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Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in medieval Christianity, by Eamon Duffy

14 September 2018

G. R. Evans on essays united by their focus on ‘a material religion’

THIS tremendous read is a collection of essays published (and lectures given) in the past two decades, some revised for inclusion here. The book is given unity by grouping them under thematic headings, but the profounder unity of these studies lies in Duffy’s remark that “Christianity is a material religion.”

A great strength of the author’s work has always lain in his ability to put theology in its place in the practical realities of Christian living, especially during the Middle Ages and the Reformation.

The first section, “Books”, begins with “early Christian Impressarios”, a round-up of early Christian authors and their preference for the codex over the roll. Then comes “Books Held by Kings”, exploring the reasons that monarchs collected books, including Henry VIII’s “issue-driven” instructions to John Leland to find him texts to support the case for his divorce.

Next comes Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, one of the most successful of the “friars’ books” in which preachers from the 13th century found handy stories to illustrate their sermons. Duffy next explores a range of questions about forgery and hoax in the famous puzzle of Beinecke MS. 408. Last in this section comes an essay on the ways in which the Psalms were adapted for pious lay use.

The section on Crises and Movements first considers the Black Death and its antecedent plagues in the light of the historian’s difficulty in knowing what — medically speaking — they were; then comes “the rise of sacred song”, a survey of the acceptability of music in Christian worship in its liturgical ramifications.

“Holy Terror” grapples with the problematic usage of the term “crusade” in the context of modern conflicts between Christianity and Islam. Last comes an essay on “histories of childhood”, discussing modern studies of the changing theory of the place of the child in the family down the centuries.

“Saints” begins with the 12th-century murder of William of Norwich and the resulting cult, with its taint of anti-Semitism. “Sacred bones and blood” and “saints and their relics” and the “cult” of the murdered Henry VI provide an extensive canvas for the description of the vast and complex medieval view of what the saints could do for the living.

PA © Brian Cahn via ZUMA WireThe St Anthony Chapel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, houses relics of the True Cross and more than 5000 relics of saints. Holy Cross Day, falling today, derives from veneration of the Cross at the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

An essay on late medieval pilgrimages follows, sketching the changing pattern of such journeys. The last essay in this section looks at prayer to the Virgin in the late Middle Ages.

These are themes presaging those of the last section, when this spiritual world-view became highly controversial under the criticism of Protestant Reformers. The first essay, on Wingfield College, looks at chantries, also to be attacked by the Reformers; the second discusses Crowland Abbey and the world of the monasteries, also soon to be doomed in Tudor England.

St Ambrose, St Augustine, St Jerome, and St Gregory the Great had become the “four Latin doctors”, and were certainly not discarded, especially Augustine, as Reformation and Counter-Reformation theologians exchanged quoted “authorities” on such questions as “faith and works”.

But Duffy notes a fashion for attacking them in 15th-century medieval England. “Alabastermen”, alabaster images of the head of John the Baptist, became a special focus of iconoclasm as the campaign against images gathered force. And last comes a study of Lucas Cranach, who made his name, ironically, as painter of the images of the German Reformation.

This is a book for the general reader, spiced throughout with Duffy’s profound scholarly understanding of the giant subjects with which each essay grapples. There are robust challenges to the conclusions of some other modern scholars.

The book is not cluttered with footnotes; it is selectively referenced chapter by chapter at the end. The excellent illustrations are in colour.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in medieval Christianity
Eamon Duffy
Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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