Mischief and Magic: The Fairy King Oberon and Otherworld Encounters


Image: ‘Oberon and Puck’, Kenny Meadows (1846), from the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

Take heed the Queen come not within his sight,
For Oberon is passing fell and wroth

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.19-20)

The King of the Fairies features in late medieval and early modern literature as a figure of mischief and mayhem, most often going by the name of Oberon. He is a commanding figure throughout his textual history, and one that Helen Cooper describes as a ‘judge or arbiter, though his arbitration may show more of arbitrariness than of justice’.[1] Romances explore his magical influence, and the ways in which his otherworldly fairly kingdom interacts with, and is encountered by, the more mundane world. This month, we are reading a selection of poetry, prose and drama from the fourteenth century to the late sixteenth, in which the King of the Fairies can be found meddling in mortal lives, for better or for worse: the anonymous Sir Orfeo, Lord Berners’ Duke Huon of Burdeux, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We begin with the fourteenth-century Auchinleck Manuscript, which holds the earliest-known Middle English version of Sir Orfeo. At only 604 lines long, this brief verse romance is a retelling of the Orpheus myth, best known in the Middle Ages through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this version, the death of Orpheus’s wife is reimagined as a kidnapping, in which the Fairy King approaches Orfeo’s wife, Herodis, while she sleeps beneath a tree and demands she return the next day to ‘live with ous evermo’ (l. 168). Though Orfeo tries to prevent this organised kidnapping, Herodis is snatched from him and taken to the fairy otherworld. This otherworld is a space of great wonder, with precious stones, intricate and impossible palace buildings, and spaces of unrivalled natural beauty.[2]

The Fairy King in Sir Orfeo is never named, and he receives only limited textual attention at the expense of Orfeo’s own quest:

The king o fairy with his rout
Com to hunt him al about.

(‘Sir Orfeo’, ll. 283-4)

Despite his kidnapping of Herodis, the Fairy King is arguably no grand villain; Orfeo persuades him to return Herodis with little protestation. This version of the story places no constraints upon Orfeo or Herodis upon their journey out of the otherworld, and the pair are able to return to their kingdom. It is a remarkably happy ending that follows the original Greek version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, in which there is no second fall upon the return from the underworld.[3] Orfeo’s quest, however, takes a full ten years, and his return requires a full re-coronation from a society that moved on during Orfeo’s absence.

The other two texts we are reading grant the King of the Fairies a greater narrative role and a name, Oberon, which first appeared in the thirteenth-century Old French chason de geste, ‘Huon de Bordeaux’. In this text, which provides the source for a later (and longer) prose version, Huon undertakes a penitential journey to Babylon and along the way encounters Oberon, who foregrounds his historical and mythical family connections.[4] In particular, he describes himself as the child of Julius Caesar and Morgan le Fay:

Jules Cesar me nori bien soué;
Morge li fée, qui tant ot de biauté,
Che fu ma mère, si me puist Dix salver.
De ces II fui concus et engerrés.

(‘Huon de Bordeaux’, p. 104)[5]

Oberon’s story was offered to an English audience when a later French prose version of the chanson was translated by Lord Berners as The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux and printed first in 1515 and again in four further printings throughout the sixteenth-century.[6] In this English text, Morgan le Fay is not named as Oberon’s mother, but she (referred to only as Arthur’s sister) does appear at his court.[7] Oberon in Duke Huon of Burdeux is grounded in realism, and in the crusading nature of the Eastern journey narrative, through his steadfast Christian faith. He is at once the image of a powerful Christian king and of an unknowable and unpredictable fairy ‘other’.

‘yf ye speke to hym ye are lost for euer / and ye shall euer fynde hym before you.’

(Huon of Burdeux, p. 63)

Huon of Burdeux was printed in England until 1601 and dramatized in 1590, and both Shakespeare and Spenser—along with their respective audiences—would have been familiar with the character of Oberon.[9] Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written in 1595/6, shortly after Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was published and reprinted. Shakespeare offers the conflicts of the Fairy kingdom as a counterpart to the ongoing romantic struggles of the ‘real’ world, presenting an Oberon who is aloof, magisterial, and wronged. Shakespeare’s Oberon rules over the enchanted fairy world of the forest and any mortals that stray within it, and is embroiled in a dispute with his queen, Titania, that stems from his desire for possession of a human boy. However, his influence extends beyond his own realm, as he interferes in the lives and fates of those humans that he encounters throughout the play. In all three of our texts, the King of the Fairies interacts and interferes with the mortal, ‘real’ world, and these texts raise a variety of issues, and intersect with discourses of gender, race, and otherness.

