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The Legend of Mary Magdelen, Penitent and Apostle: Introduction


1 See William Caxton, A Critical Edition, ed. Mycoff, p. 178.
The Mary Magdalen of medieval legend was a composite figure who had her origins in the Biblical passages about three different women - not just the woman explicitly called Mary Magdalen in the Gospels, but also Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the unnamed female sinner who washed Christ's feet with her tears. Biblical exegetes in the Latin West tended to equate the three from the time of Gregory the Great on, but the various New Testament passages about these women were first woven into a single narrative vita in a tenth-century sermon attributed to Odo of Cluny. Odo's sermon, which was subsequently used as a source of lessons in the liturgy for Mary Magdalen's feast day (July 22), relates her life up to the time of Christ's Ascension. The post-Ascension portion of the legend developed in a great variety of ways, but the dominant version in the West was clearly the one that claimed that she journeyed to Provence in a rudderless boat, had a successful career as an apostle in Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, and then spent thirty years alone in the wilderness nearby as a contemplative hermit.

Victor Saxer, who did most of the pioneering work on both the cult and the legend, found that the legend of Mary Magdalen in Provence has four major components, which originated separately. (1) The vita eremitica, recounting her years of solitude in the wilderness and her death, was probably borrowed in the ninth century from the Greek legend of a reformed prostitute, Mary of Egypt. As Katherine Ludwig Jansen has pointed out, the Bible never actually specifies the nature of Mary Magdalen's sins, but medieval exegetes and preachers found it natural to connect female sinfulness with prostitution (The Making of the Magdalen, pp. 146 ff.). (2) The vita apostolica, recounting Mary Magdalen's apostolic work in Provence but not the story of the prince of Marseilles, dates from around the same time in the tenth century as Odo's sermon. (3) A translation story was added in the eleventh century to explain how her body had been rediscovered in Provence some 200 years earlier and brought north - with her consent - to the abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy. (4) The story of the prince of Marseilles, which bears close resemblances to secular romance and would become a favorite part of the vernacular legends of Mary Magdalen, was added even later - probably in the twelfth century. In addition to these major components, the Provençal legend in its fully developed form often includes two other kinds of relatively late additions: brief accounts of Martha, Lazarus, and other saints who supposedly accompanied Mary to Marseilles and participated in the evangelization of France, and stories about her miraculous intercessions for believers who have prayed to her or honored her memory in other ways.

As the additions to her legend suggest, the cult of Mary Magdalen was still strong and dynamic in the late Middle Ages. Her cult had special resonance in France, of course, because her principal shrines were located there. The Cluniac abbey of Vézelay, which had gained papal recognition in 1058 for its claim to possess her body, grew into one of the greatest pilgrimage centers in Europe - thanks to the prestige of its patron saint, the support of the French monarchy, and its perfect location, on a main route used by pilgrims from Germany to Santiago of Compostella. In Provence were the grotto at Sainte-Baume, widely believed to have served as the site of Mary Magdalen's thirty-year sojourn in the wilderness, and nearby the monastic church of St. Maximin, specifically mentioned in some versions of the legend as her original burial place. The relative status of the Provençal shrines improved considerably after 1279, when the monks of St. Maximin's and the Angevin prince Charles of Salerno miraculously discovered that her body was still there after all, hidden inside an ancient sarcophagus in the crypt of the church. Thus Charles and his allies attempted to reclaim the saint's patronage and protection, which had earlier been symbolically transferred to Burgundy, for the county of Provence and the house of Anjou. But the cult of Mary Magdalen in France was a larger phenomenon than the claims of any single region or ruling family. For one thing, the legend of her apostolate in Provence had been incorporated (along with the legends of St. Denis of Paris and St. Martial of Limoges) into the myth of origins which proved the antiquity and importance of the French church as a whole. The tradition that she and Lazarus had personally brought Christianity to Gaul in the first century had such deep patriotic appeal that it remained stubbornly lodged in French popular belief until the nineteenth century, despite the best efforts of historians to debunk it.

