Eamon Duffy is an Irish Catholic, who, for many years, has been Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge. His specialty is the religious history of England during the late Middle Ages and the Reformation. Both his nationality and his denominational affiliation—along with his astonishing erudition—are put to good effect in these two books. As an Irishman, who both studies the English and dwells among them, and as a Catholic, who has devoted himself to charting the vicissitudes in English religious thought and practice during the period when Catholicism and Protestantism were locked in struggle, Duffy displays both the critical detachment of an “outsider” and the sympathetic sensitivity of a committed “insider.”
In many respects these two books are very different. Marking the Hours is a study of what Duffy calls “the most intimate and important book of the late Middle Ages,” namely the Book of Hours or Primer. This was a prayer book for lay people, which could be used both in the privacy of one’s home and as a personal devotional manual during church services. The title of Duffy’s book is a delicate and clever pun, whose meaning he leaves to us to decipher. In ecclesiastical parlance, the “Hours” refer to the daily office, that is, to the cycle of services which “marked” the monastic day, and which Books of Hours were designed to help religiously observant lay people follow along with. But there is a curious feature of the way in which their owners used these Books: they copiously “marked” them up. Duffy gives close attention to these jottings: personal prayers and devotions, charms and spells, dedications, autographs of patrons, memorable family dates, graffiti and erasures indicating obedience or resistance to the policies of the reigning monarch, even recipes. Scholars have long known that the evolution in the form and content of the English primers from the early thirteenth century (when, of course, they were hand-written by clerics or stationers) through the late sixteenth century (by which time most were printed) closely reflects the changes in the nation’s “official” religion. What Duffy shows is that the inscriptions of their owners demonstrate a side of English religious life that has hitherto been almost invisible to us, namely the private piety of ordinary people. Duffy clearly feels great respect and affection for the owners of these primers. The concluding chapters of his book describe the effect of the Protestant Reformation on the design, manufacture, marketing and use of these most Catholic of books, and demonstrate how the great tradition of Catholic lay piety was gradually obliterated during the Tudor period.
Marking the Hours is meticulously researched, carefully documented, and lavishly illustrated with color plates. Yale offers the book at a very reasonable price, making it usable for graduate-level courses in the history of spirituality or liturgy. One might wish, however, that the copy-editor had been a bit more scrupulous: there is much needless duplication between the text and the captions of the plates; and two references in the same paragraph to “the shark pool of the Tudor court” (pp. 157f) is one too many.
On the face of it, Walking to Emmaus is a very different book: not a historical treatise, but a collection of sixteen sermons, which Duffy delivered between 1984 and 2005, mostly at non-denominational services in the chapels of various Oxbridge colleges. And this book is, as the author mirthfully acknowledges, “something of an anomaly” (1). As an Irish Catholic layman, he would seem quite out of place in an Anglican pulpit, and he uses his identity as an “outsider” to good effect in the sermons themselves. In the title sermon, for example, Duffy contrasts the patriotic Easter Sunday marches of Irish Republican freedom-fighters, in which he himself had participated as a boy, to the forlorn tramp of Jesus’ two discouraged disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus, when they heard the News. Yet Duffy is not just indulging in a bit of autobiographical grandstanding. Rather, he is using his experience as an “outsider” to illustrate one of his central theological points, namely, that the followers of Christ are called to be “outsiders” in this world, that we are at our worst when we forget our otherness, and that we have a saving message for a world glutted by creature comforts and torn apart by competing ideologies. The demise of “Christendom” presents wonderful opportunities for Christian witness.
These sermons sparkle with exegetical insights and are richly illustrated by historical anecdotes and references to great art and literature. Yet there is no pedantic display here. Duffy’s immense erudition is always in the service of his deep Christian faith, which blends the best of warm-hearted evangelical piety and noble-minded catholic humanism. And thus, as different as Walking to Emmaus and Marking the Hours are in their outward form and content, there is an underlying thematic unity between them. The one retrieves the vibrant devotional life of a bygone age; the other demonstrates that such a life can be still be lived with spiritual integrity and intellectual gravitas.