12.02.29, Waller, The Virgin Mary

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Rachel Fulton Brown

The Medieval Review 12.02.29

Waller, Gary. The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Literature and Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 237. ISBN: 978-0-521-76296-0.

Reviewed by:
Rachel Fulton Brown
University of Chicago

Womb, birth canal, vagina, hymen, clitoris, breast, menstrual blood, moisture. Thanks to the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, these are words that most modern English-speaking Christians, not to mention many English-speaking scholars, find it difficult (or daring) to associate with the Virgin Mary. Horrified (as Waller tells it) by the sexualization of the Virgin in the later Middle Ages--by the idolatrous peering into her "pryvytes" in which artists, theologians, and devotees pruriently (and misogynistically) had hitherto indulged-- the (likewise misogynistic) reformers of 1538 gathered up all the physical representations of her body (i.e. statues) that they could find and burned them, hoping thereby to erase the power of the Virgin along with her images and relics. And yet, Waller argues, "fades" and "traces" of the presence of the Virgin nevertheless remained in English poetry, drama, and popular culture well into the seventeenth century, perhaps even (if Waller's own interest is any indication) well into the present.

The story, like the tensions evident throughout Waller's provocative essay, is a familiar one, if not one that has been told of England in quite this detail or across the great mid-sixteenth century divide. Most valuable from the perspective of Marian scholarship are the chapters on the ruins of the Virgin's shrines left scattered about the Elizabethan landscape and the poems and ballads written about Walsingham, the most famous of these shrines (chapter 5); on the introduction of Petrachism into sixteenth-century English poetry and the traces of the Virgin in the poet's scopophilic (Waller's word) descriptions of his idealized beloved (chapter 6); on the Mariological traces in Shakespeare's Helena (All's Well That Ends Well) and the "opening of new cultural possibilities for women" by way of the more "humanized" Madonna lurking behind Hermione's "resurrection" at the end of The Winter's Tale (chapter 7); and on the Marian tensions and themes still visible in the works of seventeenth-century poets including John Donne, John Milton, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw (chapter 8). Refreshingly (and here he is following Helen Hackett's work), Waller does not insist, as has been so often suggested, that Mary, the Queen of Heaven, was simply replaced in English consciousness by Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. The question (and, therefore, my principal quarrel with the book) is whether Waller fully appreciates the degree to which his own view of the pre-Reformation image of the Virgin Mary--as both misogynist and idealized, over- and undersexualized, idolatrously exalted and voyeuristically anatomized--is itself dependent upon the very criticisms the Reformers once made.

Nor does it help that Waller invokes various modern psychoanalytic and feminist critiques of the devotion to the Virgin in support of his argument. Not, as Waller worries, because appeal to present-day ideological formations is itself a problem (what he calls his "lightly worn presentism" [22]), but rather because the critiques that he invokes are themselves part of the story of the denigration and dismissal of the late medieval exaltation of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven and Mother of God. Tellingly, this denigration and dismissal is perhaps most visible in the work that Waller cites by the feminist Catholic theologian Tina Beattie. As Beattie would have it (as cited by Waller), Christianity "has never accommodated the fertile, sexual, bleeding female body into its symbolic life" (41)--despite the fact (as I have noted elsewhere) that it is the Virgin's very sexuality, the fact that she was a menstruating woman from whose "shameful exit" (or so the Jew Leo purportedly once put it in a conversation with the twelfth-century theologian Odo of Cambrai) the Son of God had come forth, upon which the doctrine of the Incarnation necessarily depends. [1] Beattie would contend (again, as cited by Waller) that nothing in the medieval tradition of devotion to the Virgin actually symbolically validates or valorizes "woman as body." Indeed, as Beattie reads it, nothing in the Catholic or Orthodox tradition since the Council of Ephesus has allowed for such valorization, rooted as even the acceptance of Mary as Theotokos is in "male Christianity" (51). For Beattie (again, as cited by Waller), it was only with the third-century (heretical) Collyridians that there appeared even the possibility of a true "Marian Christianity," a "woman's religion" that might have contested the Church's institutional misogyny (11). As it is, according to Beattie (as Waller cites her), every theological discussion of the Virgin's body since is suspect because it has been "mediated and authenticated by men" (42)--more particularly, by prurient, celibate, gynophobic men.