In England, the cult of Mary Magdalen must have begun in Anglo-Saxon times, as witnessed by the presence of her feast day in Bede's martyrology (c. 720) and in early monastic calendars. The entry for her in the Old English Martyrology (c. 900) already shows a knowledge of her vita eremitica, and Exeter Cathedral claimed to have one of her relics as early as the tenth century. The most striking evidence of growth postdates the Norman Conquest, but only a fraction of it can be ascribed to French influence. Where two or three churches had been dedicated to her by 1100 and some 35 a century later, the total had grown to nearly 200 by the end of the Middle Ages. The importance of her cult in late-medieval England is further suggested by the high ranking of her feast day in the summer calendar, her prominence among the saints chosen for visual depiction in churches and in manuscripts, and the fact that she was the first female saint to have a college dedicated to her at Oxford (where the students, of course, were all male). Even more telling than the number of such tributes, however, is the diversity of persons and groups from which they came. 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. At the opposite extreme, as David Mycoff has suggested, the legend of the prince of Marseilles invited rich laymen to invest in her cult as a form of family insurance: "Mary Magdalene, the harlot saint who twice renounced a great patrimony and the dynastic (i.e., reproductive) obligations of that inheritance - once to follow a life of sin in unbridled sexuality and once to follow holiness in negated sexuality - becomes a source of fecundity and dynastic stability. She procures children for the princes, in one instance serving as midwife and nurse."1

Given the wealth of possible themes and messages that could be derived from this legend in its late-medieval form, a good way of approaching its retellings is to notice which choices each has made. For example, which aspects of Mary Magdalen's sanctity have been chosen for emphasis? Is she being presented primarily as an exemplar of penitence, of loving service to Jesus, of active charity in the world, or of contemplative withdrawal into solitude? Is she actually being held up as a model for imitation, or is this retelling designed instead to encourage devotion to her as a patron and intercessor, or merely to provide some edifying entertainment? It is also instructive to notice how the various retellings of this legend deal with particular issues that had become controversial toward the end of the Middle Ages. The most obvious example is Mary Magdalen's career in Provence as a preacher and apostle. Since laymen and women were expressly forbidden to preach, a prohibition repeatedly attacked during this period by Waldensians on the Continent and Lollards in England, defenders of orthodoxy did not find it easy to explain away the apparent precedents set by women saints who had preached. In some cases they could simply ignore that aspect of a saint's example - as the Speculum Sacerdotale does in its account of Mary Magdalen (edited below). As Jansen has recently shown, however, Mary Magdalen's apostolic preaching had so much significance for the clergy themselves that they generally preferred less radical solutions. The early SEL account given below illustrates one such solution when it grants her power and efficacy as a preacher but insists on her subordination to the pope and Bishop Maximus whenever there is a sacrament to be administered (lines 312, 446-60, 527-30, and 627-31). Another controversial question was the extent to which Mary Magdalen's early loss of chastity was reversed thereafter by her perfect penance and love for Christ (Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen, pp. 287-94). Was it possible for her actually to become a virgin again, as her place among the virgins in the litany of saints seemed to suggest? Some late-medieval texts, including the Digby play Mary Magdalene, give strongly affirmative answers to this question, which was clearly an important one to contemporary women like Margery Kempe. Although none of the accounts given below takes an explicit stand on the matter, the Speculum Sacerdotale may be alluding to it in the very careful wording of lines 73-76, which connects Mary Magdalen to the virgins in the litany without quite calling her a virgin herself.

The account of Mary Magdalen here called the "early SEL account" is not really part of the South English Legendary itself, although it is found in Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 (c. 1300) and two later manuscripts of that work. According to Manfred Görlach, who has done the most authoritative research on the textual history of the South English Legendary, this account is probably a much earlier poem that was inserted "as an emergency measure of the 'L' compiler who, not finding a legend of the important saint in his defective exemplar, adapted the heterogeneous text to the style of the SEL collection" (Textual Tradition of the South English Legendary, pp. 181-82). Like the stanzaic accounts of Margaret and Katherine in the present edition, this version of the Mary Magdalen legend borrows frequently and sometimes conspicuously from the conventions of secular verse romances, suggesting that it was competing for the attention of a lay audience whose tastes and expectations had been formed by that genre. The nature of the intended audience in this case is further suggested by another striking feature of the stanzaic Mary Magdalen: the emphasis it places on the proper uses of wealth. Those who generously share their material possessions, especially by feeding the hungry and offering hospitality to Christ and his disciples, are defined from the outset as wise and good (e.g., lines 27-28 and 55-62), and the story of the prince of Marseilles dramatically suggests how God will bless those who practice such generosity and punish those who neglect or refuse to do so.

