John Mirk's Holy Women

By Atkinson, Nancy E. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

John Mirk's Holy Women


Atkinson, Nancy E., Papers on Language & Literature


John Mirk's Festial, a popular English sermon collection, provided priests with orthodox, vernacular homilies for all the important saints' feasts of the Christian year (Fletcher 514). A canon-regular of the monastery at Lilleshall in Shropshire, Mirk composed these homilies from about 1382 to 1390 for St. Alkmund's, Shrewsbury, a church whose revenues supported Lilleshall Abbey (Spencer 311). Mirk's work was widely circulated, and during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Festial underwent twenty-four editions. (1) Throughout England, parishioners would have listened to these model homilies within churches that displayed wall paintings of the Virgin Mary and female saints. Like the wall paintings, Mirk's figurative language and fascinating narratives illustrate miraculous events in the lives of holy women. Many of these stories rely heavily on legends often depicted in churches. This essay explores the relationship between Mirk's narratives and Christian images by focusing on sermons devoted to the Virgin Mary and female saints. Festial provided preachers with homilies that encouraged parishioners to revere images and worship at shrines. Mirk made extensive use of figurative language, Christian symbols, and narration (as opposed to scriptural explication), and he urged the laity to see themselves as learned because they could read the symbolic in narratives and art. His stories of saintly women worked in conjunction with church paintings and carvings to produce the "truth" of legends and fables for parishioners.

When Mirk composed his model homilies, the use of images as "books" for the unlettered was a topic for debate. (2) Consistently denouncing images were the Lollards, the followers of John Wycliff. Wycliff saw some educational value in images, but he argued against their veneration. Embracing biblical teachings, his followers ardently opposed the laity's practice of worshipping at images, citing the Second Commandment against making graven images and linking the laity's behavior to devil worship (Aston, England's Iconoclasts 109-10). The Lollard movement was not entirely unified, but their opposition to orthodox use of images united them. In addition, both Wycliff and his disciples were troubled by literary influences on preaching. In their formulation, preachers should speak directly and should not "adulterate the Scriptures with contrivances" or make "affectations of verbal delivery." (3) Mirk's homilies about Mary, Mary Magdelene, Saint Katherine, and Saint Margaret are adorned with such "contrivances" and would have been particularly useful to preachers wishing to dismiss competing claims that the church's art fostered idolatry.

Festial does not simply defend Christian paintings and statues against Lollard charges of idolatry; rather, its narratives go much further to illustrate explicitly how their reverence saves the holy and converts the unbelievers. Mirk's stories prompted lay listeners to envision that something miraculous could occur in their lives if they, too, concentrated on depictions of saints. Mirk scorned Wycliffite notions about both physical and verbal images by shifting the meaning of the term "lewde" to signify a person's inability to grasp symbolic meanings. Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend supplied Mirk with miracle stories about saints. (4) For Mirk, lay people did not need to be able to read scripture to be "learned"; rather, sermon listeners needed to be able to understand the symbolism of Christian stories and art. Knowledge of this symbolism distinguished a "learned" person from a "lewde" one. Traditionally, the term "lewde" meant "lay" as opposed to "clerical," signifying one who was untaught in Latin. (5) The term also meant "ignorant" or "uneducated." In Festial, a "lewde" person is unable to interpret religious images, stories, or symbols.

Using church artwork to illustrate his point, Mirk defines the term "lewde" in his St. Luke's Day homily. He writes that the four evangelists are "lyknet to fowre dyuerse bestys, and soo byn paynted yn fowre partyes of Cryst, pat ys: for Marke a lyon, for Mathew a man, for Luke a calfe, and for Ion an eron" (Mirk 261).

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