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”.

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