And so we get Waller trying to "explain the powerful hold the Virgin had on late medieval men and women" (49) by way of "gynotheology," "the high degree of concern, sometimes seemingly obsessive, within medieval (and later) Mariology, with the gynecological, the female sexual and reproduction apparatus and functions" (34). We are shown Mary's breasts becoming "increasingly eroticized" in art and miracle story (37); we are invited to peer, with the Councils who "decided to particularize the anatomy of the Virgin Birth," into "the womanly nature of the Virgin," now "open for men to probe and cast their curious or prurient eyes into the heart of [the] mystery" (38-39); we join in the "pious speculation" about the Virgin's "sexual and reproductive anatomy in the context of her perpetual virginity--her womb, birth canal, vagina, hymen, and capacity to generate moisture" (39); and we learn that this pious questioning about the biology of the Incarnation "was blatantly entangled with gynophobic, misogynist, and what Jane Caputi labels as 'frankly infantile' (predominantly, perhaps exclusively, male) fantasies" (39). Necessarily, of course, this "orthodox understanding of the Virgin attempted to exclude any explicit affirmation of ordinary female sexuality" (40)--particularly the Virgin's possession of a clitoris. [2]

It gets worse. Not only did thinking about the Virgin's experience of conceiving and bearing the Son of God "show a distinctive, and again we might add infantile and predominantly male, fascination with and abhorrence of the pollution and impurity of the female body" (41). It was scopophilic (obsessed with looking), masochistic (obsessed with "the fear/desire of being dominated and absorbed by women" [44]), fetishistic (particularly as focused on the Virgin's relics), abject (because caught between attraction and repulsion, as Julia Kristeva puts it), and, therefore, "perverse," albeit gently so. ("On the contrary, as Freud noted, 'a certain degree of fetishism is...habitually present in normal love, especially in those stages of it in which the normal sexual aim seems unattainable or its fulfillment prevented'" [49]). Above all, however, it had almost nothing to do with actual women, who, by definition, were necessarily excluded from this patriarchal welter of male fantasies. Nor, thanks to the ancient exclusion of the Collyridians, was there any real possibility within medieval incarnational theology for "female flesh [to] be seen as a path to God rather than an obstacle," except on the margins and as an act of resistance (51). To be sure, female mystics like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich explored the possibilities of describing Mary as Jesus' bride, "seducing or even copulating with God," but they did so (according to Waller) necessarily in opposition to "the dominant Augustinian emphasis on the sinfulness and the corruption of the female body" (52). "The reformers, however, saw only perversion and idolatry as they contemplated these or any sexualizations of the Virgin and her 'womanly' nature" (53). Indeed.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Waller's argument is that he genuinely means to be not damning (like the Reformers), but helpful. While he does not profess any particular devotion to the Virgin himself, he has been involved for some years in a collaborative study of Our Lady of Walsingham. As he tells it in his Preface (viii), "A Catholic friend remarked that for someone who has a great deal of skepticism about the Virgin Mary, I nonetheless seem to have been given a lot of work to do for (or, as my friend said, 'by') her" (I would agree with his friend, although I am unclear what the Virgin's motive might be). Nor does he let the Reformers off the hook for the extremity of their reaction to the "body-centeredness of Christianity" (34). Indeed, as he sees it, in their efforts "to replace the idolatry of the visual and the sensual by the idolatry of the word, the reformers distorted and destroyed some of humanity's most creative and nurturing religious feelings--and worse, not just within their own threatened, anxious reformist selves but for the generations that followed as well" (204).

