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Legends of St. Anne, Mother of the Virgin Mary: Introduction


1 Numerous illustrations of these medieval images can be found in Interpreting Cultural Symbols, ed. Ashley and Sheingorn. On the theological and social implications of the medieval images of the Holy Kinship and their less matrilineal replacements during the Reformation, see especially Sheingorn's essay in this collection, "Appropriating the Holy Kinship."

2 Gail McMurray Gibson writes eloquently about this aspect of the legend in "The Religion of Childbed," pp. 104-07.
Although the canonical books of the New Testament never mention the parents of the Virgin Mary, traditions about her family, childhood, education, and eventual betrothal to Joseph developed very early in the history of the church. The oldest and most influential account of this kind is the apocryphal gospel called the Protevangelium of James, first written in Greek around the middle of the second century. The high status of the Protevangelium in the Eastern Church is attested by the survival of numerous manuscripts not only in Greek but also in Coptic (Sahidic), Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Old Church Slavonic, and Arabic translations. In the West, on the other hand, the Protevangelium fell under a cloud in the fourth and fifth centuries when it was accused of "absurdities" by St. Jerome and condemned as untrustworthy by Popes Damasus, Innocent I, and Gelasius. Jerome's most explicit complaint was that it explained the brothers of Jesus, mentioned most prominently in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56, as Joseph's sons by an earlier marriage. In the interpretation preferred by Jerome and the Western Church, the so-called brothers are interpreted as cousins of Jesus, sons of Mary's sisters, thus allowing both Joseph and Mary to be envisioned as lifelong virgins.

The dubious reputation of the Protevangelium in the wake of these condemnations evidently delayed the development of Anne's legend and cult in the West by several centuries. But the stigma was not passed on to the Latin retellings and elaborations of the same narrative that began to circulate under different titles in the early Middle Ages; ironically enough, some of them even buttressed their credentials with prefatory letters supposedly written by Jerome. The most popular of these accounts was the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (sometimes called the History of the Birth of Mary and the Infancy of the Savior), which survives in several distinct recensions and at least 130 manuscripts, the earliest of which date to c. 800. The various recensions of Pseudo-Matthew gave rise in their turn to dozens of later works, in both Latin and the vernacular, that retold the story of Mary's birth and early life, adapting it to new audiences and purposes.

Anne was initially just a minor character in the legend derived from the Protevangelium. But her role was capable of great significance because of what it could imply about the Virgin Mary and about the workings of God in this world. Christians were obviously curious from the start about when and why God had selected Mary for her unique position as the mother of the Redeemer. The legend attempts to answer such questions by borrowing from Biblical stories about other long-awaited children, including Isaac (Genesis 15-18, 21:1-8), Samson (Judges 13), John the Baptist (Luke 1: 5-25, 57-80), and especially Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2); thus Mary becomes both a child of destiny, heralded before birth as a chosen instrument in the redemption of God's people, and a sign of God's favor toward her parents, a virtuous couple who had long been barren. With the growth of Mary's cult in the twelfth century, a harder and more controversial question began to be raised about her conception and birth. Was she subject to sin like other human beings, making her redemption dependent on Christ's sacrifice, or had she been "immaculate" (unspotted, free from original sin) from the start? The Council of Basel endorsed the latter position in 1438, and Pope Pius IX approved it definitively as a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church in 1854. During the late Middle Ages, however, belief in Mary's immaculate conception was strongly opposed by many theologians, including most Dominicans. Since sexual intercourse was understood as the means by which original sin was transmitted from one generation to another, the legend about the separation of Mary's parents during the year before she was born took on new importance in the context of this dispute. Some versions of the legend support the "immaculist" position, suggesting that Mary was miraculously conceived at the moment when the angel appeared to her mother or (more often) when her parents were reunited at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem and chastely embraced. In versions preferred by the Dominicans and other maculists, on the other hand, there is no suggestion that she was conceived in anything other than the normal biological fashion, after her parents' reunion.

Anne also played a useful role for medieval commentators on the Bible when they attempted to explain the extended family of Jesus. As mentioned earlier, Jerome had argued successfully that the "brothers" mentioned in the Gospels were Jesus's cousins, sons of Mary's sisters. Biblical commentators in the early medieval West went on to identify those sisters with two other Maries mentioned in the Gospels (John 19:25 and Mark 16:1), to take Anne as the mother of all three, and to explain the names of her second and third daughters by creating the theory of the trinubium, or three marriages of Anne. According to the trinubium, Joachim must have died soon after the birth of the Virgin Mary, so that Anne could marry a second husband named Cleophas, by whom she bore Mary Cleophas, and (after Cleophas's death) a third husband named Salome, by whom she bore Mary Salome. From these three daughters, the theory continued, came Jesus and all six "brothers" or cousins named in the Gospels. James the lesser or younger, Joseph or Joses, Simon, and Jude were explained as the sons of Mary Cleophas, who had married Alpheus; James the Greater and John the Evangelist, as the sons of Mary Salome, who had married Zebedee. Thus Anne became the grandmother of some of the most prominent apostles, as well as Jesus himself. The trinubium theory was condemned in the twelfth century and later by a number of theologians, who felt that multiple marriages and additional children were incompatible with the purity and holiness that must have characterized the Virgin's mother, and some Biblical scholars rejected it on the grounds that it depended on misinterpretations of particular names and details. But the theory had a certain amount of internal logic on its side, given the way the legend equated fertility with blessedness and connected Anne with Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who was granted three more sons and two daughters after she dedicated her firstborn to God's service. The idea of the holy family as a large and powerful kinship had another advantage in medieval culture, of course, because it conformed so well with that culture's assumptions about family and class. The theory was incorporated into later recensions of Pseudo-Matthew and repeated in the Legenda aurea, and by those means became generally known and widely accepted in the later Middle Ages as part of Anne's life story.

