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21.01.15 Van Deusen, The Saga of the Sister Saints

The Medieval Review

21.01.15 Van Deusen, The Saga of the Sister Saints

The volume under review, a study and edition of a unique and little-known Icelandic saga, is a welcome contribution to the fields of medieval Scandinavian studies, hagiography, and the history of Christianity.

In the first chapter the author presents a survey of the medieval cult and legends of Martha and Mary Magdalen in Europe, followed by a detailed collection of the evidence for their cults in Scandinavia, including liturgy and prayers, relics, dedications, personal names, and literature and art in medieval Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. The discussion of Scandinavian literature includes post-medieval ballads, in some of which there is confusion among Mary Magdalen, the Virgin Mary, and the woman at the well. Discussion of the ballad tradition (which extends to the Faroe Islands) is of interest as a separate phenomenon from the medieval literature.

Chapter 2 examines the above topics in Iceland. There, vernacular literature includes poems about Mary Magdalen as well as the expected references in homilies. The contents of Mǫrtu saga og Maríu Magðalenu ("The Saga of Martha and Mary Magdalen") are summarized on p. 57; the author notes that the saga is exceptional in giving significant attention to Martha of Bethany as well as to Mary Magdalen, who was identified as her sister in the Middle Ages. The saga's sources, and the way they are used, are discussed in detail and serve as a window onto the Latin works available in medieval Iceland. That Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Historiale (the primary source of the saga) and Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica were used comes as no surprise, nor does use of homilies of Gregory the Great (here it may be pointed out that a new edition of one of the primary manuscripts containing these homilies, AM 677 4to, was published in 2018, too recently for references to be included in the present work). Van Deusen argues convincingly for the influence of Dominican liturgy, drawing useful comparisons with the liturgy of St. Þorlákr. She provides a 7-page chart illustrating where specific passages are found in the individual manuscripts and in the present edition, and the Latin sources used in each case.

The edition is in normalized spelling, a logical choice since two of the main manuscripts can be viewed online at; the third in a printed facsimile. The only glitch I noticed was at line 297, where the final 'i' is missing from leiði ("grave, tomb") and turned into a redundant preposition, undoubtedly because in AM 235 fol. the word is awkwardly divided at the end of a line (leið-i). Van Deusen argues convincingly that the saga was composed in Iceland in the 14th century, and is consistent with the style of that time. More precisely, she argues that Arngrímr Brandsson is its author, rather than Bergr Sokkason, the other prominent 14th-century Icelandic hagiographer. While stylistic arguments can never prove authorship, for the sake of discussion it is worth adding this saga to the group associated with Arngrímr, which includes a saga about Thomas Becket and one about Guðmundr Arason.

Van Deusen has collected all examples in Old Icelandic sources of Mary Magdalen being referred to as the "apostle of the apostles," an identification which, when it appears in the saga, has apparently been taken from a Dominican liturgy. Whatever some Dominicans may have thought, their designation of the Magdalen was not sufficient to cause Icelandic scribes to copy her saga together with those of apostles, rather than those of holy women, when they compiled collections of vernacular saints' lives.

Also examined are medieval Icelandic women identified as teachers (chap. 4). One inexplicable error in the survey of such women is the statement that Ingunn, mentioned in Jóns saga byskups, never learned to read or write; "her knowledge of Latin was, evidently, solely oral" (108). While Jóns saga does mention an individual who learned Latin grammar orally, the builder Þóroddr Gamlason, Ingunn was clearly literate and her ability to read and write Latin is explicitly stated in the work quoted in footnote 52. [1] The significance of Ingunn's absence from the S version of the saga will depend on one's opinion of the relationships among the versions. Van Deusen considers that the episode has been edited out in S, and this is probable, but when that happened is less clear. Gunnlaugr's Latin original, from which the vernacular versions ultimately derive, is lost, but Ingunn is mentioned both in H, which Peter Foote considers closest to the original translation (composed in 1200 or shortly thereafter), and in L, a Latinate text from the early 14th century which he considers to represent the latest stage of development of Jónssaga. L adds material not found in the other versions, as well as updating and elaborating the existing text. Following a list of prominent ecclesiastics educated at Hólar, L tells us that Ingunn was "inferior to none of them in the aforementioned literary arts." Here she appears as the culmination of a list of learned Icelanders, in the work of an author who aimed to represent Hólar and its school as an ideal cathedral community. In this connection it is worth pointing out that the English original of Foote's introduction to the Íslenzk fornrit edition of Jóns saga will soon be appearing in The Saga of St. Jón of Hólar from the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

