Royal Books and Holy Bones by Eamon Duffy, Bloomsbury, £25
There are historians – and then there is Eamon Duffy. This book resoundingly demonstrates, yet again, why the veteran Cambridge professor is quite unlike the rest. From 1992’s The Stripping of the Altars to 2001’s The Voices of Morebath, Duffy has revelled in punching irreparable holes through accepted wisdom, and this book is no exception.
Royal Books and Holy Bones spans a vast swathe of Western intellectual, religious and social development, from the castrate Origen of Alexandria’s prodigious compilation of the Hexapla in the early 200s to King Henry VIII and his heirs seizing the English Church for the Tudor Crown. Despite the dauntingly wide territory, Duffy sets a sure course through it all.
His usual hunting ground is the Reformation, but it is quickly apparent that he is encyclopaedic on the millennium preceding it. Refreshingly, he is not one for theoretical generalities, but revels in the people and worlds they created. So he gives us St Hugh of Lincoln, who, on finding an arm bone of St Mary Magdalene at Fécamp Abbey in Normandy, started chewing it, eventually managing to gnaw off two splinters for his own private collection.
The book encompasses a glorious range of subjects. Duffy discusses the still unknown microbiology at the heart of the cataclysmic 6th-century plague, “pestilence that raced faster than war horses”. He takes us to Rome in the late 1020s with the nervous Guido of Arezzo, who has an audience with Pope John XIX to present his revolutionary four-line notation system that will transform music for ever. We see relics through ordinary people’s eyes: “dead matter that came alive [offering] a glimpse of heaven”.
We are dropped into 12th-century Norwich to pick up the trail after the murder and mutilation of 12-year-old William, an atrocity that may lie at the root of the “blood libel”, an anti-Jewish smear whose horrific consequences have marked every subsequent century.
The list goes on. Duffy walks us through the bizarre near canonisation of Henry VI. He takes us to the workshops of England’s feted alabastermen, whose wildly popular sacred sculptural tradition went bust overnight when the Tudors criminalised their trade.
With a broader sweep, he tackles the delicate subject of the paucity of monarchs with an interest in books. Charles II, we learn, was one of our most prolific royal bibliophiles, but the amounts even he spent on acquisitions have to be seen next to his other outgoings, like the £2,265 he gave Nell Gwynn to ornament her bed with silver bling.
Behind Duffy’s simple, readable and delightful prose is an implicit anger that the medieval world has been systematically misrepresented – that Reformation thinkers and their heirs have abducted medieval Christianity and buried it in a pit for toxic waste. Duffy won’t stand for it, and he goes on the offensive, relishing the chance to set the record straight.
In the introduction he deftly notes that there are “Christianities” rather than one Christianity. And his work for the last 30 years has shown that there are histories, not one history. In this book he allows us to look at stories that have been long buried by purposeful distortion.
For instance, he notes how Enlightenment scholars were keen to paint the Crusaders as radicalised fanatics, while saving their praise for Saladin, fashioning him into a chivalrous and benign sage ready for Victorian novels and Hollywood films. Duffy asks us to look again, and unveils a far more credible historical character: a warlord and politician capable of generosity and savagery in pursuit of calculated objectives.
One minor disappointment is the book’s title. Even the subtitle, Essays in Medieval Christianity, misses the mark, as the collection is immeasurably broader. To take just one example, Duffy gives us a sound demolition of the bleak 1960s idea that pre-17th-century children were treated as small and incompetent adults. This theory – that childhood is a modern invention – has remained popular, but Duffy swiftly demonstrates that this is arrant nonsense.
My quibble is that this, like numerous other gripping chapters, has nothing to do with books, relics or spirituality. Perhaps Essays in Medieval Life would have been closer to the mark. The majority of the 21 chapters originated as essays in the New York Review of Books. This lends them a readability and zip they would not have gained had they been conceived for academia, and also allows the modern world to intrude.
All in all, Duffy gives us the full vigour of the Catholic Middle Ages, wonderfully brought to life and made relevant for today. If ever you fancy an easy-to-read and thought-provoking florilegium that will catapult you into the fascinating, technicolour world of medieval life, you will struggle to find a more gifted guide than Duffy.