Mary Magdalene: Saint and Sinner (12th April 2017)

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Mary Magdalene in the desert, British Library, Egerton MS 2125 f. 215 v.

Next Meeting: Wednesday 12th April / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Mary Magdalene: Introduction

Repentant prostitute, aristocratic decadent, devote follower of Christ, virulent preacher, troublesome woman, apostle to the apostles – the many sides of Mary Magdalene have been constructed and reconstructed for centuries. She is a composite figure, drawn from at least three figures in the Gospels, whose mythic biography has been supplemented by many other literary legends.

The three texts we read this week are a short selection of Middle English popular works on the Magdalene. Performance ties all three text – the stanzaic Life (c. 1280) contained in the Short English Legendary owes much to contemporary verse romance; John Mirk’s account (c.1400) is a sermon to be read on her feast day; the Digby Mary Magdalene (c. 1475) the most ambitious – and longest – Middle English drama extant.

We read all of the SEL’s Life and Mirk’s sermon from the Festial, and just a short range of extracts from the Digby play.

The Genesis of Mary Magdalene

The Gospel of Luke (8:1-3) explicitly names Magdalene (‘Magdala’ was a town on the western Sea of Galilee) as an early supporter (or patron?) or Christ:

After that, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Mary Magdalene is also named as one of the witnesses of the Crucifixion (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56 and John 19:25). Mark 15:47 and Matthew 27:61 also name Mary Magdalene as one of the witnesses of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Christ:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene – sometimes alone and sometimes with female companions – is the first witness to the resurrection. In John 20:1, Mark 16:9, and Matthew 28:1 she discovers the tomb is empty. John 20:16 and Mark 16:9 state that Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene, with no mention of others.

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:16

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. Mark 16:9

Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Matthew 28:9

According to Luke and Mark, the apostles did not believe Mary’s report of what she had seen.

Mentioned 12 times, she is amongst the most frequently named of all women in the Gospels. She is not mentioned in any other book of the New Testament. Her role as first witness to the Resurrection is not included in Paul’s epistles, even when he recounts the catalogue of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 1 Corinthians 15:3-11

Creation of a Composite Saint

The canonical Gospels make no mention of Mary Magdalene’s life before she was cured of the seven demons. Her reputation as a repentant notable sinner – or prostitute – is not supported in the New Testament, but is a result of her conflation with other women of the Gospels.

Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily of 591 is the first figure of the western Church to emphatically conflate three figures mentioned in the Gospels into the composite ‘Mary Magdalene’: first is Mary Magdalene herself, the others are Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 11:1-2), and a nameless ‘sinful woman’ who washed Christ’s feet with tears (Luke 7:36-50). Gregory’s Homily XXXIII is the key text:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?

It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.[1]

Thus the seven demons driven out of Magdalene became the seven deadly sins, with lust (and with it pride and covetousness) being foregrounded. She was further associated in later legends with Saint Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute who lived, in later life as a hermit.

A single ‘life of Magdalene’ appears first in a sermon attributed to Odo of Cluny in the tenth century – and multiple versions sprang from it. The dominant account in the West claimed that Mary, after the time of Christ’s Ascension, travelled to Provence in a rudderless boat; preached in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence; and then spent 30 years alone in a wilderness as a contemplative hermit.

Magdalene in Europe

Magdalene has particular importance in France, and especially in Provence, the site of her principal shrines. The Abbey of Vézelay claimed to possess its body, and grew into one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Europe; a grotto at Sainte-Baume was widely believed to be MM’s abode during her abode in the wilderness. The tradition that she and Lazarus brought Christianity to the Gaul in the first century – thus providing the French Church with a distinct, yet still reconcilable, history to the rest of Latin Christendom had deep patriotic appeal in both medieval and post-medieval times.

In England, the cult of Mary Magdalene was prominent enough for Bede to have mentioned her feast day in his Martyrology (c. 720). But the real explosion of her popularity occurred in the later Middle Ages. Only 3 or so churches were dedicated to her at the time of the Conquest; some 35 are listed by the mid twelfth century; by the late fifteenth century England now possessed over 200 churches dedicated to the Magdalene. Sherry Reames summarises her widespread, and polysemous, appeal:

For the late-medieval Mary Magdalen was an exceptionally multi-faceted saint, who served many different functions for different segments of the population. She was the archetypal sinner who repented and was redeemed, supplying a powerful illustration of God’s forgiveness and an example of reform that was potentially relevant to every Christian, although it could also be narrowed to provide lessons for female sinners or sexual sinners in particular. Because of her own transformation from sinner to saint, she was the patron saint of moral rebirth and regeneration and of institutions founded for that purpose, including convents for former prostitutes and hostels for pilgrims. Because of her loving care for Christ’s body when she washed His feet and went to the tomb to anoint His body after death, she was often held up as a model of active charity; hence she became a favorite patron of hospitals and confraternities that engaged in works of corporal mercy. Since she was also believed to be the Mary whom Jesus praised for having “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:42) when she sat quietly at his feet instead of attending to the mundane chores of the household, she provided an appealing patron and model for cloistered nuns, monks, and others who had chosen lives of contemplation rather than worldly activity.[2]

Texts

As indicated above, the textual traditions of the Magdalene legend are long and diverse. As so often, the key text for most English accounts lies in the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine. We are reading a small sample of the different forms in which the legend was popularly known in English – a notably romance-like stanzaic hagiography, a short prose sermon, and selections from a long dramatic rendering of the late fifteenth century.

