Praying by the Book
At his death in 1434, a "London wax-chandler" named Roger Elmsley bequeathed to "a favourite godchild 'a prymmer to serve God with,' " a prayer book small enough to be tucked into a capacious medieval sleeve or worn on the belt, the way people today wear cell phones. Such prayer books, some of them much more elaborate and unwieldy than the popular pocket versions, were keyed to the daily offices—hence the generic term "Book of Hours," by which they were known. In his new book, Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers, 1240-1570,, Eamon Duffy considers these aids to devotion from many different angles, opening windows on medieval piety and provoking reflection on our own devotional practices.
Duffy is best known for The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, a bold and massive revisionist account of the English Reformation, first published by Yale University Press in 1992 and issued in a revised edition in 2005. He is a practicing Catholic as well as an accomplished historian.
While writing The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy began to study Books of Hours, so that his new book might be regarded as a pendant to that groundbreaking work. These prayer books were at first exclusively in Latin, then gradually incorporated bits of the vernacular. They were centered on the Psalms but also included prayers to the Virgin Mary, whose presence in medieval piety was enormous, and could contain many other aids to devotion, such as the revelations of St. Brigid—not the Irish saint, c. 450-c.525, but rather the 14th-century Swedish mystic and reformer.
Originally the prerogative of the wealthy, which would commission lavish illuminated volumes designed to their specifications, Books of Hours ...