Remembering as resistance: a medieval primer reused in the recusant era

Many medieval books of hours survived the English Reformation by being selectively censored in accordance with the royal injunctions issued by Henry VIII. In this Sarum primer printed in the very year that the king declared his supremacy over the Church, the names of Thomas Becket and the pope have been systematically erased and rubrics mentioning indulgences and other forbidden practices struck out, though the text nevertheless remains decipherable. When the five hand-coloured woodcuts stitched into the book were inserted is uncertain: the customising of texts in this manner was a late medieval habit and the print shown here depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Christ, a popular iconographical theme from at least 1450. But it may have provided a focus for the spiritual meditation of devout readers in the era of the Counter Reformation too. Notes of births and other inscriptions suggest that this primer was owned and used by the Constable family of the East Riding of Yorkshire, which was known for its steadfast adherence to the prohibited Catholic faith and suffered much for its recusancy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To preserve such a book was to remember the medieval past and thus to resist the Protestant project to reduce it to oblivion. AW

Thys prymer of Salysbury use … (Paris: Thylman Karver for Johan Growte, 1534), fo. cxcvij and stitched in hand-coloured woodcut.

LPL: [ZZ] 1534.46

Further Reading

This item has been fully digitised in Lambeth Palace Library’s Luna collection:;JSESSIONID=b3d045f4-70f7-4eae-80b5-8e856bb01d6a?q=prymer&os=0.

Ann M. Hutchinson, ‘A Primer for All Seasons’, in Richard Palmer and Michelle P. Brown (eds), Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishops of Canterbury (London, 2010), pp. 96–7.

Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240-1570 (New Haven, CT, 2006), ch. 9.

Hanneke van Asperen, ‘Praying, Threading and Adorning: Sewn-in Prints in a Rosary Prayer Book (London, British Library, Add. MS 14042)’, in Kathryn M. Rudy and Barbara Baert (eds), Weaving, Veiling and Dressing: Textiles and their Metaphors in the Late Middle Ages (Turnhout, 2007), pp. 81–120.

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