The volume contains useful maps of locations where Mary Magdalen was among the patron saints or represented by an image. In Fig. 1 on p. 40, Meðalfell should be moved to the southern south side of Hvalfjörður (the next fjord down on the map); this is still consistent with Van Deusen's characterization of the distribution of dedications as "north and west." An image (in fact, two images) of her are recorded at Borg in Myrar in the 14th century (Diplomatarium Islandicum 3, p. 88; I personally have doubts about the accuracy of this entry), but neither a later inventory (Diplomatarium Islandicum 4, pp. 187-188) nor the documents from 1512 cited from Diplomatarium Islandicum 8 (not 7), pp. 379-380 makes any mention of them. An image of "Mary" is listed in one of the 1512 manuscripts, but without the addition of "Magdalen," so this presumably refers to the Virgin. Since I am quoted regarding the uncertain ages of some of these images, I should point out that my 1994 study ends in 1400, so anything listed in it existed before that date. This includes all the dedications and most of the images. As Van Deusen notes, the images at Svalbarð church and Þingeyrar monastery are first recorded after 1400. This is not mere "report"; they are included in the inventories of those institutions, the image at Svalbarð being recorded in 1461, as can be determined from footnote 41. The altar and images of Mary Magdalen and St. Olaf mentioned on p. 44 were in Hólar cathedral (not just "Diocese"), but not in 1396; the diagram mentioning them is in notes made by Árni Magnússon in 1720-1725 which precede the 1396 inventory. Other small glitches include references to Maríu saga rather than Postola sögur in notes 68 and 69 on p. 50. In the passage translated from the saga of the holy man Guðmundr Arason on pp. 50-51, ölmusar refers to those who received alms, not the alms themselves. While giving due credit to the generosity of the housewife who slaughtered much of her livestock to feed Guðmundr's followers, she must have "sold," not "given" her hay during the following winter (the verb selja can mean both). If she had given away the hay the author would surely have made more of this additional generosity, whereas he explains the fulfilment of Guðmundr's prayer for her in terms of basic economics--she now had excess hay which she sold to those who had none, and was able to restock her farm. It is not she who receives honor and merit from Guðmundr; rather "she held the merits of Lord Guðmundr in such honor" that she puts the sick in the bed in which he had slept, where they obtain some relief.

These last examples illustrate my sole criticism of this erudite work: the translations could have used more careful proofing. For example, on pp. 68 and 70 sáran dauða must mean "painful/bitter death" rather than "wound of death". On p. 86, nefndr Innocentius cannot mean "Innocent mentioned" but must be part of the phrase "the (afore)mentioned Innocent. " On p. 87, atburðr means "event" (often a miraculous one) rather than "time." On p. 118, heimamen are not "neighbors" but "household members." The "brothers" mentioned on pp. 178-179 are not Martha's brothers but the Christian community. The biskupsstóll on p. 180 is the physical throne of the bishop, not the "bishopric." On pp. 186-87, varla hafði hann heitit staðfest means "he (a priest who had doubted Mary's miracles, and whose horse ran away with him) had hardly formalized the vow." After leading us faultlessly through a highly rhetorical passage on p. 128, we find Mary "entangled in many vituperations" instead of "vices" (lǫstum). In the event of a second edition, the translation should be thoroughly reviewed.

However, none of this seriously impairs the ability of the translation to introduce this unique saga; those interested in detailed analysis of the saga's contents, language, or treatment of sources will have to use the original, a task made easier by the fact that the translation contains in-text references to biblical passages as well as footnotes indicating Latin sources. As a whole, the volume provides a valuable contribution to the study of the cults and hagiography of Sts. Mary and Martha, and will hopefully encourage interest in an under-studied area of medieval Icelandic literature.



1. Ásdís Egilsdóttir, Fræðinæmi (Reykjavík 2016), 244.