Texts and Extracts

  • Sir Orfeo – Whole text
  • Huon of Burdeux
    • Extract 1: When Huon first encounters Oberon
    • Extract 2: At the court of Babylon, when Huon calls upon Oberon for help
    • Extract 3: At the journey’s end, when Oberon resolves the corruption of Charlemagne’s court
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    • Extract 1: (2.1, ll. 18-187) Introduction to Oberon and Titania’s conflict
    • Extract 2: (4.1, ll.1-99) Resolution of Oberon and Titania’s conflict


Questions for Discussion


  1. Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the Orpheus myth with a happy ending. To what extent can we see the influence of this myth, or others, in the later texts?
  2. Is magic mischievous, malevolent, or something else entirely?
  3. How do the representations of magic in these texts differ? What do these representations suggest about respective audiences?
  4. How can we read the geography of the otherworld in each of these texts? To what extent is the otherworld a tangible place?
  5. To what extent do these encounters with the Fairy King share enough context and commonality to read them as a single, evolving meme?
  6. How do the connections between Oberon and Morgan le Fay in Huon influence our reading of his magic? To what extent are these connections visible in the other texts?
  7. How do each of these texts portray the King of the Fairies as an outsider or an ‘other’, and to what extent is this pejorative?
  8. What intersections do we find with anxieties about race and religion?
  9. Are these texts consistent in their portrayal of the power that the Fairy King has over the ‘real’ world?
  10. How does the natural and pastoral setting of MSND impact our understanding of magic as a ‘supernatural’ force?
  11. Does the name ‘Oberon’ in Huon and MSND presume a prior literary knowledge of the Fairy King?
  12. What are the roles of queens in these texts, fairy or otherwise?



[1] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 176.

[2] Aisling Byrne, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 1-9.

[3] James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 174, n. 22.

[4] S. L. Lee, ‘Introduction’ in The English Charlemagne Romances, Parts VII and VIII, EETS ES 40 & 41 (London: Trubner, 1882)

[5] F. M. Guessard (ed.), Huon de Bordeaux: chanson de geste (Paris: F. Viewig, 1860), p. 104.

[6] Joyce Boro, ‘The Textual History of Huon of Burdeux: A Reassessment of the Facts’, Notes and Queries, 48:3 (2001), 233-7, p. 233.

[7] Martha Driver, ‘Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream Through Romance’, in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, ed. Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray (London: MacFarland & co., 2009), p. 154, n. 31.

[8] James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 20-1.

[9] Helen Cooper, ‘Malory and the Early Prose Romances’, in A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary, ed. Corinne Saunders (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).

[10] Kenny Meadows, ‘Oberon and Puck’, in Michael John Goodman, The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive [21 November 2017].


Bevis of Hampton: From Medieval to Early Modern (25th October)

Images taken from The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691)

Next Meeting: 25th October, Room 1.19 of the John Percival Building, 2:30-4:30pm 

Bevis of Hampton was one of the most successful medieval romances; it has survived in six manuscripts, each of which are different enough that A.C. Baugh declared there to be ‘at least five versions [of Bevis of Hampton], each of which is entitled to be considered a separate romance’.[1] The medieval extracts we are reading are taken from the Bevis contained within the Auchenleck Manuscript, as it is the most complete and generally considered to be the best. As well as these extracts we are reading The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (1691), and the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (1689). As late seventeenth texts, these versions of the Bevis story were published towards the end of the period of almost continuous publication enjoyed by the Bevis tradition.

Bevis of Hampton is often classified as a dynastic romance, because it concerns the reclamation of lost, familial estates by the rightful heir.  It is a romance that ‘has it all: a hero whose exploits take him from callow youth to hard-won maturity to a serene and almost sanctified death; a resourceful and appealing heroine; faithful servants and dynastic intrigue; a parade of interesting villains, foreign and domestic, exotic and local; a geographical sweep which moves back and forth from England to the Near East and through most of Western Europe; battles with dragons and giants; forced marriages and episodes of domestic violence; a myriad of disguises and mistaken identities; harsh imprisonments with dramatic escapes, harrowing rescues, violent urban warfare; and, last but not least, a horse of such valour that his death at the end of the poem is at least as tragic as that of the heroine, and almost as tragic as that of Bevis himself’. [2]

The earliest extant version of Bevis of Hampton is the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone, generally dated to the latter half of the thirteenth century, and from there it became one of the most successful and enduring romances, with the last metrical edition appearing in 1711. Once Wynkyn de Word, Richard Pynson, and William Copland published editions of Bevis the story solidified and showed remarkable consistency, with all further editions seemingly relying on either the Pynson or the Copland edition.[3] Jennifer Fellows has suggested that both Pynson’s and Copland’s editions probably derived from a de Worde print; unfortunately, only fragments of de Worde’s Bevis prints now survive.

