Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Royal Books and Holy Bones

In 1992, Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge, published The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, which effectively rebutted the long-standing English Protestant story that, on the eve of the Reformation, the Catholic Church in England was a corrupt and decayed institution, little equipped to sustain the spiritual energies of the country. In contrast to that, Duffy showed how vibrantly healthy the Church was on the eve of Henry VIII's power grab and how important a part religious processions and pilgrimages and other Catholic practices played in the lives of the people.

Published in 2018, Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity collects various previously published articles again challenging prevalent prejudices and shedding increased light on (principally) English medieval religious practices in the millennium prior to the Reformation. His focus is primarily on religious practices (e;g;, pilgrimages, popular devotions to obscure Saxon saints and one Lancastrian king) and artifacts (e.g., devotional books, relics of the saints), exploring what it was actually like to live a Catholic life in medieval Europe, particularly in England. The text is enriched with a collection of colored plates, which illustrate the rich artistry of medieval Catholicism.

Even as a child, I was always interested in learning about other religions and liked reading about them in the public library, but my interest was almost entirely in their rituals and other religious practices. I suppose that reflected my own personal feeling for the aesthetic and affective dimension of religious experience, the experience I was familiar with from the centrality of ritual and devotional practices in the Catholicism of my youth. We learned the Creed, of course, and were well catechized - quite well compared to subsequent generations - about what we believed, but it was the yearly round of religious rituals and devotions that were the living heart of post-war Catholic life. Something similar seems to have been at work in medieval England - even if some of the rituals and devotions reflect a material culture and spiritual sensibility markedly different from our own more modern world.

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