The account of Magdalene known as the ‘Early South English Legendary Life’ is first found in Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 (c.1280); it is also found in the Auchinleck MS of the 1330s. The vita is not part of the SEL proper, but most probably an older text inserted into (and adapted partly into the style of) the SEL by a patron or scribe of the SEL.

John Mirk’s Festial was produced in the late fourteenth or very early fifteenth centuries. It is a collection of vernacular sermons for the major feasts and saint’s days of the liturgical year. The sermons typically rely on legends, exempla, popular tales and hagiography (rather than, say, scripture). It was circulated very widely in England: 40 extant MSS contain at least one of Mirk’s sermons; 18 editions of the sermons were printed between 1483 and 1532. Mirk was a canon at Lilleshall Abbey, Shrophsire.

The ‘awesomely eclectic’ (Coletti 1979, 313) Digby Mary Magdalene has been described – with some justification – as ‘the most extravagant play in the whole of early English drama’ (Coldewey 1993, 186). The play was composed sometime in the late fifteenth century, in an East Anglian dialect, surviving only in MS Digby 133. It is over 2100 lines in length. It is divided into two parts. The first deals with the privileged private life of Mary, her inheritance of Magdalene castle, her life of debauchery, and her conversion from it. The second part dramatizes Mary’s public life of good works – including the conversion of the King and Queen of Marseilles, her apostolicity, and later retirement from the world. But it is much more than a dramatization of the familiar life of Magdalene – its action ranges from the Holy Land to Marseilles, as well as Heaven and Hell. It is peopled by a huge cast (50 speaking parts) of saints and sinners, allegorical abstractions and earthy sailors. There are several worldly tyrants and one tempting tavernkeeper, ‘wytty and wyse’. There is also a burning idol and a moveable ship.

Questions for discussion

  • Which aspects of Magdalene’s sanctity has been emphasised in each text? (penitent? Loving service to Christ? Active charity in the world? Contemplative withdrawal into solitude?)
  • What are the implications and significance of Magdalene’s preaching in Marseille? Influence / importance to Lollardy?
  • Sex and the second chastity? How do we read Magdalene’s place among the virgin saints?
  • Like the Stanzaic accounts of Margaret and Katherine, the SEL Mary Magdalene vita borrows frequently from the conventions of secular verse romances. What is the significance of this for readers? What does this say about the relationship between the genres?
  • The use of the rudderless ship motif?
  • To what extent do these texts engage with the idea of Magdalene as the First Witness (of the Resurrection)? Male clerical authority?
  • What does the prominence of Mary’s vita indicate about the relationship of the cult of Magdalene and the Gospels?
  • What are the implications of these texts to our understanding of writing women in the Middle Ages?
  • How do we read Mary’s ‘tedure love’ (Mirk, 36) for Christ; and His ‘love of hur’ (Mirk, 44)?
  • ‘[W]han the fadyr saw hys wyf dedde and the chylde borne and grasping towarde the modur pappes, he began to wepe and wrynggyd hys handys and was so sore and so woo on uche syde that he ne wyste whatte he mythe done.’ (Mirk, 76-8). Comment on the role of family in these texts.
  • What are the proper uses of wealth and money? Do both texts share the same views?

Historical background and criticism

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-john-mirk-sermon-on-st-mary-magdalen

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-early-south-english-legendary-life-of-mary-magdalen

Haskins, Susan, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (London: HarperCollins, 1993)

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig, “Maria Magdalena: Apostolorum Apostola.” In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 57-96.

__________. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

Jones, Rachel, Mary Magdalene as Counter-Heroine: late Middle English hagiography and social order. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University (2014)

Saxer, Victor, Le Culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident des origines à la fin du moyen âge, 2 vols. (Paris: Libr. Clavreuil, 1959)

Thompson, Anne B., “Narrative Art in the South English Legendary“, JEGP 90 (1991), 20-30

Theresa Coletti, ‘The Design of the Digby Play of Mary Magdalene’, Studies in Philology, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 313-333


[1] Gregory the Great, Homily XXXIII

[2] Sherry Reames, ‘The Legend of Mary Magdalen, Penitent and Apostle: Introduction’, Middle English Legends of Women Saints (TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, 2003); available at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/reames-middle-english-legends-of-women-saints-legend-of-mary-magdalen-introduction

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