Eamon Duffy: His genius at recovering worlds we have lost

Historians in the News

The Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy has a genius for recovering worlds we have lost. In 1992 he published the revisionist The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400 –1580, a gigantic and subtle work of historical anthropology and a best seller in the U.K., in which he revealed the pull and vitality of pre-Reformation English Catholicism. His meticulous and beguiling reconstruction, along with his exploration of the psychological and spiritual devastation caused by the Tudors’ wrecking of the physical culture of the late-medieval Church, demonstrated that the Reformation was “a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past”—a past that over merely three generations became a foreign country, impossible for the English to regard as their own. The book stirred the English popular and scholarly mind from a historical and cultural complacency bred of Protestant and Whiggish triumphal ism. In Marking the Hours, Duffy has pulled off the near-impossible: He lets us penetrate—perforce fleetingly and partially—the inner lives of women and men who lived when the world was over half a thousand years younger.

The Stripping of the Altars drew on a dizzying array of sources and concentrated on the externals of medieval Chris tian ity: sacraments, altars, processions, images. In this far more tightly focused book, Duffy examines a small, concrete body of evidence in order to illuminate the history of prayer—which, he acknowledges, “is as difficult to write as the history of sex, and for some of the same reasons”—and its relationship to the development of intimacy, interiority, and individuality. ...
Read entire article at Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic

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