Like her legend, the cult of St. Anne was so closely connected with that of the Virgin Mary, especially at the beginning, that it is not easy to tell where the one leaves off and the other begins. In the Eastern church the cult of Anne herself may go back as far as c. 550, when Justinian built a church in Constantinople in her honor. The earliest sign of her veneration in the West is an eighth-century fresco in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, which shows her with a halo, holding the infant Mary. But not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is there unmistakable evidence that the Western church was honoring St. Anne in her own right, rather than just an adjunct to Mary. During those centuries returning crusaders and pilgrims from the East brought relics of Anne to a number of churches, including most famously those at Apt, in Provence, Ghent, and Chartres. By 1300 at least five important English monastic foundations were also claiming to have relics of Anne, and dozens of additional shrines, altars, and chapels had been dedicated to her, both in England and on the Continent.

Liturgical commemorations of Anne in the West seem to have followed a similar course of development, except that monastic houses in England played a more central role. The story of Joachim and Anne received at least passing mention in the liturgy for one of the oldest annual feasts of Mary, the Nativity of the Virgin (September 8 in Western calendars), which was included in the Sacramentary of Gelasius (c. 700) and firmly established in Anglo-Saxon England by the ninth or tenth century. Anne's role tended to take on more importance when an annual feast was added to celebrate the Conception of the Virgin (observed exactly nine months earlier - i.e., December 8). There is good evidence that the Conception was being commemorated at Winchester, Exeter, and Canterbury before the Norman Conquest, and this feast day was revived in the twelfth century through the efforts of Benedictine writers like Eadmer of Canterbury and Anselm of Bury, although it became generally established in England only after 1328 (when it was made obligatory for the whole Province of Canterbury) and was not clearly mandated for the Church as a whole until 1476 (when Pope Sixtus IV confirmed the Council of Basel's ruling on the matter). England also preceded most of the Continent in instituting a separate feast day for Anne herself (July 26). The date traditionally associated with the adoption of this feast is 1382, the year in which Pope Urban VI authorized its celebration throughout England, but it was already being celebrated in the twelfth century in some of the great English monastic churches, most notably those at Worcester and Evesham.

The great flowering of Anne's cult among the laity occurred between about 1300 and the Council of Trent in the mid sixteenth century. By 1540 there were at least 40 medieval churches and chapels under her patronage in England, the majority of which had been dedicated or rededicated to her during the previous two centuries. She also had major shrines at Buxton (Derbyshire) and Wood-Plumpton (Lancashire), and was frequently chosen by prosperous laymen and women as patron saint of their guilds and recipient of special bequests and offerings. As Gail Gibson has shown, such devotion to her seems to have been unusually strong in East Anglia. Many churches had cycles of paintings or tapestries illustrating key scenes from her legend, or portraits of the Holy Kinship that showed Anne surrounded by her daughters and grandsons. Another popular late-medieval image of Anne was the grouping known in German as the Anna Selbdritt ("herself making a third") - a maternal version of the Trinity, in effect, often with Anne seated in a position recalling God the Father on His throne, with the young Virgin Mary on her knee, holding the infant Jesus.1

Anne appealed in a number of different ways to various groups and classes within the late-medieval church. As has already been suggested, some theologians found material in her legend to support their arguments about the Immaculate Conception and other issues related to the Incarnation of Christ. Some religious orders, most notably the Carmelites, claimed a special relationship with her and other members of the holy family, which they used to lend prestige to their own institutional history. To many members of the laity, on the other hand, Anne obviously represented an attractive alternative to the standard equation of female saintliness with virginity, persecution, and early death. Envisioned as a holy mother and grandmother, contentedly presiding over a family of well-brought-up daughters and grandsons, she naturally became a patron saint of marriage and the family. A wife whose virtue was ultimately rewarded with fertility, she seemed an appropriate guardian against both lechery and barrenness. In addition, as Ton Brandenbarg has noted, the prominence of genealogies in her legend led to her association with "dynastic sanctity," an ideal with great attractiveness both to aristocrats and to members of the middle class with ambitions for their families. She was also associated with other bourgeois values, including prosperity, diligence, generosity to the poor, married chastity, and harmonious family life, and (since she was often portrayed with a book, teaching the young Virgin Mary to read) with education, especially for women. But her potential appeal extended even to illiterate peasants, especially insofar as she recalled the figure of the powerful grandmother in folklore, and indeed to anyone who simply needed an intercessor with Jesus and believed in the power of family connections.

