contributor.author: Andrew P. Scheil

title.none: Magennis, The Old English Life of Saint Mary of Egypt (Andrew P. Scheil )

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.041 04.02.41

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Andrew P. Scheil , ascheil@cox.net

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Magennis, Hugh. The Old English Life of Saint Mary of Egypt. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 260. ISBN: $22.50 0-85989-672-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.41

Magennis, Hugh. The Old English Life of Saint Mary of Egypt. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 260. ISBN: $22.50 0-85989-672-2.

Reviewed by:

Andrew P. Scheil
ascheil@cox.net

The cover of Hugh Magennis's new edition of the Old English Life of Saint Mary of Egypt bears a line-drawing illustration from a late tenth-century manuscript (British Library, Additional MS 24199, f. 18), described as "men abandoning themselves to Luxuria." An interesting choice: this illustration accompanying Prudentius' Psychomachia shows the dancing female figure of Luxuria, wrapped in the latest fashions, in the center of the framed panel, her body posed in what must be thought a provocative fashion: legs crossed, head cocked to one side, barefoot, one hand flung up in abandon as she undulates to the accompaniment of the pleased musicians in the left-hand portion of the panel. On her right, three beardless young men watch, rapt with attention. The illustration is wonderfully appropriate as it glosses one of the central issues of the Life: the power and perils of the female sexual body.

Originally a Greek vita of the sixth or seventh century (see 3-10) this story of a repentant prostitute and her transformative encounter with the monk Zosimus found a wide readership in Western Europe with the ninth-century Latin translation of Paul of Naples (see 3, 10-12). The story was popular throughout the Middle Ages: over a hundred manuscripts of the Greek version survive (10) as well as over a hundred manuscripts of Paul's Latin translation (11). The text was translated into numerous vernaculars: Old and Middle English, German, Dutch, Norse, Irish, Welsh, French, Anglo-Norman, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese (12).

There has been a modest surge of academic interest in Mary and her flamboyant history of late: The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography, ed. Erich Poppe and Bianca Ross (Dublin, 1996), is a fine collection of materials; Lynda Coon, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, 1997) engages in some brief analysis; the Greek text is translated with incidental discussion by Maria Kouli in Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints' Lives in English Translation, ed. Alice-Mary Talbot (Washington, 1996); Leslie Donovan does the same for the Old English text in her Women Saints' Lives in Old English Prose (Cambridge, 1999); a collection of essays on the Old English vita edited by Donald Scragg is forthcoming as a volume in the Old English Newsletter Subsidia series. And here now this excellent edition and translation of both the Old English text and its Latin source, wrapped in comprehensive introduction, notes, and glossary.

The narrative begins not with Mary, but with Zosimus, a monk of Palestine ever searching for greater asceticism and spiritual challenge. Looking for a spiritual guide to direct him on the path to greater enlightenment, he wanders the desert alone beyond the Jordan during Lent, as is the custom of his community. Zosmius' goal is to become "dead in body and living in spirit" (65; Magennis' translation here and throughout). Instead of the expected desert father, he instead encounters a figure fleeing into the west across the desert: a woman "extremely black in her body because of the sun's heat, and the hair of her head was as white as wool" (73). Zosimus sets off in fevered pursuit, chasing her down; in her nakedness she refuses to speak to him until he lends her a cloak for her body. This sight veiled, she tells the rather shaken monk her story. She was a prostitute in Alexandria, coming to conversion in Jerusalem after years of sinful corruption. Penitent, she made her way to the desert beyond the Jordan, living as a hermit for forty-seven years. Monk and woman engage in a dialogue about the ascetic life and she promises to meet him at the same time and place next year, commanding him to bring the Eucharist when he returns. At the appointed time they meet and Mary (after walking across the waters of the Jordan) instructs him to meet her once again in the following year. When he does so, he finds her lifeless body and, finally, her name, written in the sand beside her with an order to bury her body, a task the elderly Zosimus can only accomplish with the help of a miraculous lioness: "and so he covered over the body in the earth, as naked as when he first met her, except for the protection of the torn garment which Zosimus had formerly thrown to her, with which Mary had covered some part of her body" (119). The monk returns to his community to live a long life in the service of God.

