Saints’ lives and sermons – 27th August 2014


  • The vita of St Mary the Egyptian, a reformed prostitute who undertakes forty-seven years of penance in the desert after her conversion.  We have two versions to read: one taken from a late thirteenth-century liber festivalis, printed by the EETS as the Early South English Legendary, the other taken from the Gilte Legende, a fifteenth-century English version of Jacobus de Voraigine’s Legenda Aurea, composed in the thirteenth century.  Legendaries are collections of saints’ lives, or vitae, intended to be used as material for sermons.  Both collections, the Legenda Aurea and the Early South English Legendary, were composed independently of one another, although at around the same time.
  • ‘The Purificacion of oure Lady’, included in the Gilte Legende for use on the feast of Candlemas, which commemorates the purification of Mary in the temple at Jerusalem forty days after the birth of Jesus.  Candlemas also marks the conclusion of the Christmas cycle and the church’s yearly turning from the narrative of the incarnation to the redemptive cycle of Lent and Easter.
  • ‘De purificacione beate Marie’, for preaching on the Feast of the Purification / Candlemas.  This sermon is included in John Mirk’s Festial, a late fourteenth-century collection of sermons for saints’ days (in the church’s liturgical calendar, the Sanctorale cycle) and for the festivals of Christ (the Temporale cycle).

Suggested topics for discussion:

  • The Virgin Mary plays a key role in the reported conversion of St Mary the Egyptian. Her depiction on the walls of the church (as specified in the Early South English Legendary, although more ambiguous in the Gilte Legende) is visible through the open door, or from the porch.  How does Mary the Egyptian’s inability to enter the building relate to her sight of Mary?  Does the third exemplum in Mirk’s sermon – of the ‘womon of so eul lyuyng’ – bring any light to bear on Mary the Egyptian’s moment of conversion?  How does the inclusion in the Early South English Legendary of the brief section narrating Mary’s prior life and the desire she conceives to visit Jerusalem relate to this moment?
  • The vita in the Gilte Legende is given from the perspective of Father Zozimas.  What effect does this perspective have on the sense of sanctity offered by this text?
  • Much of the initial material in the readings on the Purification of Mary is concerned with the physical, in terms of sexual uncleanness – both of men and of women – and in terms of pregnancy and the growth and formation of the human body.  Both texts are concerned with justifying Mary’s observation of Jewish law requiring her purification while asserting the ultimate redundancy of the act.   While the candle brought as an offering on Candlemas is often taken as a symbol of the light which dispels darkness, it is also a visual reminder of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual.  How do the two texts on the Purification convey this relationship?  One interpretation is developed in lines 261-77 of ‘The Purification of the Virgin’ in the Gilte Legende, but is this the only possibility suggested by the texts?
  • What moral is taught by the exemplum of the woman who gave away her clothes but refuses in her dream vision to offer her candle?
  • Candlemas celebrations were extremely popular with the laity in the late-medieval church.  Despite Mirk’s dating of the festival to the papacy of Sergius and his linking its institution to the need to counteract the pagan practices of Rome, could his sermon be said to gesture towards the fondness with which the laity regard the feast?


Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, 2nd edn.  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 15-22

Mirk, John, ‘De purificacione beate Marie’, John Mirk’s Festial: edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II, I, ed. Susan Powell, EETS O.S. 334 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 55-60

‘Purification of the Virgin’, Gilte Legende, ed. Richard Hamer, EETS O.S. 327 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 161-71

‘St Mary of Egypt’, Gilte Legende, ed. Richard Hamer, EETS O.S. 327 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 254-57

‘Vita sancte Marie Egyptiace’, The Early South English Legendary, or Lives of Saints, MS Laud, 108, in the Bodleian Library, I, ed. Carl Horstmann, EETS O.S. 87 (London: N. Trübner & Co, 1987), pp. 260-71

De Brailes Mary and the devil f. 40v

Mary rescuing a soul from a devil                                                                                       De Brailes Hours, 13th century, BL Add MS 49999, f.40v