Mary of Egypt again

I don’t want to write about the novel I finished reading recently; Phil Hogan wrote a piece back in the Guardian in September last year, when Sebastian Faulks’s Where My Heart Used to Beat was published, that says it all – ‘enjoyable but uneven’.

Instead I shall resume the subject started in my previous post: the legend of St Mary of Egypt. There I wrote about the medieval stained glass window in Bredon depicting her. Now I’d like to provide a little more detail about her story and its status in England from the early middle ages onwards.

For a full, academic account of the background I’d recommend Jane Stevenson’s contribution as ch. 2.1 of a collection of essays entitled The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography, edited by Erich Poppe and Bianca Ross (Dublin, 1996). My own essay on her legend in medieval England appears as ch. 3.2. I have adapted these detailed accounts to provide a summary view here.

The Latin Vita which served as main source for all Western vernacular versions of Mary’s story was translated by Paul the Deacon of Naples  in the ninth century (as I noted in my previous post) from an earlier Greek Life, probably as a consequence of preoccupations at the time with the problems of sin and redemption, and of an intensifying reverence for the Virgin not only as an effective and maternal intercessor for sinners, but also as their protector and provider of salvation. Like the story of Theophilus, also translated by Paul, the story demonstrated an encouraging hope for lapsed sinners, and the possibility of their redemption through the purifying sacraments of penance and communion: their sins do not automatically consign them to hell. The eternal problem of absolution was pleasingly solved for the Christian readers of Naples (and of later readers of vernacular versions) in these reassuring stories in which sinners in extremis turn to the Virgin and and are saved.

Transmission of the Greek version to the West probably happened when Palestinian Christians fled Persian invaders in 614. Many went to Italy, taking with them religious texts of this kind. A new influx of refugees from the Iconoclast Persecutions arrived between the eighth and tenth centuries. Evidence of a cult of Mary of Egypt by the ninth century in Italy is found in the existence of frescoes in a church later dedicated in her name in Rome, and another in Naples, where there was also a street named after her.

The Greek Life derives from a variety of orally transmitted ancient anecdotes, and later writings about implausibly ascetic ‘hairy anchorites’ (or others less hirsute) dating from the very early days of Christianity in the Middle East, from the prototype life of desert hermits, St Anthony, written in Greek by Athanasius between 356-62, to St Jerome’s Life of St Paul the Hermit, written c. 374, itself inspired by Anthony’s story, collections of anecdotes and biographies of the early desert saints and various edifying stories about desert ascetics.

Mary of Egypt in the S. English Legendary

Mary as depicted in Oxford, Bodleian MS Tanner 17 (early-mid. 15C), a copy of the late 13C S. English Legendary, a popular hagiographical collection in the vernacular. Image taken from the Bodleian website of Tanner MSS

Most of these texts contain a stock selection of motifs that recur in Mary’s legend – friendly lions, the Visitor edified by the example of a Hairy Anchorite (in later Western versions, unlike the Greek account, in which she is described by Zosimus, the wandering monk who encounters Mary in the desert beyond Jordan, as having short white hair and a hideous, wrinkled body, she is depicted as youthful and beautiful, with luxuriant hair to her ankles covering her alluring nakedness, but which passing breezes enticingly reveal; Western medieval iconography represents Mary in this way, although she isn’t always shown naked – the Bredon window about which I wrote last time shows her fully clothed; so does the MS illumination shown here.)

There remains an obvious element of sexual prurience in the story, as these medieval European images of Egyptian Mary and the Magdalene came to show; Orthodox Eastern icons and other images adhered to the Greek tradition of a haggard, short-haired Mary, as shown next:

Greek psalter image of Mary of Egypt

London, BL, Add. MSS, 19352, fol. 68r, for Psalm 54, 8 (1066, the Theodore Psalter, in Greek). Here Zosimus is shown as he often is, handing Mary his cloak to cover her gaunt nakedness, while averting his eyes, as she flees from him. Note the short hair.Image from the Greek Orthodox ‘Pemptousia’ website.

