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The Complexity of the Medieval World

Review: Eamon Duffy, Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018).

Review by Hannah Matis

Because I’m the current resident historian at Virginia Theological Seminary, my life became rather busy last fall. Reformation Sunday 2017 was for many an occasion to pause and reflect on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation or, at least, of Martin Luther’s legendary nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door. Along with 1066, it remains to this day one of the few dates that people seem to remember as epochal and transformative, although they are not always sure why.

Eamon Duffy’s Royal Books and Holy Bones is, I sense, another collection of essays released to mark the anniversary of the Reformation, although it is not precisely billed as such in terms of either content or date of publication. All the essays represent previously aired material, about half of which formed a series of columns in the London Review of Books, and the other half are lectures and articles published elsewhere. As such they are deliberately accessible pieces for a general audience, covering a wide range of topics from late antiquity to the Reformation but centering firmly on the late Middle Ages and the Reformation.

Like Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin, 2017), both books are delightful guided forays into a complex field in which a lamb can paddle and an elephant can swim. The full complexity of the medieval world appears in both books: the sacrality and sacramentality of the material world, questions about vernacular piety and literacy, saints’ cults, medieval liturgical books and devotional practices, books as elite luxury objects and the veneration of Scripture even when it was not fully comprehended by the listener, the ambiguous place of kings and queens as not-quite-laypeople, cross-Channel, cross-European, and even cross-Mediterranean trade, communication, and crusade.

One of the most significant trends within medieval studies in the academy has been a shift of interest in recent years toward the late Middle Ages, as scholars have labored to publish editions of little-known texts in a wide range of vernacular languages. There is much, much more to the late Middle Ages than the Black Death and the Battle of Agincourt. In particular, there is more to late medieval religion and devotion. Beyond the scholastic theology of the universities but not separated from them, there is a complicated landscape of emerging cities, merchants, and urban poor, of orders, preaching, and lay movements, of heresy and the Inquisition, of vernacular Scripture, books of hours, and religious texts. Women are a voluble presence throughout these sources. It has long been Duffy’s most central argument that the late medieval religious world was not hollowed out by its decadence, but was a bustling hive of often local and regional activity. The Reformation, therefore, was not inevitable. And when it came, the Reformation hurt.

Alongside the thousands of men and women who died for their beliefs (and the many more who were caught in the maelstrom), one casualty of the Reformation was the old, loose, shabby patchwork quilt that was the medieval sacramental universe, Christendom, as it used to be called. Much of Duffy’s work has been a lament over this lost world, whose boundaries separate the medieval from the early modern. In the wake of the trauma of the Reformation, every denomination, Catholic and Protestant, was changed: it has also been one of Duffy’s long-standing contentions that Catholicism under Mary Tudor was a different creature already from the Catholicism of Catherine of Aragon and perhaps even of Thomas More. Anglicanism certainly attempted to preserve some cultural and religious continuities with the medieval world. It has sometimes been argued that, from the perspective of some parish churches, the Reformation in England barely changed anything at all. Like the fall of the Roman Empire, the effects you felt depended a great deal on where you were. A tsunami out at sea is just a slightly bigger wave.

In light of the torrent of academic works now filling out and shaping our understanding of the late medieval world, it seems fairer and more accurate to understand the late Middle Ages better: not as crudely barbaric, nor as simply prefatory, or an inevitable precursor, to what would follow. Many of the individual pieces — towns, merchants, vernacular Bibles, even the printing press — so often hailed as transformative actors in the traditional confessional narrative of the Reformation began before it. Many of the traditional medieval atrocities — such as the Spanish Inquisition or witch-hunting hysteria — began in the Middle Ages but had their worst excesses during the Reformation and after. Discourses and mechanisms of medieval Catholic repression were often badly organized or irregularly applied by a papacy always torn between its universal ambitions and its local political reality. In the hands of a Reformation monarch greedy to increase the power of the crown, those same mechanisms of repression could be much more effective, thorough, and violent.

Rather than the traditional confessional narrative that, in Protestant circles, treats the Reformation as the starting point, the fiat lux in which enlightenment emerged from barbarism, begin the story with the seedbed that was the late Middle Ages. It was no Eden, but it was, at least, Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem from which all of us in the West are, to some extent, exiles.



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