Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.04.21 Miles, The Virgin Mary's Book at the Annunciation

The Medieval Review

21.04.21 Miles, The Virgin Mary's Book at the Annunciation

Laura Saetveit Miles's sweeping study of the literature and iconography surrounding the Virgin Mary and the book she may or may not hold at the Annunciation has much to offer its readers. In her introduction, Miles notes that Mary's Annunciation, and the Incarnation of Christ, is manifested by a speech act (parole) and that the Gospel provides very little, leaving a large space to be filled by artists and writers as they imagine the important scene. In Western European interpretations, Mary almost always has a book and the moment of the Angel's arrival shows her as interrupted in a reading that is almost always slightly illegible, allowing it "open to interpretation bear multiple layers of meaning" (2). Miles' book bears this out, turning over the possibilities each interpretation allows and the ways that readers may have understood Mary and her own reading practice. Miles suggests that Mary and her book become a model of participatory piety, drawing on the meditative process, and that Mary's reading underlies her job and facility as a mother. Further, the image of the Virgin with her book becomes an important model of female literacy. She was the saintliest of saintly women, and she is repeatedly shown reading in a way that is completely unmediated by men.

Miles' introduction further contextualizes the history of Mary and her book, from the pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, through to the church father Ambrose, and what she calls a "back formation" that also places Mary's mother St. Anne as a reading teacher in Mary's past. She notes that Mary's book will appear in other artistic representations of Christ's life and that "Mary's early association with the scriptural figure of Wisdom/Sapientia or the goddess personification of Sophia hovers behind all these facets of Mary's later medieval cult, including Mary's reading" (9). She closes the introduction by looking at the English shrine at Walsingham and the representations of Marian piety there, built after an Anglo-Norman woman's divine vision.

Each of Miles' ensuing chapters looks at a different feature of Mary's reading and her book, various texts associated with that feature, and makes an argument about the effect on medieval readers. Her first chapter, "Imitatio Mariae: Mary, Medieval Readers and Conceiving the Word," addresses the polysemous nature of the incarnation of the word. There are multiple layers of understanding. "Christ, as both man and God, as both letter and spirit, not only unlocks exegesis of God's Word, but is the Book, embodied on earth" (17). Christ is frequently figured as a book, and then we see Mary is the primary reader; the word becomes flesh in her body the way the meaning of words are understood in the mind of the reader. Among other texts, Book to a Mother (1380) figures prominently in this chapter, where Miles argues the author extends the metaphor of Christ as book that is open for people to read, but also "adopts the book theme as a completely polysemous, pervasive structural metaphor for his text, enveloping his own codex, the Bible, Christ as a book, the reader, salvation, and all of creation as the Book of Life" (31). She notes that although it is written for a female audience, misogyny creeps through, here by devaluing the idea of conception or the physical work of the womb, arguing that spiritual conception is actually superior to bodily conception--as Mary had to do. So here, although the book is full of this metaphor of Christ as book and Christ as word, the moment of Mary's reading is not mentioned in the Annunciation, and she is silenced completely in favor of the speaking Angel.

The second chapter, "Performing the Psalms: The Annunciation in the Anchorhold," begins by demonstrating how clearly the space of the anchorhold mirrors the artistic representations of Mary's chamber. Miles notes that in texts written by men but for women, the gender of Mary can shift the interpretation for the female reader. For anchoresses, the emphasis on Mary's chamber as cell (and the cell as soul) allows for the "space of the Annunciation" to serve as "a kind of sanctified heterotopia," "a system simultaneously isolated from the worldly and yet penetrable by the heavenly" (49). Miles points out that the Ancrene Wisse explicitly makes this connection, noting that the Angel found Mary in a private space. In this, Mary is repositioned as a recluse, a woman living a solitary life. "By mimicking Mary's prayerful posture, anchoresses can invite angelic visitors or, even better, divine intercession" (51). She then turns to the vita of Christina of Markyate; Christina's life in many ways imitates the language of the Ancrene Wisse (the enclosure, the womb/tomb). Her vita also describes the series of visions that led her to an anchoritic life, one in which toads and demons attack her while she is reading the Psalter, so a kind of reverse Annunciation (71).

