Item 30, The Lament of Mary: Introduction


1 For the Byzantine origins of the tradition of Marian laments, see Sticca, Planctus Mariae in the Dramatic Tradition of the Middle Ages, pp. 31–49; see also Alexiou, Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition.

2 For the history of the “Quis dabit” and subsequent translations into French and English, see Marx, “Middle English Verse ‘Lamentation of Mary to Saint Bernard’” and “Quis dabit of Oglerius de Tridino.”

3 Woolf provides a brief overview of the Pietà in England (English Religious Lyric, pp. 392–94); the English tradition has been largely obscured by the iconoclasm of the Reformation.

4 Stanbury, “Virgin’s Gaze,” p. 1091.

5 Printed in C. Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, pp. 8–13.

6 Keiser, “Middle English Planctus Mariae,” pp. 169–73. The “now” of this framework is, of course, a fiction, since Mary’s sorrow was replaced by her joy at the Resurrection and her own Assumption, but for the purposes of contemplation the moment of the Crucifixion is effectively timeless.

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Item 30, The Lament of Mary: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The roots of this poem go back to the Eastern Church of the fifth and sixth cen­turies, when Mary was confirmed as “Theotokos” or “Mother of God” (literally, “the one who bore God”) by the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 and a tradition of Marian laments for the crucified Christ began to be re­corded.1 But the poem is very much a product of late fifteenth-century piety, probably com­posed no earlier than the second quarter of the century and strongly influenced by lit­erary, artistic, and devotional trends of this period. Fervent, emotional contemplations of the Pas­sion and the wounded body of Christ were produced in an enormous number of literary forms. Among these were poems influenced by the Latin tradition of the “Quis dabit,” a text often erroneously attributed to Ber­nard of Clairvaux.2 In these poems, a speaker (sometimes identified as Saint Bernard) cannot properly feel sorrow for the Pas­sion and asks for help. He receives a vision of the Virgin Mary, who narrates the events of the Pas­sion in emotional detail, thus teaching him to feel appro­priate pity for Christ’s suffering.

The “Quis dabit” and related works were paralleled by the rise of the Pietà in the figu­rative art of fifteenth-century Europe. The Pietà presents the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ in her lap, and it appeared widely in sculpture, painting, manuscript illumination, and woodcuts, particularly in Books of Hours.3 In the poem presented here, the speaker encounters just such an image, and (through means unexplained) the Virgin begins to speak. The poem thus aims at the conversion of looking into feeling: just as Mary looks at her son and turns his pain into hers, the narrator sees the Pietà and turns it into a living voice. But this gaze also involves discomfort, and as Sarah Stanbury has argued of other Middle English Passion lyrics, the Pietà is one of “many images of the Passion that systematically violate traditional boundaries between self and non-self, male and female, [and] the Virgin’s gaze touches Christ’s body . . . coercing us to con­front the spectacle of her act of looking.”4 When Mary mourns that she can thrust her longest finger through the wounds in her son’s feet, the reader’s gaze is invited to violate the body of Christ once more (lines 53–55).

In presenting the Virgin’s lament as a chance encounter, the poem follows the form of the chanson d’aventure, a lyric presented as the result of a dramatic confrontation. The struc­ture is not at all unique, present in both the “Quis dabit” and in Middle English poems such as “Filius regis mortuus est.”5 As George Keiser has pointed out, Marian laments (also known as the planctus Mariae) usually work by means of a rhetoric of antithesis, com­paring the Son and the joys Mary once knew with the Son and the sorrows she bears now.6 The image of the Pietà plays upon an antithesis between the familiar depictions of Mary nursing or holding the Christ Child on her knee and its depiction of Mary cradling the crucified Christ. In this poem, the antithesis, repeated in the refrain, is between the adored, living sons of mothers, and the scorned, tortured dead body of the Son of God.

This address to mothers is quite unusual for both Marian laments and medieval lyrics more generally, but it is a highly effective strategy. Mary compares the pampering, fawning pride of mothers and the hideous, unwept crimes committed upon her own son, a compar­ison that initially makes shocking claims upon the reader’s sympathies. Maternal love for children never seems misplaced, yet Mary demands “make ye no mone for your chyld, / . . . if it dede be” (lines 11–12). But by the final stanza, the refrain’s insistence on the sacrifice of one child for all children culminates in Mary’s final resolution of the antithesis: “My son is your and lufys you wele” (line 94). The Son of God is also the Son of Man; the loss must be felt universally.

Manuscript Context

This poem’s unusual address to mothers and its dependence on the maternal bond for its rhetorical power makes it an obvious fit with the other depictions of the family throughout Ashmole 61. Laments for lost children appear in Saint Eustace, Sir Isumbras, and The Jealous Wife (items 1, 5, and 22). Sir Orfeo includes similarly powerful grief in the lament of Orfeo for Dame Heurodys (item 39). Yet in contrast to those celebrations of familial love, this lyric emphasizes its limits. Family must not be valued above the ties of kinship between humanity and Christ, the only ties based on complete love and sacrifice. This emphasis places The La­ment of Mary closer to Vanity (item 40), with its similar insistence on the contingency of all human good other than the love of God.


This poem survives in two distinct forms. The first, preserved in three manuscripts (Cambridge University Library MSS Ff.2.38 [C] and Ff.5.48 [P], and Manchester, John Rylands Library MS Chetham 8009), does not include the chanson d’aventure opening or the follow­ing two stanzas of the text printed here, but includes two other stanzas not included in Ashmole 61’s version and presents two stanzas (7 and 8 here) in a different order. Ox­ford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C. 86 (R) and Ashmole 61 represent the other version; the pri­ority of the versions is not clear.

The stanzas are generally rhymed ababbcbc, but in four stanzas Rate has revised lines with his characteristic indifference to rhyme (see the notes to lines 10, 39, 59, and 94). In other respects, the text is not noticeably defective.

Printed Editions

Brown, Carleton, ed. Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century. Pp. 13–16. [Prints text of P.]

Cords, Rose. “Fünf me. Gedichte aus den Hss. Rawlinson Poetry 36 und Rawlinson C. 86.” Archiv für das Studien der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 135 (1916), 292–302. [Prints text of R on pp. 300–02.]

Davies, R. T., ed. Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology. Pp. 210–11. [Prints text of C.]

Förster, M. “Kleinere mittelenglische Texte.” Anglia 42 (1918), 167–72. [Prints text of John Rylands Library MS Chetham 8009.]

Sandison, Helen Estabrook. The “Chanson d’aventure” in Middle English. Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr College, 1913. [Prints parallel texts of Ashmole 61 and R, pp. 104–09; discusses religious chanson d’aventure pp. 68–81.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1447 (see also 2619)
Greentree, Rosemary. The Middle English Lyric and Short Poem.

See also Gray (1972), Keiser (1985), Marx (1990 and 1994), Stanbury, Sticca, G. Taylor, and Woolf (1968) in the bibliography.

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