The Examined Life

Yesterday I had one of those experiences that come only very rarely: I got to meet, and hang out with, one of my intellectual heroes, if that is the right sort of word to use in this context. For a long time I have been an admirer of the work of historian Eamon Duffy, holder of a personal chair as Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University and one of the most distinguished scholars of the late medieval and early renaissance periods in the world. Anyone who has read his magisterial The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale, 2nd edition 2005) will know that he is a consummate scholar of history with what appears to be an unmatched mastery of his source material combined with an astute and insightful approach to the interpretation of that material. But if you read more widely in his (very large) oeuvre you will quickly find that, in addition to being a great historian, the man is also a Roman Catholic of the most admirable sort.

I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in Professor Duffy's visit to the Athens campus yesterday--his visit was officially sponsored by the History Department but several of the faculty in that department happen to be solid Catholics and one of them told me about Duffy's visit a few months back. I spent most of the day with him: I had lunch with him, sat in on a seminar presentation of some of the materials from his forthcoming book Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240-1570 (Yale, December 2006), and attending a public lecture in the evening that was a sampling of the materials from his forthcoming Birkbeck Lectures on the reign of Mary Tudor.

For someone who is both a Catholic and something of an amateur medievalist, the day was one of almost sheer ecstasy. As St. Anselm said so eloquently, I believe that I may understand: faith, for the Catholic, will always inform one's interpretation of the world, and scholarship of any kind, whether it is history, philosophy, sociology, physics, or biochemistry, is merely an interpretation of the facts, the positing of a hypothesis that will stand or fall not merely in terms of its harmony with the observable facts but principally in terms of its own internal harmony, the harmony it has with purely theoretical concerns. Competing hypotheses can claim to explain exactly the same observational data, and the data alone, famously, are insufficient to establish the indisputable truth of one theory to the exclusion of all others. This principle, known among philosophers of science as underdetermination, permeates all of academia, much to the chagrin of certain academics, and it permeates everyday life, too, as most sensible folks already know. Granted, some interpretations of the observable evidence may be more or less reasonable than others, but in general the differences between hypotheses are settled by adopting further hypotheses (for example, the principal difference between the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the solar system is a theoretical one, not an empirical one: it is the difference between the Aristotelian vs. the Newtonian theory of gravitation, both of which are theories grounded in precisely the same observational evidence).

What is most striking to me about Duffy's work is what some might call its revisionist character. In The Stripping of the Altars, for example, he argued that popular piety in England at the time of the Reformation was deeply and committedly Catholic in orientation and that the Protestantization of the country was something forced on the population from above, as it were, by the ruling classes and the gentry, who were more interested in politics than religion. This kind of interpretation is part of a larger movement that has existed for at least the past 15 or 20 years that seeks to understand more fully the history of this period in English history by means of a more careful examination of the evidence for everyday sorts of lives rather than the traditional recounting of the greatest deeds of the greatest figures. Duffy's forthcoming book on prayer, for example, had for its starting point a hand-written note in a medieval book of hours in the Kalendar for 27 November: "On this day my mother passed from this life to God's glory". Professor Duffy remarked that he was looking at this medieval book as part of a research project (it was kept in a museum), but that he saw it not long after his own mother had died, and it sparked in him a tremendous interest in the commonality of human experience across times and cultures. It sent him to libraries and museums in search of further marginalia documenting the day-to-day prayer lives of medieval English people of all strata of society, and it confirmed for him the deeply pious--and Catholic--nature of late medieval English society. One can only anticipate the publication of this book with great excitement.

Suffice it to say that I continue to be amazed at how much one can learn, even in a single day, if one pays close attention to those around you who have much to offer by way of expertise, knowledge, and experience. If you find yourself intrigued by Duffy's work but are not all that sure you want to jump into a 750 page, rather technical historical treatise, he has written a few popular works on religion that I can also recommend very highly:
Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Traditions (Continuum, 2006).

Walking to Emmaus. (Burns and Oats, 2006).
These books contain short essays and even a few "sermons" (delivered at Vespers services at Duffy's college) on religious topics that are not only informative but also inspiring. Start with these, but by all means do not be afraid to delve into the more technical works as well. You will not be sorry you did.


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