05.01.36, Coletti, Mary Magdalene

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Donnalee Dox

The Medieval Review baj9928.0501.036


Coletti, Theresa. Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 342. ISBN: 0-8122-3800-1.

Reviewed by:
Donnalee Dox
Texas A & M University

Theresa Coletti's analysis of the figure of Mary Magdalene in the Digby Mary Magdalene challenges conventional readings of this perpetually intriguing sinner-saint. Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints transforms the dramatic image of the Magdalene from a cipher for female subjectivity into a site of unacknowledged conceptions of gendered sexuality and power operating in East Anglian popular piety. This study opens up new territory by allowing medieval Christian ideas of gender to shift into a sacred realm, where earthly rules governing gender and religious authority do not apply.

The familiar narrative of Mary Magdalene's reformation from sexual sinner to chaste saint, her juxtaposition with the Virgin Mary, and the transcendence of fleshly desire she models give way in Coletti's analysis of vernacular devotional texts and their relationship to popular drama. Detailed discussions of feminized sexual sin, male and female sexuality, contemplative spirituality, and religious authority in fifteenth-century East Anglian culture shift the foundation on which future interpretations of this complex saint will rest.

The book's introduction posits the dramatic image of Mary Magdalene in the Digby saint play, as well as other East Anglian dramas and northern biblical cycles, including the N-Town Passion Play I and the Macro morality play Wisdom, as a multivalent cultural symbol produced in the convergence of overlapping cultural constructions. Coletti explores this convergence along the axes of female religious authority, relationships between spirituality and sexuality, and the authority of women in male-dominated religious institutions. She situates the exploration of dramatic imagery in the tension between vernacular and institutionally authorized religion in fifteenth-century East Anglia. Dramatic texts, dramatic imagery, and the practice of embodying imagery in dramatic representation become a species of theological writing and, as such, offer a construction of Mary Magdalene possessed with unusual spiritual authority.

Coletti follows the tradition of examining local contexts for insights into how dramatic imagery functioned established by Gail McMurray Gibson in The Theater of Devotion. Like Gibson, Coletti draws on a wide range of cultural resources, including visual images found in the iconography of East Anglian parish churches (Chapter 1). Coletti concentrates, however, on discursive constructions of contemplative practices, spirituality, and visionary authority. In detailed analyses of how texts such as Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection, Osbern Bokenham's Legendys of Hooly Wummen, and The Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich (Chapter 2) construct Mary Magdalene, Coletti parses out heretofore unrecognized nuances in the figuration of female authority. Her reading of The Book of Margery Kempe is particularly striking for its refiguring of female subjectivity.

By the beginning of the third chapter, Mary Magdalene appears as a complex figure whose intimacy with Christ requires both corporeality and spirituality. Coletti builds on, then departs from, the paradoxical tropes of pollution and purity, spirituality and sensuality, sin and purification, sexuality (Mary Magdalene) and chastity (Mary Virgin). Coletti does not deny, or even read against, the texts, themes, and religious practices of late medieval English culture that reinforce these binaries. She does make a convincing case for the authority of feminine teaching in vernacular religious culture by clearly showing how the Digby saint play presents Mary Magdalene's spiritual, as well as physical, connection with the Divine Christ (Chapter 3). Mary Magdelene becomes a kind of late medieval Everywoman, whose symbolic lives "constituted the basis of the love and devotion that connected her to [Christ]" (113) and whose voice and body preached with that authority.

With the matrix of Mary Magdalene's symbolic identities teased apart in the first three chapters, Coletti takes issue with the tendency in contemporary scholarship to treat Mary Magdalene as the central character in a narrative on overcoming the sin of sexuality in Chapter 4. Here, Coletti pushes beyond the already richly illustrated discursive complexities that constructed Mary Magdalene's dramatic image to offer a new and intriguing figuration. In the corporeal practice of theatrical representation, gender categories (at least in the case of Mary Magdalene) operated on two levels. The earthly or secular level reproduced institutionalized systems of gender difference. In the realm of the sacred, gender (such as that of the Anima in Wisdom) could be understood as fluid; femininity need not be contained by masculine constructions of eroticism or Christian spirituality.

As she works out typological links between Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, worldly and spiritual concerns, the corporeal and mystical Christ, Coletti redirects the Magdalene's familiar trajectory of transcendence from polluted body to pure spirit. If Mary Magdalene's physical and spiritual longings structured a drama of contemplation as well as transformation, vernacular religious spectacles dramatized the lost body of Christ with no less power than the Mass itself. The dramas that presented Mary Magdalene to East Anglian audiences, like the Mass, articulated a profound tension around the human body as a testament to Divinity. Having overturned the traditional reading of Mary Magdalene's corporeality as barrier and conduit to spirituality by situating gender and sexuality in a sacred realm, Coletti turns the same question to medieval theatre itself: "how can--or should^×sacred knowledge be embodied in corporeal forms" (194)?

The importance of this study cannot be underestimated. The analysis of theatrical Mary Magdalenes in late medieval East Anglia is itself innovative and powerful. Theresa Coletti's use of Mary Magdalene to interrogate the relationship between theatrical embodiment and Christian epistemology highlighted in Michal Kobialka's investigation of early medieval representational practices in This is My Body, makes Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints a vital re-thinking of medieval theatre in the later Middle Ages, gender and sexuality, and modes of religious epistemology.

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Donnalee Dox

Texas A & M University