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Item 15, A Prayer to Mary: Introduction


1 See Maidstone’s Concordia. See also Strohm, “Queens as Intercessors.”

2 Woolf, English Religious Lyric, pp. 3–4.

3 On the mnemonic devices in this and related lyrics, see Greenberg, “Marie Moder.”

4 For a fuller treatment of the complex textual associations between Ashmole 61’s text and the other surviving texts of this poem, see Blanchfield’s discussion in “Idiosyncratic Scribe,” pp. 200–04.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Like The Ten Commandments (item 6), A Prayer to the Virgin Mary has been excerpted from the Speculum Christiani, a fourteenth-century compilation that provided pastoral clergy with Middle English verses and Latin commentary on the basic elements of the faith. In this com­pilation, the Prayer to the Virgin Mary appears in the last of eight tabula (sections). It shares this eighth section with a miscellaneous range of material, including a prayer to the sacrament, descriptions of pastoral duties, the efficacy of the Mass, and the varieties of idolatry.

A new prayer to the Virgin would have been viewed as a useful addition to almost any medieval compilation, whether a manual like the Speculum Christiani or a codex like Ash­mole 61. According to the Church’s Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, every Christian, let­tered and unlettered, was expected to know the Ave Maria (“Hail Mary”) as one of the essential short texts of devotion. Even before the establishment of the rosary, a chain of repeated Aves, the mendicant orders had encouraged the “Psalter of Our Lady,” a sim­ilar cycle meant to imitate the 150 Psalms. But the Ave Maria was only the most impor­tant of innumerable Marian pray­ers, hymns, carols, and lyrics in Latin and in every vern­acular language of western Europe.

The complex position Mary played in medieval faith offered many roles for the devout to contemplate and many epithets for the poet to use in composing her praise. Mary uniquely unites the roles of virgin, mother, and queen. As a virgin, Mary repre­sented more than the ideal of sexual chastity; she represented the possibility of bodily perfection. This text looks to the “mayden clene” (i.e., pure, immaculate) to “Helpe me to lyve in clene lyve” (lines 5 and 10), and the redeeming possibilities of Mary’s purity are analogous to (though not equal to) Christ’s innocence. As a mother, Mary embodies pity, a precious hope for all sinners, and by extension, all humanity. Though this text does not emphasize this bodily motherhood in depictions of Mary’s breasts, breast milk, or womb as some Marian liter­ature does, the constant appeals to Mary’s protection draw upon this sense of her role as the sympathetic maternal protector for all those in danger of any kind.

Mary’s role as queen (one of her many epithets is Regina Caeli, Queen of Heaven) is imagined in terms of protection; she was believed to perform miracles on behalf of those who placed their faith in her (see The Jealous Wife, item 22). But as queen, she also acted as a mediator or intercessor for petitioners who hoped to soften the judgments of Christ the King. In imagining her this way, medieval petitioners used an analogy to their own royal families, in which the queen was a traditional influence for mercy and forgiveness on the strict justice of the king. When an elaborate pageant was staged for the purpose of recon­ciling the city of London with Richard II, his beloved Queen Anne was among those who publicly fell to their knees and asked for his mercy.1 Mary was believed to act similarly (though with no need to fall on her knees, as her son never refused her).

The prayer presented here thus draws on a well-established set of roles for Mary, and neither its rhetoric nor its structure is in any way unusual. The poem opens with thor­oughly conventional terms of praise, and the opening line itself is shared by several other Middle English poems. After praising Mary’s singularity, the prayer then proceeds through a series of petitions, punctuated by repeated praise, before offering a promise of further service to the Virgin if she grants her aid. The poem indulges in no complex figur­ative speech or learned allusion and does not seem calculated to prompt meditative con­tem­plation. It belongs in the category that Rosemary Woolf has called “extra-liturgical prayers,” on the very borders of what we now consider lyric poetry.2 As such, it seems par­ticularly suited to Ashmole 61 in its simpli­city and unpretentious practicality.

Manuscript Context

This item follows naturally in the sequence of the prayers for evening and morning and the aborted recopying of The Ten Commandments (items 12, 13, and 14); all are short texts that might be memorized for frequent use, or that could be consulted by a reader who wished to expand his or her personal collection of useful prayers.3 Though Ashmole 61 does not have an unusually strong Marian theme, it does feature one other popular form of Marian lyric, The Lament of Mary (item 30). Mary also appears in the narrative accounts of the Passion and Resur­rection, The Northern Passion and The Legend of the Resurrection (items 28 and 36).


This prayer appears in over forty manuscripts, with some distinct differences between ver­sions preserved independently and those that appear in the Speculum Christiani. The Ashmole 61 text appears to be a conflation of these two textual traditions, perhaps with some of Rate’s characteristic revision as well.4

Printed Editions

Brown, Carleton, ed. Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century. Pp. 216–17. [Prints the text of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Lyell 30.]

Holmstedt, Gustaf, ed. Speculum Christiani: A Middle English Religious Treatise of the 14th Century. Pp. 336–40. [Prints variants from Ashmole 61 in an appendix.]

Robbins, Rossell Hope. “Private Prayers in Middle English Verse.” Studies in Philology 36 (1939), 466–75. [Prints text of Ashmole 61.]

Saupe, Karen, ed. Middle English Marian Lyrics. [Overview and anthology of Middle English Marian verse; prints a version of A Prayer to the Virgin Mary as item 59.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 2119

See also Bernard of Clairvaux, Gray (1972), Greenberg, Pelikan, Warner, and Woolf (1968) in the bibliography.

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