 

Mary’s thaumaturgical powers also reflect a tradition going back to the Bible, and reiterated in countless edifying biographies of holy Christian figures: diorasis, or divination of a visitor’s name and status (as a sign of the hermit’s spiritual perfection, compared with the visitor-monk’s flawed state); miraculous clairvoyance; ability to travel huge distances in minutes and to walk across the waters of the Jordan; ability to write messages in the sand when the writer had earlier confessed to being illiterate – and so on.

The Greek Life greatly expands the role of Mary’s discoverer. This version blends the stories of the two characters to illustrate their symbiotic relationship: the monk undergoes an epiphany – his unmerited pride is revealed to him when he is amazed and edified by this penitent female sinner’s example; he returns to his monastery with a new mission for himself and his community – to strive humbly to emulate Mary, without the sense of competition or spiritual superiority of which he’d previously been guilty. Mary meanwhile needs the priest-monk to administer to her the elements of communion. The story therefore establishes the spiritual significance of the priest in the ceremony of the mass; the power of the Virgin as intermediary for sinners; the miraculous powers of ascetics and the attendant significance of true penitence; and the need for disciplined religious communities to avoid spiritual pride and to heed the lessons provided by solitary hermits.

What makes Mary’s story more significant is that the solitary ascetic who inspires such awe and reverence in this male pillar of the supposedly devout monastic community was a penitent woman. We needn’t become too swayed by the view that hers is therefore a proto-feminist account; it arose from an early Christian male mistrust of women. In her youth, in the original Greek Life and its first Latin translations, she wasn’t really a prostitute; she was simply promiscuous, often having sex with men without payment. She was typical of the contemporary misogynistic male view of women as fallen descendants of Eve, and the tradition going back to Greco-Roman times that women were inherently more lustful than men, more impulsive and unrestrained, and hence a grave danger to all males, and socially worthless unless chaste or married.

On the other hand the story illustrates a change in such attitudes in the Byzantine sixth century, some of them originating in the monastic movement. Female outsiders like prostitutes or beggars began to be seen more sympathetically; the Greek Life, and later vernacular redactions of it via the Latin, portray Mary as fully human and individual, less of a type of vice. The balancing portrayal of the Virgin, and the revival of her cult in Europe from the early medieval period, would also explain the popularity of the story of this penitent sinner.

There is plenty of evidence attesting to Mary of Egypt’s cult in England from the early middle ages. Her feast-day was commemorated there as early perhaps as the late seventh century, in Northumbria. She figures in just under half the surviving liturgical calendars of the Anglo-Saxon period, with indications of a centre of devotion in the southwest. Her name is frequently found (but not by any means universally) in calendars, litanies and other texts from the later medieval period in England, including a St Paul’s, London calendar with which Chaucer was familiar.

Additional evidence of the growing interest in Mary in medieval England is provided by references to her relics in several documents (a 15C record of relics held at Westminster Abbey, for example, cites the existence of a part of her skull from the relic collection of Queen Emma, who died c. 1052, the wife of Ethelred the Unready). She was one of the saints prayed to by women wanting to conceive (or to terminate an unwanted pregnancy – at least among the ‘folles filles’ of Paris, according to a late medieval Parisian calendar). Such relics played a key role in reintegrating outsiders into the Christian community, and Mary’s story clearly dramatises how her initial exclusion from the holiest of churches (the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) because of her sinfulness is followed by her admission to worship with the congregation after her prayer of repentance to the image of the Virgin. The tomb of Christ was the relic site par excellence for Christians, and Mary’s admission there typifies the cleansing power of shrines (and the intercessory power of the Virgin and her icons).

This account is becoming rather long, so I’ll stop there. Another time I’ll continue with a review of the Old English version of Mary’s story, and the four Middle English redactions, and one in Middle Scots. They are all found in large hagiographical collections compiled between the late 13C and 1495. I’ll finish for now with another delightful pictorial representation, depicting Mary in the usual Western style, with her hair (and hand) modestly covering her, while Zosimus hands her his cloak – without averting his eyes. Here’s the whole page, with the introductory heading from the BL website; it’s The French Dunois Hours, c 1440, BL Yates Thompson MS 3, fol. 287. Zosimus is depicted as a Benedictine in a white cuculla or cowl (though the order is best known as the Black Monks, since they moved away from white or grey habits to black.)

Yates Thompson 3  f. 287  Mary of Egypt
Mary of Egypt

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