There were over ten editions of the Bevis story, both metrical and prose, published over the course of the seventeenth century, which represents a much more prominent position in the literary landscape than is held by any other medieval romance.  Only two metrical English romances managed to survive the influx of continental, primarily Spanish, romances that flooded the market, the other being Guy of Warwick, Bevis’ closest rival. Even the King Arthur legend cannot boast such a consistent publication history – at least in terms of narrative – as the Bevis tradition.

While the basic narrative elements of Bevis texts remained broadly consistent, the seventeenth century readers of Bevis would not have brought the same experiences or worldviews to the narrative as the thirteenth century readers of Boeve de Haumtone. Helen Cooper argued, in The English Romance in Time, that ‘the familiarity of the memes of romance, its standard episodes and motifs and phrasing, make possible a much greater and more concise subtlety of response than could be achieved by invention from scratch. The originality lies in an author’s handling of his materials, his (on very rare occasions, her) ability to disrupt, to startle, to shock. The shock may come from upset expectations, but it may also come from the recognition of something long known but in circumstances that defamiliarise it, that makes you recognise it for the first time. Such defamiliarisation can come even from an unchanged text if it is read in new conditions’.[4] Those who wrote Bevis of Hampton texts in the seventeenth century would have had to infuse them with a meaning that was readable to early modern readers, while maintaining the original memes that makes the story recognisable.

The Gallant History was published three years after The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William and Mary replace James II as monarchs of Britain, while The Famous and Renowned History was published in 1689, just one year after William and Mary took the throne. The Bevis story was resilient to the turbulent politics that characterised the seventeenth century, continuing to be published through the death of Elizabeth I, the reigns of James I, Charles I, the English Civil War, the Interregnum, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, and into the eighteenth century.

Images taken from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689)

The Texts

Anonymous, ‘Bevis of Hampton’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 200-322, pp. 274-77, pp.   294-5.

Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 187-97.

S.J., The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689).

Anonymous, The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691).

Topics for Discussion

  1. Why do you think the Bevis story managed to survive into the Early Modern period so effectively, while other medieval romances died out? How big a role did Bevis’ part as a key component of ‘The Matter of England’ play in its longevity?
  2. What does the ‘Epistle’ tell us about the reasons for writing and publishing Bevis narratives?
  3. Does the Gallant History assume existing knowledge of the Bevis story in its reader?
  4. Helen Cooper has written that, after the Reformation, romances became ‘socially dangerous. The romances were condemned for not conforming to the new theology, to the new requirements for pious and Protestant reading […]. They were condemned for having been written by those all-purpose Reformation villains, monks’.[5] Is there any discernible attempt at protestantisation in the seventeenth century versions of Bevis?
  5. Does the text care that it is part of a tradition that stretches back to the 1300s? Are the recognisably romance memes performing the same job in 1688 as they were in 1324, or do they mean something different by the end of the seventeenth century?
  6. Who do we think was reading The Gallant History in 1691? Has Bevis’ readership changed over the course of three and a half centuries?
  7. Are the seventeenth century texts invested in the Bevis story as history?
  8. How do the texts deal with betrayal?
  9. Consider the above description of Bevis of Hampton (from the introduction to to the TEAMS edition). Does The Gallant History live up to this billing, or is it too abridged?
  10. Do the various woodcuts tell us anything? Are they meant to be read, or are they simply decorative?
  11. In the end, is Bevis of Hampton just a good adventure story?



[1] A. C. Baugh, ‘The Making of Beves of Hampton’, in Bibliographic Studies in Honour of Rudolf Hirsch, ed. William E. Miller and Thomas G. Waldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), p. 34

[2] Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelstan’, ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 187-97, p. 187.

[3] Jennifer Fellows, ‘Bevis Redivivus: The Printed Editions of Sir Bevis of Hampton‘, in Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills, ed. Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Gillain Rogers, and Judith Weiss (Cardff: University of Wales Press, 1996), pp. 251-68, pp. 251-2.

[4] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 21.

[5] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 38.