The Middle English versions of her legend edited here suggest that the cult of Anne developed quite unevenly in different regions or segments of society in England. The two chapters by Mirk remind us how recently she had been added to the calendar in many English churches - and that the impetus for her cult sometimes came from above, not from the grass roots. Mirk's sermon on the Conception is really about Mary, as the final miracle stories show, and Anne receives less attention than Joachim does in the narrative leading up to Mary's birth. Even in his sermon for St. Anne's feast day, Mirk does not present Anne as a saint with her own cult and identity. The opening section, in which he distinguishes Anne from several women in the Bible with similar names, suggests that he didn't expect his audience to have much prior knowledge of her. When he gives a family lineage, it is the lineage of Anne's husband Joachim, rather than that of Anne herself. And although he repeats the legend of her later marriages, the sermon does not actually focus attention on Anne herself except at the end, and even there the account of her holy lineage in lines 65-71 is taken to prove her potential usefulness as a derivative or subordinate saint, a means of access to Mary, her daughter.

The fifteenth-century verse retelling of Anne's life by Osbern Bokenham (1393-1464?), in contrast, shows much more interest in Anne's own character and virtues, and in her human experience. Bokenham, an Austin (Augustinian) friar at Clare Priory in East Anglia, dedicated most of his accounts of female saints to laywomen from prominent families in the vicinity. In the case of St. Anne, he wrote for Katherine Clopton Denston, daughter and sister of wealthy cloth merchants whose family portraits survive in the parish church of nearby Long Melford, where they were major donors. Katherine and her husband John Denston, a local landowner and civil servant, had just one child, a daughter named after St. Anne, and Bokenham spells out one purpose of his account in the closing lines, when he invokes the saint's help in fulfilling their desire for a second child, a son.2 But it is clearly not just St. Anne's role as an intercessor that makes her life relevant, in Bokenham's view, to women like his friend Katherine Denston. His account goes well beyond its sources in its sympathetic attention to the marriage between Anne and Joachim - adding passages, for instance, which emphasize how well matched they are in age, rank, and virtue (lines 229-50), how dearly Anne loves her husband (336-49), and how joyful she is when he returns from his long absence (567-73). Thus Bokenham reassuringly suggests through St. Anne that laypeople can have a good and loving marriage without forfeiting the possibility of holiness.

Go To John Mirk, Sermon on the Conception of the Virgin Mary
Select Bibliography

Indexed in

[Bokenham]Brown-Robbins, #1414.


[Mirk]London, British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.ii, fols. 11v-13r, 95v-96v.
[Bokenham]London, British Library MS Arundel 327, fols. 27r-39r.

Previous editions


Mirk, John. Mirk's Festial. Ed. Theodor Erbe. EETS, e.s. 96 (1905). Pp. 15-18, 213-16.

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Osbern Bokenham's Legenden. In Altenglische Bibliothek, vol. 1. Ed. Eugen Kölbing. Heilbronn: Henninger, 1883.

Bokenham, Osbern. Legendys of Hooly Wummen. Ed. Mary S. Serjeantson. EETS o.s. 206. 1938. Pp. 38-58.

Translations into modern English

Delany, Sheila, trans. and intro. A Legend of Holy Women. 1992. Pp. 29-41. [For full reference, see Bokenham in General Bibliography, p. 15.]

Important sources and analogues in English

Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Chs. 1-5. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Rev. and arranged A. Cleveland Coxe. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1867-72. Rpt. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1989. Vol. 8. Pp. 368-71.

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Trans. William Granger Ryan. Ch. 131, "The Birth of the Virgin." 1993. Vol. 2. Pp. 149-58.

Meredith, Peter, ed. The Mary Play from the N. town Manuscript. London and New York: Longman, 1987. Pp. 30-48.

Parker, Roscoe E., ed. Middle English Stanzaic Versions of the Life of Saint Anne. EETS o.s. 174. London: Oxford University Press, 1928.

Protevangelium of James. Chs. 1-7. In The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation. Ed. J. K. Elliott. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. 48-60.

Historical background and commentary

Ashley, Kathleen, and Pamela Sheingorn. "Introduction." In Ashley and Sheingorn, Inter-preting Cultural Symbols. Pp. 1-68.

Bishop, Edmund. "On the Origins of the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary." In Liturgica Historica: Papers on the Liturgy and Religious Life of the Western Church. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1918. Pp. 238-49. [Originally published in The Downside Review, April 1886.]

Brandenbarg, Ton. "Saint Anne: A Holy Grandmother and Her Children." In Mulder-Bakker, Sanctity and Motherhood. Pp. 31-65.

Charland, Paul V. Madame saincte Anne et son culte au moyen âge. 2 vols. Paris: Alphonse Picard, 1911-1913.

Gibson, Gail McMurray. "The Religion of Childbed: Some East Anglian Texts and Talismans." In Ashley and Sheingorn. Pp. 95-110.

Sheingorn, Pamela. "Appropriating the Holy Kinship: Gender and Family History." In Ashley and Sheingorn. Pp. 169-98.