Eamon Duffy is Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations. (May 2016)

A Great, Ignored Transformation?

A page from La Vie de Saint Denys, an illuminated manuscript presented by Gilles de Pontoise, abbot of Saint-Denis, to King Philippe V in 1317. ‘Below large-scale representations of the saint’s preaching, trials, tortures, and death,’ Eamon Duffy writes, are ‘vivid vignettes of life along the Seine’: ‘diminutive townspeople shop or borrow from moneylenders, physicians inspect flasks of their patients’ urine, animals are driven to slaughter, millers stagger under sacks of corn, workmen trundle wheelbarrows, and boatmen row goods and passengers up and down the river.’
Joel Kaye’s first book, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (1998), was a revised version of his doctoral dissertation. Academic theses can make for dreary reading, but Kaye’s advanced a bold, sweeping, and closely argued theory, designed to explain a …

Who Is the Pope?

Francis has pointed the church away from culture wars with secular society that were such a feature of Benedict’s papacy, toward a less confrontational approach to the social circumstances in which the faithful have to live, and a more fruitful reengagement with the church’s mission to the poor and underprivileged, in whom he sees both the natural and the most receptive hearers of the Gospel.

The Intense Afterlife of the Saints

Saint Michael weighing souls in Rogier van der Weyden’s Last Judgment, circa 1445–1450
In November 1231 Elizabeth of Thuringia, daughter of the king of Hungary and widow of Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, died in the city of Marburg, aged twenty-four. Married before she was fifteen, Elizabeth bore three children to Louis before his death while on crusade in 1227, when she was …

The Staying Power of Christianity

Sebastiano Ricci: Pope Paul III Preparing the Council of Trent, 1687–1688
If an anthropologist from the star system Sirius were to teleport to earth to conduct a field study of Christianity, where would she go? A Greek monastery on Mount Athos, a papal mass in St. Peter’s, a convent hospital for the destitute in Calcutta, a snake-handling service in the Appalachians, …

Books Held by Kings

An angel appearing to the Magi, from The Queen Mary Psalter, circa 1310–1320
A reader climbing the great staircase of the British Library’s modern premises near St. Pancras Station in London is confronted suddenly by that wonderful building’s most wonderful feature. Behind the glass walls of an internal tower six stories high, more than 60,000 sumptuously bound books stretch upward, shelf upon shelf, a cliff-face of leather and gilt lettering gleaming softly through the tinted glass. In that architectural coup de théâtre, a world of learning serves as the visible core of a building created to contain all the learning of the world.

The Rise of Sacred Song

A deacon preparing to sing the Exultet, or Easter Proclamation, while grasping the Paschal candle that the bishop is lighting; illustration in an Exultet roll, a long strip of parchment containing the text and music of the hymn, late tenth century
Sometime in the late 1020s, a choirmaster from Arezzo secured an audience in Rome with Pope John XIX. It can’t have been an entirely comfortable meeting. Guido of Arezzo was no mere musician, but an austere and dedicated monk, committed to the purification of the Catholic Church from the prevailing …

Sacred Bones & Blood

The Roman Catholic monstrance known as the ‘Prague Sun,’ made in Vienna and studded with more than six thousand diamonds, 1699. It is in the treasury of the Loreto Sanctuary in Prague.
Christianity is a material religion. Its central tenet is that in the man Jesus the eternal God united himself to human nature and human flesh, and thereby opened both humanity and matter itself to the possibility of divinization. So Christians place their eschatological hope not in the survival of a …

A Hero of the Church

The Victorian theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010
On October 2, 2008, a group of clergy, workmen, police officers, and health officials assembled behind steel screens in a small private cemetery in a suburb of Birmingham, England. They had come to exhume the body of the Victorian theologian, preacher, and writer Cardinal John Henry Newman, in preparation for his beatification (the final stage before canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church) by Pope Benedict XVI. Newman’s remains were to be removed for more convenient veneration as relics to the church that he had founded in Birmingham, where a casket of green Italian marble had been prepared to receive them. The announcement of the proposed exhumation set off weeks of prurient media controversy.

The Greatest of the Saint-Kings?

King Louis IX; polychrome wooden statue, fourteenth century
The possibility that power and goodness might turn out to be two sides of the same coin has exerted a perennial fascination in Western society. The notion that earthly authority is underpinned by heavenly sanction may fly in the face of all known experience, but the hope that it might …

‘The First Great Pandemic in History’

In the spring of 2003, on a visit to Toronto, I was startled by the sight of passersby in the streets with mouths and noses hidden under medical face masks. My trip, it emerged, had coincided with an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Those nervous Torontonians were reacting …

Early Christian Impresarios

These two books are built on a single perception. Early Christianity was more than a new religion: it brought with it a revolutionary shift in the information technology of the ancient world. That shift was to have implications for the cultural history of the world over the next two millennia …

The Holy Terror

In a speech delivered in 2001 on the first Sunday after September 11, George W. Bush pledged America to a war on terrorism, which he referred to as “this crusade.” There was an immediate outcry across the Islamic world. Did the term “crusade” hint at some grand confrontation between opposed …

The Plot That Failed

Every year on November 5, towns and villages throughout England erupt into flame and flash, to the noise of exploding gunpowder. Though losing ground in some places to the American import of Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, or “Bonfire Night,” is still very widely observed, a noisy national festival of light, …

The Cradle Will Rock

Does childhood have a history? Are the experiences of children, and the relations between children and their elders, constants of human nature, universal through time and space, or are they social constructs, radically differing from culture to culture and from age to age? At the turn of the eighteenth and …

On the Brink of Oblivion

Late in the year 1347 a new and terrible disease arrived in Europe from the Tartar regions north of Constantinople, carried first by Genoese merchants vainly fleeing from a pestilence that raced faster than war horses. It was said to have been introduced into the Genoese trading community at Caffa …

The Luck of the English

Great Britain is a political entity consisting of (at least) four nations spread through an archipelago of two major and many smaller islands off the northwestern coast of Europe. Legislatively united in the English parliament at Westminster by Acts of Union in 1707 (Scotland) and 1800 (Ireland), its flag, the …