Queens and Queenship in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy (9th August)


The Darnley Portrait (c. 1575)

Next meeting: 9th August / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In 1592, the pamphleteer, poet and playwright Thomas Nashe wrote that the Elizabethan plays which drew their subject matter from English Chronicles should be celebrated because, through them:

our fore-fathers valiant actes (that have lyne long buried in rustie brasse and worme-eaten bookes) are revived, and they them selves raysed from the Grave of Oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence: which, what can bee a sharper reproofe, to these degenerate effeminate dayes of oures?[1]

Nashe was referring to those plays which we now call the ‘English history plays’, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1590s. Whether a result of nationalistic pride, anxieties about the country’s future, or otherwise, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, in particular, saw a proliferation of plays produced which dramatised events of the country’s ‘glorious’ and often bloody past. These plays were well-attended, making these iterations of history accessible to a vast number of theatre-goers. Nashe articulates a notion that dramatising English history was laudable not only for its celebratory patriotism and memorialisation of the past, but also because such plays could have a particular utility: to help to recall and revitalise traditional chivalric values, and to revive a ‘valiant’ national history for the public eye and imagination.

An additional merit of such dramatic renderings of history, Nashe suggests, derives from the fact that they could provide ‘sharp reproof’ of the more indulgent, less masculine Elizabethan days of the early 1590s. In this view, the valour demonstrated in history plays was made all the more vivid by their contrast to the supposedly ‘effeminate’ contemporary moment of their dramatic construction and production. Carol Banks titles an article after Nashe’s words, and provides some discussion of the broader, sixteenth-century connotations of the term ‘effeminate’.[2] According to Banks, Nashe uses the word ‘effeminate’ to mean not only ‘womanish’ – or, perhaps, ‘unmanly’ – but employs its wider definition as ‘a virtual antonym to military valour and honour’. Indeed, there are numerous moments of nostalgia for this apparently dead or dying chivalric code throughout the first tetralogy (perhaps most notably, but not exclusively, through the person of Talbot in 1 Henry VI).

At almost the same moment that Nashe was writing these words, William Shakespeare (possibly with collaborators, and perhaps even with Nashe himself) was writing some of his earliest plays and contributing to the increasingly popular history play genre. In 1591 to 1592, Shakespeare wrote his ‘first tetralogy’ of history plays. He probably began with The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (more commonly known as The Second Part of Henry VI, or simply 2 Henry VI), then Richard Duke of York (The Third Part of Henry VI, or 3 Henry VI), before returning to First Part of Henry VI (or 1 Henry VI). Though usually performed in isolation, The Tragedy of King Richard III (more commonly just Richard III) follows on from events of the Henry VI plays to complete the tetralogy; this play was also likely to have been written last of the four.[3] The first tetralogy dramatises a telescopic version of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, the period of civil unrest that followed the death of the great English martial king, Henry V. Shakespeare begins with the coronation of Henry VI, depicts the ongoing battles against the French, shows the emergence of a Yorkist line of claimants to the throne and the battles that result from these factionalist divisions, dramatises Richard III’s machinations against his own family, and ultimately concludes with his defeat and the ‘healing’ of ‘civil wounds’ with the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York that is symbolised by the marriage of Henry Tudor (the new King Henry VII) and Elizabeth of York.

Many of Shakespeare’s formative years as a dramatist, then, were spent writing these ‘intensely nationalistic’ (English) history plays.[4] By depicting the rise and eventual victory of the first Tudor king at the beginning of his career, Shakespeare’s earliest plays seem, ultimately, to contribute to the genre’s politically expedient, propagandist aims to contribute to the so-called ‘Tudor myth’ and ‘support the right of the Tudors to the throne’.[5] However, the first tetralogy does not simply serve to straightforwardly glorify the Tudors, aggrandise the past, or offer simple ‘reproof’ to an ‘effeminate’ present in a manner Nashe seems to deem commendable. Rather, these plays explore a number of complex issues that Shakespeare would continue to address throughout his career, for example: what is the nature of divine providence and what happens when it is meddled with? What makes a ruler (a king?) effectual or ineffectual, just or unjust? What role do (and should) women play in political and social action?

Indeed, though the first tetralogy’s primary focus is, as suggested by the plays’ usual titles, on the martial conflicts and political machinations of the kings and key male players of the Wars of the Roses, significant space and importance is also afforded to women: the wives of influential nobleman and the kings’ queen consorts. These figures occupy different and intriguing spaces in a group of plays which dramatise, primarily, a masculine, masculinised conflict. History playwrights ‘remained [largely] committed to a notion of historical truth and are bound by the received record concerning the major events of the past’,[6] ‘records’ referring to (chronicle) accounts by the likes of Thomas More (c. 1519), Edward Hall (1548), and Raphael Holinshed (1577 and 1587) among others. Nonetheless, embellishment of the historical ‘fact’ and/or emphasis on moments the playwright deemed important or interesting was common practice. When Shakespeare writes compelling female characters and addresses the matter of queenship and female rule in the first tetralogy (and in his history plays more generally), therefore, it is difficult to divorce such depictions from the knowledge that they were rendered in a moment of longstanding, independent female sovereignty, of a true Queen Regnant whose (even recent, direct) ancestors were depicted in these plays and their sources.