And yet, as Waller tells it--and this is also one of the principle claims of his argument--the Reformers were right: late medieval devotion to the Virgin was highly sexualized, so much so that any "creative and nurturing feelings" that medieval Christians might have experienced in looking to the Virgin for intercession, comfort, and inspiration could only be expressed in spite of the dominant theology. Thus, any expressions of a more positive, body- affirming, humanized Virgin must be somehow subversive, marginal, still present only despite the efforts of the theologians and artists to present Mary as "totally 'other'--impassably immaculate, impossibly ideal--and [all other women] as grotesque and fearful" (70). It is the same anti-Marian Catch-22 that the Reformers created, only translated into modern valuations themselves ultimately dependent on the Reformers' ideals. After all, it was not that the Reformers denied that Mary had given birth to Jesus; they simply wanted her to behave decorously, humbly, just like any other woman. They wanted her not remote on a throne in heaven, reigning with Wisdom over the world, but down here on earth, taking care of the household; they wanted women to be able to recognize themselves in her as good housewives and mothers. They wanted women to be able to identify with her.

Plus ├ža change. For Waller, it is the medieval drama that seems above all to offer this possibility of identification by bringing Mary back down to earth. "Even when the plays focus on occasions of high theological significance such as the Annunciation and the Ascension, the treatment of Mary is frequently staged within recognizably domestic and familial situation (65)... Staging the Virgin brought Mary into realms that many women in the audience would have recognized as like their own. The closer the dramatists of these plays brought their scenes to ordinary reality, the more integrated into the everyday life the biblical story might become (66)... In the physical concreteness of drama--with the Virgin being acted by and before neighbors--the physicality of sexuality and birthing was thrust into the daylight where women (and no doubt a few men) recognized the experience (70)... Women might well have identified with her and sympathized" (76). The premise necessarily being that the "official explanations of the mysteries of divine conception and maternity" (69) could not bear such humanizing or (as in scenes of Joseph's being tested for impotence) humor (75). As every reader of Erich Auerbach knows, the dichotomy is a false one. Far from being a revolt against "hundreds of years of repression and exploitation" (206), such plays were a wholly orthodox and traditional expression of the central Augustinian doctrine of sermo humilis, of the mystery of God's humbling himself by becoming incarnate in the womb of a human woman and thus elevating the everyday to the status of divine mystery. This is the "everyday," "humanized," "popular" Christianity embraced by St. Francis, the Christianity in which (as Auerbach put it) "there is no basis for separation of the sublime from the low and everyday, for they are indissolubly connected in Christ's very life and suffering." [3] The tragedy of the Reformers' attack on the supposed "idolatry" of the Virgin was to forget this, that the humble wife of Joseph might also be an exalted Queen, just as the carpenter's son who died on the cross was also the one through whom the whole world had been brought into being.

So, in the end, Waller is right, but for the wrong reasons. The Reformers did indeed "distort and destroy some of humanity's most creative and nurturing religious feelings," but not the ones Waller thinks they did. By pointing out (as Waller puts it) "how intellectually wrong or silly many of the aspects of medieval Christianity may have been" (204), above all, by drawing attention to what they saw as the dangerous excesses of meditating on what it meant to say that God entered into the world through the "shameful exit" of a woman, they condemned all generations that followed to think of Mary only in terms of her sex rather than, as medieval Christians had done, in terms of the miracle that (as the antiphon put it) "He whom the entire universe could not contain," she contained in her womb.



1. Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 283.

2. Here Waller would have benefited from a closer study of the medieval sources. It is a commonplace in descriptions of the Annunciation that Mary experienced great bliss in hearing the angel's words. As Rupert of Deutz put it in his commentary on Song of Songs 1:1, "What is this exclamation so great, so unlooked for? O blessed Mary, the inundation of joy, the force of love, the torrent of delight, covered you entirely, possessed you totally, intoxicated you inwardly, and you sensed what eye has not seen and ear has not heard and what has not entered into the heart of man, and you said, 'Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.'" To be sure, Rupert does not mention the Virgin's clitoris, but he certainly could be read as attributing to her an orgasm. See Rupert of Deutz, Commentaria in Canticum Canticorum, ed. Hrabanus Haacke, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medieualis 26 (Turnholt: Brepols, 1974), p. 10; trans. Fulton, From Judgment to Passion, p. 324.

3. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 158.

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Author Biography

Rachel Fulton Brown

University of Chicago