One can see why the story has provoked interest among literary scholars--if nothing else, the potential for gender analysis of various kinds is hard to resist. As far as can be discerned, Mary was not a real person; as Magennis says, her narrative has "no demonstrable historical basis" (4). Thus, following Lynda Coon, Magennis notes that "Mary is essentially the product of a male discourse, a fictional construct of the patriarchal tradition of Byzantine hagiography, and her function is to provide a spiritual lesson for the audiences of that hagiography" (6). The narrative speaks to the complex desires (in all senses of the word) traversing monastic community. It is a rich, ambiguous, puzzling narrative; as Magennis sums up in a fine sentence: "In introducing the theme of conversion and repentance, the author of the Life turns the story of his hermit into a dynamic narrative of process and progress, rather than presenting a static image of achieved sanctity" (4).

The Old English translation is probably a product of the 10th century (23). Although the extant text is Late West Saxon, Magennis argues for an originally non-West Saxon provenance, possibly Anglian, based on scraps of phonological and lexical evidence: the absence of "Winchester vocabulary" (an excellent concise overview of this area of Anglo-Saxon scholarship on 41-42) and the inclusion of Anglian vocabulary, basing his conclusions on the work of Franz Wenisch, Spezifisch anglisches Wortgut in den nordhumbrischen Interlinearglossierungen des Lukasevangeliums (Heidelberg, 1979). The immediate Latin source for the Old English text is the Vita Sanctae Mariae Egyptiacae by Paul of Naples. Magennis concludes that the extant manuscript that best represents this Latin source was some earlier form of the "Cotton Corpus Legendary"; he thus bases his Latin text (and translation) in the edition on a late witness to this text, British Library, Cotton Nero E. i (eleventh-century ms.), collated with two other copies.

The general "Introduction" (1-54) to the edition is rich with detail, yet very reader-friendly. The first sub-section, "The Legend of St. Mary of Egypt" (1-10), focuses mostly on the Greek vita in order to introduce some of the basic issues and features of the narrative. Then follows "St. Mary of Egypt in the Latin West" (10-14) and "The Old English Version and its Manuscripts" (14-25), which includes a discussion of the puzzling inclusion of the life in British Library Cotton Julius E. vii, an important manuscript of Aelfric of Eynsham's (c. 955-c. 1010) Old English Lives of Saints. [It is one of four "non-Aelfrician" lives in that collection; the others are Euphrosyne, the Seven Sleepers, and Eustace.] "The Old English Texts: Issues of Transmission and Relationship" (25-30) is followed by a section, "Source" (30-35), mostly dealing with the Cotton-Corpus legendary. A detailed philological discussion of "Language" (35-43) leads to a thought-provoking short final section concerning "Style and Register in the Old English Life" (43-50). Magennis finds an "elevation and formality" (50) characterizing the Old English translation: "The resulting somewhat mannered style may appear strained in places, but is nonetheless a notable achievement by a thoughtful Old English writer" (50). A well-chosen "Select Bibliography" (51-54) ends the Introduction.

Magennis then presents the edited text of the Old English Life with facing-page translation (58-121), retaining the manuscript title "De transitu Mariae Aegyptiace." This is followed by a short "Commentary" on the Old English version (122-129) and a list of variant readings (130-137). A substantial "Appendix" edits the Latin source from Paul of Naples, text and facing-page translation (140-209). A comprehensive glossary to the Old English text (210-260) ends the book. To this reader's eye, texts and translations all seem sound and fluent.

I suspect to some readers it may seem redundant to provide both a comprehensive glossary and a facing-page translation. However, this seems to be a feature of new texts in the Exeter series and is to be applauded: this feature allows the edition access to several potential audiences. For scholars in the field, this comprehensive volume is certainly now the standard edition, replacing the nineteenth-century text edited by W.W. Skeat for the Early English Text Society. This would also be an excellent text for a graduate course, whether beginning Old English or an advanced course in hagiography or some other topic. In that arena, the full lexical commentary and juxtaposition with the Latin sources will be quite useful. However, for undergraduates or medievalists in other fields, the facing-page translation will give this story wider currency in fields interested in conversion, the body, narratology, the image of women in the Middle Ages, and so forth. This is an excellent, multi-purpose edition of a fascinating, popular medieval saint's life.

Errata:p. 1: "in meeting the saintly woman Mary": "woman" should not be italicized

p 2, note 2: the home of West Virginia University Press is Morgantown, WVa., not Morganstown, W.Va.

p. 12, note 35: The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Insular Hagiography should be The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography. The same error is repeated on p. 22, note 65, p. 45, note 115, and twice in the bibliography on p. 53, but is correct elsewhere (e.g. p. 3, note 4 and in the bibliography on p. 52).

p. 38, note 90: Campbell, Old English Grammar 588.7 should read 589.7.