At the beginning of the 1590s, when Shakespeare was writing his earliest (history) plays, England had been under the rule of a female sovereign for around four decades. Though this was a lifetime for many and, indeed, a lifetime for Shakespeare himself (born in 1564, eleven years after Mary Tudor’s coronation and half a decade into what would become Elizabeth Tudor’s forty-five years on the throne), the question of female rule was no less contentious. When John Knox wrote that ‘to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature’ in his 1558 pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women, he was contributing to a familiar, longstanding discourse about the (in)appropriateness of female power and authority. By dramatising the actions and voices of the women who sat on the throne of England before the Tudor queens so thoroughly, Shakespeare’s first tetralogy appears to contribute to these (continued) questions about the rights and roles of women, and encourages audiences to interrogate the actions and individuals traditionally valued in our historical accounts.

Questions for discussion

  1. Are there any significant or particularly interesting departures from, or ‘faithful’ similarities to, Hall’s Chronicle in the Shakespeare extracts?
  2. How relevant are Chronicle texts and other sources to the writing of (these) history plays? Is there a sense that Shakespeare is not just striving to represent history, but also to re-present history? If so, why?
  3. Is it appropriate to consider the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III as a cogent ‘tetralogy’? Do the portrayals of Margaret and Elizabeth vary between these plays or even between these scenes?
  4. Can we identify an aesthetic of queenship in these texts? Or, what makes a queen a queen?
  5. Are queens represented positively, negatively, or otherwise in these extracts? Does our reading change/depend on the plays’ late Elizabethan context?
  6. A lot of these scenes focus on (women’s) speech and language as a means of accessing power. Why do you think this is? Is it effective?
  7. How is marriage presented in these texts? What about love and lust?
  8. How do Margaret and Elizabeth respond to the men who proposition, befriend or antagonise them? How do these men respond to them? How are their bodies used (by themselves, or by others)?
  9. The queen’s primary responsibility was often considered to be to produce a legitimate (and preferably male) heir to the throne. How do these scenes represent the queen (as) mother or queen regents?
  10. And finally, what’s up with John Knox?


[1] Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell (1592).

[2] Carol Banks, ‘Warlike women: ‘reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes’?’, in Shakespeare’s histories and counter-histories, ed. by Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 169-181 (p. 170).

[3] Jean E. Howard’s ‘Introduction to The First Part of Henry the Sixth’ gives a good, concise overview of the first tetralogy’s compositional dates. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton, 2008), pp. 465-474.

[4] Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1965), p. 2.

[5] Ribner, The English History Play, p. 2.

[6] Jesse M. Lander, ‘William Shakespeare: The History Plays’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 489-494 (p. 490).

Medieval Nightingales (11th July)

Peckham's nightingale
Historiated initials from John Peckham’s Philomena, The Hunterian Museum, Special Collections, MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4)

Next meeting: 11th July 2017 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

The long history of the nightingale in European literature spans from Homer to T.S. Eliot, and over the course of this history, the meanings attributed to the bird have varied greatly. The nightingale’s most notable feature is its song and this evolved a myriad of meanings in vernacular literature over the course of the medieval period. The variation in interpretations (which has included springtime, the poet or poetic muse, and romantic or sexual love) has been described by Albert R. Chandler as showing ‘how sentiment and imagination vary with the nationality, epock, and individuality of the writer’. [1]

In The Odyssey, the earliest poetic appearance of the nightingale, the bird’s song is heard as Penelope speaks of the grief that catches her when she is left alone and awake at night. Penelope interprets the nightingale’s song as being that of Pandareus’ daughter, lamenting her son Itylus, whom she killed by mistake. This story then survives in its most complete and well-known form in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as the story of Philomela. The violence of the Ovidian myth has provided one explanation for the nightingale’s song often being described as a lament; however, according to Wendy Pfeffer, the significance of the Philomela myth to the medieval world was limited to ‘bequeath[ing] to medieval Europe the word “Philomela” as a synonym for “luscinia”, the classical Latin word for nightingale.’ [2]

It was not until John Gower’s retelling of the Ovidian myth as part of his Confessio Amantis in the late fourteenth-century that the sisters’ transformation into birds was expanded. Gower interpreted the nightingale’s song once more as a lament, but for a lost virginity rather than a murdered child. His nightingale sings, “O why, O why ne were I yit a maide?” and rejoices in her new avian form, as it means a respite from the shame:

“Ha, nou I am a brid,

Ha, nou mi face mai ben hid:

ThoghI have lost mi Maidenhede,

Schal noman se my chekes red.”