Building on Michelle Karnes and Sarah McNamer's work, Miles looks at the act of imagining that the female reader does in texts that contain the Life of Christ and how the Annunciation is depicted therein in her third chapter, "Reading the Prophecies: Meditation and Female Literacy in Lives of Christ Texts." She notes that some of the meditational guides of the time indicate that Mary is praying--not reading--and that this distinction is important because the former "discourages any kind of direct contact with the Bible" (84). She looks closely in this chapter at Aelred of Rievualx's De Institutione Inclusarum, which in translation has an Annunciation scene where "Mary's reading disappears" (93), suggesting the translator's choice to erase it. In exchange, the angel's voice is elevated to a "cry": "the reader's voice in effect magnifies the angel's presence to become the dominant example of prayer in the entire passage--now that the Virgin's prayer has been rendered invisible and inaudible" (94). This chapter concludes by looking at the Meditationes Vitae Christi, especially Nicholas Love's version and the one in the Speculum Devotorum. For Love, Mary is reading Isaiah's messianic prophecy at the time of the Annunciation; Love also emphasizes Mary's enclosure in a room. Miles notes that again we have an image of a woman having unmediated contact with the Bible and this appears to be unproblematic for both author and, by extension, reader.

I found the richest analyses in Chapter Four, "Writing the Book: The Annunciations of Visionary Women." Here, Miles looks at visionary literature and its relation to meditative texts, examining how they both use Mary and the Annunciation. In addition, "Mary herself often appears to the visionary to relay the miracle of the Incarnation from her point of view" (115). Seeing Mary as both virgin and visionary, Miles writes that the Annunciation becomes "a textual scripture of the oral exchange which accompanied the Virgin's (in)corporation of the divine Word into the speaking 'text' of the corporal Christ--offered as a way of situating the visionary experience of medieval women within literary discourse, usually male-coded" (116). She believes that Elizabeth (of Hungary), Birgitta, Julian, and Margery deliberately use the Annunciation--they are not simply "disconnected anomalies" (117). These women are engaged in an imitatio Mariae, and "the way the Annunciation operates in these visionary accounts helps to counter the misunderstanding that Mary was primarily a source of subjection and silencing for medieval women" (119). Here, Miles goes into more detail about the iconography of Annunciation literature with Mary in a private room when the angel comes. This image of Mary is that of a contemplative, devoid of the later imagery of Mary as mother. Miles also looks at how St. Birgitta describes Mary and the Annunciation in her book of Revelations, noting that the Birgitta narrative omits Gabriel's declaration that the word has become flesh, and instead it is the moment where Mary agrees "Let thy will be done in me." This gives Mary control of the narrative: it is her reply that enacts the power. Miles moves through other texts before arriving at Julian of Norwich's Revelations and Margery Kempe's Book at the close of this chapter. She looks particularly at Julian's use of the word "behold" (Drawing on McNamer, Michael Raby, and Vincent Gillespie), showing that "Julian herself uses Mary as a hermeneutic model to behold first her own visions, and second, to behold the Short Text itself in order to produce the more advanced interpretations contained in the Long Text" (154). There is also the beholding of Christ inside the womb (the first beholding of Christ), and then of course later the Christ Child in Mary's arms. In this way, Julian parallels Mary's Annunciation and her own revelation. For Margery, she takes on the role of Gabriel in her imagination of the Annunciation scene, but also the provoking moment, the inseminator. What Miles masterfully demonstrates in this chapter is that the impossible bind of "virgin/mother" is not one that traps these women, but instead imitatio Mariae allows for the visionary woman to find intellectual and emotional space that she cannot fully find with imitatio Christi. "Nonetheless, before the male body of Christ becomes visible, it is Mary's body that brings together these holy women across time and space at her side in her solitary room. It is her channeling of the Word that legitimates their written words, rendering superfluous male authorities--at least in the sacred visionary sphere" (174).

