Readers Writing

An Infinity of Little Hours

Readers Writing

Folger News
Summer, 2006

An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order by Nancy Klein Maguire.
New York: Public Affairs, 2006.

Nancy Klein Maguire has been a Scholar-in-Residence at the Folger since 1983 and has published extensively on the relationship of theater and politics in the seventeenth century. In 1999, she made what she calls“ a totally unexpected and unprecedented jump from the seventeenth to the eleventh century.” The result of this leap—and of her growing interest in the little-known order of monks called the Carthusians—is a new book titledAn Infinity of Little Hours.

In the introduction to her book, Nancy Klein Maguire writes about wanting to be a witness to history. “As a scholar of the seventeenth century,more than anything, I would have wanted to be on the scaffold when Charles I, king of England,was executed in 1649, an event that changed Western history”. So when she discovered the Carthusians—an au-stere order of monks that has remained virtually unchanged since its founding in 1084—she recognized a unique opportunity. “Not only the monks’ liturgies and customs, but even their garments, were those of the eleventh century,” she marvels. In effect, she had a rare chance to examine “frozen history”.

Her historical research on the Carthusians led her into parts of the Folger collection that she didn’t know existed. “As I foraged deeper into this foreign century, I needed books that I thought would never be found in a secular library, much less in the Folger,” she says. But challenges still remained.

“How could I write a cultural history about a religious order in which the monks speak only twice a week?” she wondered. A 2000 Folger Institute seminar called “Mapping Networks” helped to reassure her that “my new methods of research were historically orthodox” and served to put her back in touch with old historian friends who encouraged her work.

Dr.Maguire’s quest led her to the modern day, interviewing monks and ex-monks who entered the Carthusian order prior to the reforms of the second Vatican Council (1962-1965). “The elderly members of the order [are the] equivalent of a lost tribe,” she writes.

“The last opportunity to revisit the life of the eleventh-century Carthusians…  will disappear from recorded history with their deaths.” She focused on five young men who entered Parkminster, the English Carthusian monastery, in 1960; their stories form the heart of the book.

Dr.Maguire visited Parkminster herself in 1999 for the first time and came away with an engraving depicting members of the order from 1084 to 1913. “Parkminster was cleaning house,” she explains. But they didn’t provide anything to carry the oversized engraving in, “so by the time I reached DC, the sections were torn.” Folger conservator Frank Mowery repaired the engraving and curator Erin Blake examined it with her, “determining how the engraver had made it and how long it had taken: in her judgment, ten years.” In addition to the Folger readers, librarians, conservators, and curators who have helped her out along the way, Dr.Maguire says she has always appreciated the friendly faces at the security desk.”For twenty-five years,” she says, “no matter how discouraged, unfriendly, or incompetent I might feel, as I entered the Library, King Johnson and his guards always gave me a cheery, ‘Hi, Nancy!'”