(Confessio Amantis, ll. 5985-8)

Elsewhere, the nightingale appeared often in the lyrics of the Provencal troubadours, though as a motif it was rarely developed upon and in the few lyrics where the bird does have a clearly identifiable function, it is either a messenger or representative of the poet himself. Among the Carmina Burana, there are twenty-one poems in the Benedictbeueren manuscript that reference the nightingale. In these, it is primarily as a harbinger of spring that the bird is recognised, although it also appears as either a symbol of love or an incitement to love. One poem in particular within the Carmina Burana associates the song of the nightingale in the early evening with sexual intercourse, which links to the image of the nightingale as a sexual motif as suggested in The Owl and the Nightingale.

Overview of the texts

  • The Owl and the Nightingale is an anonymous Middle English poem and is the earliest English example of verse contest, featuring a debate between the two birds on their flaws. It survives in two manuscripts, ff. 156-68, Jesus College, Oxford, MS. 29 and ff. 233-46 of British Library M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX, both of which have been dated to the late thirteenth century. The poem itself is thought to date from between 1189 to 1216, this due to the prayer for the soul of King Henry at lines 1091-2: ‘Þat underyat þe king Henri: Jesus his soule do merci!’ Throughout the poem, the birds reference a Nicholas of Guilford as a worthy judge and all-round excellent person and the poem ends with the pair flying to find Nicholas so he can settle their debate once and for all.
  • John Peckham’s Philomena has been called one of the greatest of the thirteenth century. Surviving in over thirty manuscripts, it is the first broadly popular poem known to have used the nightingale to represent the Passion of Christ and represents a culmination of elements taken from both Old French and Latin religious verse. The nightingale is said to represent the Christian soul as it meditates on the history of mankind, from Creation through to Redemption. At each hour, the nightingale sings a different song to relate another piece of Christian history, culminating at the hour of Nones and the Crucifixion when the song reaches its crescendo and the bird dies.
  • Two Nightingale Poems by John Lydgate show two separate attempts at engaging with the religious nightingale tradition. The first, ‘The Nightingale’ is loosely based upon Peckham’s Philomena and while it follows the same seven-part structure of a prologue, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and an epilogue, it differs significantly from Peckham in addressee, interpretation, and conclusion. The second, ‘A Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ is a dream vision, in which an angel instructs the poet-narrator on the true meaning of nightingale’s song. After having thought it symbolic of Venus and Cupid, the angel repeatedly insists, ‘Thyn aduertaence is gouerned wrong’ (l. 57) kand explains the nightingale actually sings in praise of pure love by grieving the suffering of Christ. This second poem ends abruptly and was seemingly abandoned.
  • ‘Laüstic’, a Breton lai by Marie de France, survives only in a single manuscript, known as Harley 978. It is the shortest of the texts we will be looking at and the only European example. The nightingale here represents adulterous love, as a young woman uses the excuse of listening to the song of the nightingale to explain her presence at the window to see her lover. The death of the nightingale at the hands of the cuckolded husband signals the end of the illicit communication between the lovers, and Michelle Freeman has suggested it to symbolise the cutting out of Philomela’s tongue in the Ovidian myth.[3]

Topics for discussion

  • How do we read Lydgate’s efforts to engage with the nightingale tradition? Is he convincing in his arguments? Consistent?
  • In ‘The Nightingale’, Lydgate describes himself as a translator of Peckham’s work. How effectively does he engage with his source material? Can ‘The Nightingale’ be better described as anything other than a translation?
  • Is ‘The Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ what we expect from a dream vision?
  • How do the extracts from ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ portray the nightingale? What themes arise that we don’t see elsewhere?
  • Given the portrayal of the nightingale in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, why might John Peckham have felt the bird suited a religious retelling?
  • How is the nightingale used in ‘Laüstic’? How is this different to the English nightingale traditions seen in the other texts?
  • How relevant are the classical myths in relation to the vernacular nightingale traditions that emerge in the text? Is the recurrence of the name “Philomena” as name for the nightingale significant?
  • Which of the interpretations of the nightingale’s song is most convincing? Do any of them supersede the others?


[1] Albert R. Chandler, ‘The Nightingale in Greek and Latin Poetry’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1934), p.78.

[2] Wendy Pfeffer, The Change of Philomel The Nightingale in Medieval Literature (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1985), p. 2.

