, the brief Catholic revival resulted in renewed demand for Books of Hours. This was fulfilled by eager publishers, but oddly they followed the Henrican convention of leaving out mention of indulgences. Once Protestantism was permanently established as the national religion, the Catholic Recusants continued to make nostalgic use of the Book of Hours. However, the continental priests who ministered to them did not encourage this, bringing with them the new bi-lingual Tridentine Primer. The pre-Reformation primers were viewed with some suspicion by Roman authorities. Interestingly, Duffy says that the pre-Reformation hierarchy had exercised less control over Books of Hours and were more accepting of extravagant and sensational content than continental bishops.

This is a really fascinating look at the piety and prayer life of our English ancestors.

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