John Mirk was a canon at Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire who wrote three extant books, Instructions for Priests, Manual Sacerdotis, and the Festial or Liber Festivalis, between about 1380 and 1410. The Festial, which includes this prose account of Mary Magdalen, is a collection of vernacular sermons for the major saints and festivals of the church year, for use by priests who were not learned or ambitious enough to find sermon materials for themselves. One notable feature of Mirk's sample sermons is the extent of their reliance on legends, exempla, and popular tales, most of them drawn from Latin collections like the Legenda aurea and the Gesta Romanorum. This style of preaching was harshly criticized by the Lollards and later by Protestant reformers, who charged that it substituted entertainment for wholesome teaching based on the Bible, but it must have been successful in holding the attention of unlearned congregations. The usefulness of the Festial is suggested by the fact that it circulated widely - often in versions that had been adapted, revised, or supplemented for other kinds of audiences - for well over a century. There are at least 40 extant manuscripts which include one or more of Mirk's sample sermons, and 18 editions of the Festial were printed between 1483 and 1532. Mirk's sermon on Mary Magdalen begins and ends with lessons about the connections between her experience and that of "alle synful [people]," who should be inspired to repent as she did in the certainty that God's grace will meet and surpass their needs. One question worth asking about his retelling of the legend is whether it actually encourages more identification with the saint than those in the early SEL and the Speculum Sacerdotale, or whether some other agenda can be glimpsed behind his choice of emphases and details.

The Speculum Sacerdotale, an anonymous collection of sermon material that survives in just one manuscript, is probably just a decade or two later in date than Mirk's Festial, and very similar to Mirk's work in sources, scope, and apparent purpose. In fact, Edward H. Weatherly suggests in his introduction to the EETS edition of the Speculum that the two works "are efforts . . . to do exactly the same thing - to furnish a book of instruction in matters of church observance and legend in the vernacular for the use of parish priests" (p. xl). Nonetheless, Weatherly himself points out several significant differences between the two. The author of the Speculum Sacerdotale seems relatively unconcerned with effective story-telling, apparently because his goal was to supply "a mass of material upon which priests might draw for sermons" (Weatherly, p. xxxvi), rather than chapters suitable for delivery as they stood. The Speculum includes more expository material than the Festial does, and some of it is clearly intended for the instruction of priests themselves - most notably a long treatise on the sacrament of penance that includes specific instructions on hearing confessions and assigning penances (pp. xli, xxxix). In addition, Weatherly notes one suggestive difference between the kinds of stories the two works tend to tell: "Most of the stories in the Festial teach a moral; those in the S.S. attempt to arouse devotion through wonder at the miraculous" (p. xli). One might also point out that the Speculum includes only two female saints other than the Virgin Mary, and makes very short work of their lives at that. In the case of Mary Magdalen, it takes her directly from Christ's Ascension to the desert, omitting the entire legend of her apostleship and concentrating instead on the priest's encounters with her just before she dies and a series of posthumous miracles in which she intervenes to save a child and two adult sinners.

Go To Early South English Legendary Life of Mary Magdalen
Select Bibliography

Indexed in

[Early SEL Life]Brown-Robbins, #3159.


[Early SEL Life]Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 (SC 1486), fols. 190r-197r.

[Mirk] London, British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.ii, fols. 91v-93v.

[Spec. Sac.] London, British Library MS Additional 36791, fols. 96r-98r.

Previous editions

Early South English Legendary Life

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Sammlung altenglischer Legenden. 1878. Pp. 148-62.

Mirk, John. Mirk's Festial. Ed. Theodor Erbe. EETS, e.s. 96. 1905. Pp. 203-08. [The EETS edition is based on Bodleian Library MS Gough Eccl. Top. 4 (SC 17680). I have chosen to follow Cotton Claudius instead because it is probably earlier than Gough Eccl. and often has fuller readings.]

Speculum Sacerdotale
Weatherly, Edward H., ed. Speculum Sacerdotale. EETS, o.s. 200. 1936. Pp. 170-74.

Important sources and analogues in English

Bokenham, Osbern. Legendys of Hooly Wummen. Ed. Mary S. Serjeantson. EETS o.s. 206. 1938. Pp. 136-72.

Caxton, William. A Critical Edition of the Legend of Mary Magdalena from Caxton's Golden Legende of 1483. Ed. David A. Mycoff. Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies 92:11. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1985. [Analogue with comprehensive introduction and notes, including a discussion of the relationship between the three accounts edited here and the Legenda aurea.]

[The Digby] Mary Magdalen. In Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and E Museo 160. Ed. Donald C. Baker, John L. Murphy, and Louis P. Hall, Jr. EETS o.s. 283. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. Pp. 24-95.

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Trans. William Granger Ryan. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Vol. 1. Pp. 374-83.

The Life of Saint Mary Magdalene and of her Sister Saint Martha: A Medieval Biography. Trans. and ed. David Mycoff. Cistercian Studies Series 108. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1989. [Analogue with helpful notes on particular details. Migne and the Library of Congress attribute this text to Rabanus Maurus (c. 780-856), but it is actually an anonymous work from the late twelfth century. ]

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.

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. [Essay on the later SEL account.]