St. Margaret of Antioch was one of the most popular saints among the laity in medieval England, primarily because of her association with childbirth. Many churches housed side altars or images of this saint and had guilds dedicated to her. St. Margaret is also one of the most common subjects for wall paintings in England; some churches have her entire life - as many as twenty scenes - adorning their walls. When hearing the story of Margaret retold on her feast day (July 20), many people could have followed along by looking at the images painted on the walls of their own church. Because of the promises made just before Margaret's death to assist anyone - especially women in childbirth - who has her life written down, reads it, or has it read to them, extant copies of her legend are quite common, some of them written on long strips of parchment which were fastened around the abdomens of women in labor.
The cult of St. Margaret first developed in the eastern Church (the first extant Lives in Greek date from the ninth century), where she was known as Marina and usually portrayed as seizing a demon, about to strike him with a hammer. Her victory over the demon caused Marina to be regarded as a protector against demonic powers generally. Once her cult became established in the West, her intercessory power became more specific and included protection for newborns against demonic possession and other birth defects. Eventually she came to be identified as a protector of both mother and child during and immediately after birth, although (as will be seen in the two later Middle English texts) the petitions for undeformed children are sometimes omitted and the prayer focuses primarily on the mother's welfare.
As early as the tenth century there was concern about the authenticity of the most spectacular elements in the Margaret legend, her victories over the dragon and the demon. When reading different versions, these are important sites to compare. Some writers were uncomfortable with the idea that Margaret had actually been swallowed by the dragon; for instance, Jacobus de Voragine, the author of the Legenda aurea
, called the scene "apocryphal and not to be taken seriously" (trans. Ryan, 1.369), and other writers found alternative ways of presenting the episode. In this selection, the stanzaic Life attributes Margaret's escape not to her own gesture of making the sign of the cross, but to the actual cross on which Christ was crucified. Mirk says that the dragon took Margaret into his mouth, but not that he swallowed her. Lydgate's dragon gets only as far as Margaret's head before he splits open. Despite clerical discomfort with the dragon scene, it could not be dropped completely from vernacular lives of Margaret because it served as the source for the familiar iconography of this saint, who is traditionally shown either as emerging from the dragon or standing atop it in triumph. Mirk specifically calls his audience's attention to this moment as the image of Margaret that they know.
Another notable feature of the Lives of St. Margaret is the way they seem to reflect the needs of particular audiences by means of the particular petitions in Margaret's final prayer. Petitions for the preservation of chastity, safe childbirth and healthy offspring, protection from other kinds of danger, and forgiveness of sins suggest the wide range of believers who might turn to this saint in times of trouble. The claims for Margaret's power as an intercessor also became a matter of concern for some reform-minded clergy; and later versions of her legend sometimes water down the contents of her final prayer - as may be seen by comparing the bold promises in the stanzaic account below with the more general assurances of comfort and grace in the retellings by Mirk and especially Lydgate.
Although the present edition is based on a fifteenth-century copy (Cambridge University Library MS Addit. 4122), the anonymous stanzaic Life dates to the second half of the thirteenth century, making it approximately contemporary with the South English Legendary
. The rhymes would have made this version of the saint's life easy to memorize, as well as entertaining for those who heard it read or recited aloud. The text's strong emphasis on childbirth highlights the importance of St. Margaret for laywomen, and it is easy to imagine this version being utilized as a means of comfort during labor. The text is lively but decorous; in comparison with some earlier manuscripts of the stanzaic Life, in fact, this fifteenth-century copy seems remarkably polite and restrained. The narrative contains some details rarely found in other versions, such as the story of Margaret's parents and especially her mother, who is barely mentioned in most accounts.
Mirk's version is presented as a sermon that a priest could adapt or simply read aloud from the pulpit on the appropriate Sunday in July. Although it is obviously designed with lay hearers in mind, it seems intent on reminding them that the cult of St. Margaret should be connected with the sacraments of the church, not turned into a matter of private observances at home. Thus the sermon begins rather tellingly with the priest admonishing his parishioners to attend mass on the saint's feast day if they want the full benefits of commemorating her. Mirk's retelling of the legend itself places unusual emphasis on baptism. In fact, he makes a point of explaining how both Margaret herself and her thousands of converts manage to satisfy this requirement for entering the kingdom of heaven, and he has the devil confess to Margaret that his favorite evil deed is to make Christians forget their baptismal vows; in most versions of the legend, the devil's main target is chastity.
John Lydgate, born around 1370, was a Benedictine monk at St. Edmund's monastery in Bury. He was a prolific author and had an enormous reputation during his lifetime, receiving commissions for poems from many notable patrons, including the future king Henry V. Anne Mortimer, Countess of March, commissioned his Life of St. Margaret
sometime between 1415 (the year of her marriage to Edmund Mortimer) and 1426 - that is, during the period of her life when she was likeliest to be concerned with childbearing and with Margaret's special focus as an intercessor. Lydgate wrote eight saints' lives altogether, as well as an additional miracle of the Virgin Mary. His style may be contrasted with that of the two earlier texts, and reflects the tastes and concerns of his aristocratic audience.
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