[3] Michelle A. Freeman, ‘Marie de France’s Poetics of Silence: The Implications for a Feminine Translatio’, PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5 (1984), p. 869.

Further reading

A Short Analysis of The Owl and the Nightingale

Selections from the Auchinleck Manuscript (14th June)

Harrowing of hell BL MS Arundel 157 f. 110
Harrowing of Hell, London, British Library MS Arundel 157, f. 110

Next meeting: Wednesday 14th June / Room 2.46 / 3-5 pm

This month we will be reading some of the minor texts from Edinburgh, NLS, MS Advocates 19.2.1, the early-fourteenth-century miscellany known as the Auchinleck Manuscript.

Long known for its collection of Middle English romance, the miscellany also contains a significant number of religious texts, moral texts, and a fabliau. There are forty-four items in total, of which eighteen are romances. Several of these are unique to Auchinleck (the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, Reinbrun, Lay le Freine, Roland and Vernagu, Oteul a Kniȝt, Sir Tristem and Horn Childe). Derek Pearsall notes that the bulk, or approximately 3/4, of the manuscript consists of popular romance. [1] Yet nineteen items are religious tales, saints’ legends, and didactic texts, and, again, many of these – thirteen, in fact – are unique to the manuscript.

We will be reading some of the other, lesser known texts: two debates, a ‘closet’ drama, and an ABC. Photocopies of alternate versions of the texts will be supplied where Auchinleck is missing lines since, unfortunately, the manuscript has sustained significant damage through the removal of its miniatures in the past.

The readings:

  • þe Desputisoun Bitven þe Bodi & þe Soule. Versions of this dream vision / debate text occur in six manuscripts, including the Simeon and Vernon MSS. See https://auchinleck.nls.uk/mss/bodysoul.html
  • The Harrowing of Hell. This ‘closet’ drama, composed in rhyming couplets, is also included in the late-thirteenth-century miscellany, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Digby 86, and in the early-fourteenth-century London, British Library, MS Harley 2253. A number of lines are missing from the version in Auchinleck. See https://auchinleck.nls.uk/mss/harrow.html
  • The Thrush and the Nightingale. This debate poem on the virtues and vices of women is also included in MS Digby 86. See https://auchinleck.nls.uk/mss/thrush.html
  • Alphabetical Praise of Women. This poem, a unique text, has a French source which also appears in MS Harley 2253. See https://auchinleck.nls.uk/mss/abc.html


Topics for discussion:

  • The mixture of secular and religious texts in the manuscript, as well as the intermingling of secular and religious themes and imagery within texts. The Alphabetical Praise of Women, for example, justifies praise of women by the virtue of the Virgin Mary, yet also includes lines such as these: ‘Ouer þe se, þat ebbeþ & flouþ, | Is non so swete in his reles, | So is a cosse of womannes mouþe; | For priis of spices ichir ches, | Most of vertu & namcouþe’ (ll. 180–4).
  • Miscellaneity; Helen Phillips’s ‘chance, incompleteness, and unlooked-for juxtapositions’ [2]
  • English identity. Susanna Fein captures the novelty of the miscellany and its collection of vernacular texts, many translated from Anglo-French, describing them as ‘first-time-in-English literary works for edification and entertainment’. [3] Venetia Bridges questions an inward-looking sense of English-ness, arguing that booklet eight, including The Thrush and the Nightingale, gestures towards a multilingual, learned identity. [4]
  • Versification, including mixed versification within texts
  • Audience: family? the young? aspirational? Chaucer……?
  • Aspects of oral performance
  • Speeches
  • Genre


[1] Derek Pearsall, ‘The Auchinleck Manuscript Forty Years On’, in The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016), pp. 11–25 (p. 13).

[2] Helen Phillips, ‘Auchinleck and Chaucer’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 139–55 (p. 143).

[3] Susanna Fein, ‘Introduction: The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 1–10 (p. 6).

[4] Venetia Bridges, ‘Absent Presence: Auchinleck and Kyng Alisaunder’, in Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by Fein, pp. 88–107 (pp. 104–7).



The Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins (National Library of Scotland, 2003) <https://auchinleck.nls.uk&gt;

The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016)


Nightingale (2)
Unknown A Nightingale; Bats, about 1250 – 1260, Pen-and-ink drawings tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment Leaf: 21 x 15.7 cm (8 1/4 x 6 3/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Martin Parker: Ballads and Broadsides (10th May 2017)

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Next meeting: Wednesday 10th May / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Martin Parker was the most celebrated and famous balladeer of the seventeenth century. His extant corpus contains over eighty ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, and chapbooks, but it is hard to judge the true size of his canon due to the catastrophic survival rates of cheap seventeenth century texts, the incomplete record of everything that was published during this period, and because of a suspicion that his initials may have been misapplied to the works of less known writers in order to boost sales. His first ballad appeared in 1624, and tells the story of a Cornish murder, while the last text to bear his name was a chapbook entitled The Most Admirable History of that Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur, King of the Britaines, in 1660. Before 1660 the last entry in the Stationers’ Register to bear his name was a chapbook published in 1647. This thirteen-year silence coincided with a clampdown on ballads and balladeers by the Government, led by Captain Bethan; Parker is also believed to have died during this period, probably sometime in the early 1650s. A satirical elegy for Parker appears in 1656, within a book entitled Death in a New Dress, OR Sportive Funeral Elegies and references in the 1653 and 1654 editions of Merlinus Anonymous suggest that Parker had died.

It is suspected that Parker was an innkeeper of some kind due to references to this profession in both his own work and that of others. There a few references in other people’s work that Parker may become entangled with the law on a number of occasions. He was singled out for special attention in a puritanical petition, signed by 15000 people and delivered to Parliament in November 1640, which, among other things, said that Parker’s work was ‘in disgrace of Religion, to the increase of all vice, and withdrawing of people from reading, studying, and hearing the Word of God, and other good Bookes’.[1] Parker’s later work certainly contains strong royalist themes, which angered Puritans and earned him the title ‘The Prelates Poet’, not an uncommon insult for the King’s supporters at the time. He is thought to have taken over the running of the royalist newsbook Mercurius Melancholicus after its editor John Hackluyt was arrested and imprisoned.

Although primarily remembered as a balladeer, Parker was proficient in many different forms. His early work mainly concerned the ups and downs of young, married life, often with a rural setting, but he moved on to journalism and current affairs, royalist ballads and pamphlets, adapted old stories and legends into histories, and, on occasion, dabbled in serious poetry. We’re reading quite a broad selection of these different genres and forms to try and get a sense of the range of which Parker was capable. The texts are as follows:

Householde Talke (1629) – One of Parker’s earliest extant ballads. His early work is mainly pastoral and domestic, focusing on marriage and young – mainly rural – lovers. This particular ballad gives advice about jealousy.

The Rape of Philomela (1632) – This is a rendering of Ovid’s account of the rape of Philomela from his Metamorphoses. It is often regarded as Parker’s only extant attempt at ‘real’ poetry. It is prefaced by a few short poems from contemporaries praising the work.

A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632) – An account of the Robin Hood story, which places a strong emphasis on truth. Part of what could be called Parker’s English Heroes series, which include works on King Arthur, St George, and Guy of Warwick, though unfortunately the latter two are not extant. He is also credited with an adaption of the Valentine and Orson romance, of which only eleven lines have survived.

Britaines Honour (1640) – Parker was well known as a writer of current events, and seems to have been considered a generally reliable reporter. This ballad reports on the Battle of Newburn (1640), but is more focused on telling a story of heroism, weaved together with myth, and strong anti-Scottish feelings, not unusual in Parker. It is also a heavily royalist text. By this time Parker had become one of the premier royalist writers working in England.

The Poet’s Blind Mans Bough (1641) – This is the most personal of Parkers many works. It is a text that primarily hits back at critics of Parker and also bemoans the trend of anonymous publication.

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  1. Who do we think Parker was writing for? Do each of these texts speak to the same audience? Is there a consistent authorial voice?
  2. Is there humour at work in any of these text? If so, how does it work?
  3. Why is truth so important to Parker in many of his texts? How does truth work in the selection we have here?
  4. What is the purpose of the extended preface, including the complimentary poems, that proceed ‘The Rape of Philomela’? Do we agree with them?
  5. Is Parker’s a good translation of Ovid? How closely do we think Parker engaged with the Latin original?
  6. How does Parker engage with the legendary material he utilises? Is his Robin Hood what we expect from a Robin Hood text? How does the Galfridian myth enter into ‘Britaines Honour’?
  7. Are Parker’s politics on show in all of these texts? In which do they come out most strongly? Are they consistent?
  8. Parker employed many different forms and styles over the course of his career, how do each of the forms we’re looking at here affect the texts?
  9. What do we make of the woodcuts? Are they what we would expect from woodcuts of this time? Can they tell us anything about the texts?
  10. Do we think that Parker was a good writer?

[1] The Third Speech of the Lord George Digby, to the House of Commons, concerning Bishops, and the Citie Petition, the 9th of Febr: 1640

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]


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



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