Spirituality on the margins of the page

Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 1240-1570, Yale University Press

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"Hours" refers to a type of popular devotional book, known as a book of hours, used by the laity in late medieval Europe. It contained prayers, psalms, Gospel passages and the like and, in many cases, decorative illustrations. 

These books of hours have been studied and analysed extensively by church historians, liturgists, theologians and especially art historians. 

Duffy's primary interest 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. 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.

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. 

FULL BOOK REVIEW: Marginal Spirituality (America)


Liturgy of the Hours (Wikipedia)

Eamon Duffy (Cambridge University Profile)

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