Chapter Five, "Imagining the Book: Of Three Workings in Man's Soul and Books of Hours," looks at the ways that Mary is constructed as a contemplative for all medieval readers. Mary's conception of Christ allows for the reader to conceive God in her soul. It is a literal event that becomes a metaphorical one, and it is partly for this that so many readers return to this metaphor as a way of understanding God. In Of Three Workings in Man's Soul, the writer imagines Mary's physical body and describes it, but in that way it also has a metaphorical layer that is being addressed. He describes that the conception is a useful beginner's point of meditation and contemplation: "it shows how humanity, body and all, can meet the divine, through the transformative power of the Word" (195). The Rosary, the prayer cycles of the Books of Hours, the Psalter: these are ways of entering into a state of meditation, and that is especially key for someone like an anchoress whose cell is a meditative space. The Books of Hours also have pictures to look at, demonstrating that "devotion was a coherent sensual experience." The Mary of Burgundy Book of Hours especially interests Miles because it shows Mary of Burgundy in a kind of confessional, reading, with Mary and Christ also visible through a window. So Mary of Burgundy is performing a kind of imitatio Mariae seen through this lens, holding a book like the Virgin does during the Annunciation, but also having the fruit of that moment reflected in the window behind her. Other Books of Hours show the scene before or as Gabriel is arriving, and in those instances, Mary has her book, so that textual moment and model is replicated to so many women readers at their daily prayer. A Continental example (the Buves Hours) shows the patron on the right page and the Virgin at Annunciation in the left. They mirror each other in posture, garment, and book--but the Virgin has the angel as well.

Miles then moves slightly away from textual examples and sees the work of Mary's book in practice in her sixth chapter, "Inhabiting the Annunciation: The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Pynson Ballad." Miles opens this conclusion with an image from a copper badge from Walsingham that figures the Annunciation. The edifice at Walsingham was said to represent the chamber in which Mary had her visit from Gabriel, so a pilgrimage there would resonate strongly with images of the Annunciation. The image of Walsingham was an enthroned Mary with a book in her hands, and Miles suggests that the original statue was likely not an enthroned Mary, but a Mary at the Annunciation. "Walsingham was special in that it was the only English shrine focused on the Annunciation scene: one where Mary read" (230). The shrine allows for a deeply personal mimetic experience: "Praying at the altar in Walsingham likewise could prompt a specific kind of identity formation...As their Saviour is conceived, so does each devotee conceive themselves as a devotee" (234). She notes too that pilgrimage badges and cards have been found pasted inside East Anglia Books of Hours, showing the way that the book is transformed, or the reader is transformed, by that visit. Miles notes the "Pynson ballad" linked to the shrine describes the origin story of the shrine and recounts its importance in verse, with the story of the noblewoman Rychold, who sees the Marian vision leading to the shrine. Rychold is a laywoman, and Miles notes that this also underscores the various ways that the shrine can be seen reflecting the lives of the pilgrims who go there. Her prayer generates the shrine, just as Mary's generates the visit from Gabriel.

Miles brings her book to a conclusion with a short coda, entitled "Mary and her Book at the Reformation." Here, she describes Walsingham after the Reformation, and the way there was real grief when the pilgrimage site was shut down, the statue and its resonances were removed, and the land was made private. She notes that the devastation of Marian devotion was more extreme than others in the Reformation because of the "Virgin's problematic position for the Reformers. Widespread beliefs in Mary's power to intercede with Christ, her elevated position as Queen of Heaven, her real presence in her statues, her focus for pilgrimages and her ability to effect miracles were all seen as dangerous heterodoxies by Protestant thinkers." (252) Mary and her book, however, persist in post-Reformation artistic representations of the Annunciation. But what becomes lost is Mary the visionary, Mary the recluse, Mary the intercessor that had so prevailed in Catholic thought.

The Virgin Mary's Book at the Annunciation is a thoughtful, well-written monograph, and it offers much to its readers. Both wide ranging in scope of materials and narrow in its focus, this book will be extremely useful for scholars of medieval devotional thought, literacy, art, and texts.