Adrienne Williams Boyarin's new collection of accounts of miracles of the Virgin Mary draws from a range of Middle English sources, dating from c. 1280 to c.1500. It includes both poetry and prose, works from legendaries and miscellanies, and extracts from sermons. The book contains selections from The South English Legendary (c. 1280); the "Miracles of Ure Lady" from the Vernon Manuscript (c.1390); John Mirk's Festial sermon collection, including a "Sermon for Candlemas" and several narraciones featuring Mary; a variety of short texts from the British Library MS Additional 37049 (c. 1460-1470); and "A Marian Incest Tale" from a late medieval sermon book (c. 1460-1500). The South English Legendary excerpts are given with a facing page translation, while the rest of the texts are glossed. All the texts have ample and useful annotations and introductions. A final section titled "In Context" provides an overview of Mary in the Bible, important prayers invoking Mary, five Marian prayer poems from two of the manuscripts the miracle texts are taken from, and finally, twelve pages of manuscript images--an extremely welcome addition to the many textual treats, all laid out in an attractive, slim volume.
Reading through the selections Boyarin has chosen from the vast array of Middle English Marian literature is like going on a tour with a very experienced guide--one who knows what will surprise and delight the most, and what information must be provided to help the visitor make the most of what they are seeing. As a reader familiar with Marian devotion and its literature, I found the texts included to be engaging and telling examples of the rich tradition and range of roles Mary fills, from the sancta parens, to the patron who looks out for even the most reprehensible sinners, provided they had been devotees at some point in their past. For students or other newcomers to the field, this book can serve as an enticing and efficient introduction to study of the English Marian cult over time and across genres. The texts also offer useful instances of other concerns for medieval Christians, including the relationship of Christians and Jews (the introduction discusses how Mary's position as both a Jewish woman and the mother of Christ meant she was specifically invoked in many stories revolving around Jewish and Christian identities). "How a Jew Threw His Son in a Fiery Oven Because He Communed With Other Christian Children on Easter," (from the Vernon MS) is one selection, along with an analogue from The South English Legendary and an illustration. While many readers will know Chaucer's Prioress's Tale, it is useful to see other examples to help explore the role of Mary in the construction of anti-Jewish thought.
The role of the clergy, who appear in varying states of spiritual rigor (mostly quite lax), in these stories, is also an important element that resonates with other Middle English texts. In "Concerning a Sexually Immoral Monk Who was Drowned and Brought Back to Life by Our Lady" (from the Vernon MS), a monk who always offered an "Ave" to an image of Mary on his way out of the monastery at night to carouse ("Out of cloystre on his wildehede, / Forte parfourne his misded" ), is revived through her intervention after drowning. Students who have been introduced to Chaucer's collection of clergy both devout and devious would benefit from these additional examples, who, despite falling grievously short of their spiritual commitments, are redeemed by Mary's grace and intercessions.
Fortuitously, I had a Middle English tutorial this semester with a second-year undergraduate, and we read through this book together, after I was invited to review it. We started at the end of the book, with the text from c. 1460-1500, and worked our way towards the front, moving backwards chronologically, so that the readings grew older and progressively more difficult. While the student was not especially interested in religious aspects of medieval English culture, as we were emphasizing the development of the language, she was definitely hooked by the first text we read, "A Marian Incest Tale." And who wouldn't be? A formerly pious woman conceives a child by her own son, then breaks its neck after its birth to hide the evidence of her incest. A priest is instructed by Mary to intervene and he reveals a poem written in blood on the woman's hand that spells out the cause of her spiritual disease as well as its cure. She makes a full confession, and her absolution is signaled by the text washing away from her hand. Hearers of this story would be reminded of the necessity of a complete confession, as well as of Mary's generosity as an intercessor, as she is able to overlook the woman's extremely shocking sins because of her earlier devout life. No sin, the story says, is too terrible for Mary to help a sinner find redemption, provided they have shown proper devotion in the past.
I can easily imagine using this collection as a textbook in an undergraduate or graduate course on medieval spirituality or Middle English literature, and the reasonable cost makes that feasible. While Chaucer is where most undergraduates start their experience with Middle English literature, the brief nature of the Marian texts, coupled with their fascinating content, as well as the thematic links to better-known texts like the Canterbury Tales would make them enormously useful for teaching, because the payoff comes satisfyingly quickly, unlike most of Chaucer's tales. This is a book I can also imagine handing to someone to explain why I find the field of medieval popular religion so enormously fascinating--it demonstrates the amazing array of beliefs and practices that developed around the beloved figure of the mother of Christ. At the end of her acknowledgements, Boyarin says this book is her way of "pass[ing] on the baton" (7); there is no doubt that this collection will spark new interest in a very rich area of medieval religious literature and experience.