Mary and the Making of Europe: As an Integrated System of Politics, Economy and Religion Evolved in Europe around the Year 1000, the Figure of the Virgin Mary-So Central to the Lives of Monks and Nuns-Became the Core of a Widely Shared, Though Highly Varied, European Identity

By Rubin, Miri | History Today, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Mary and the Making of Europe: As an Integrated System of Politics, Economy and Religion Evolved in Europe around the Year 1000, the Figure of the Virgin Mary-So Central to the Lives of Monks and Nuns-Became the Core of a Widely Shared, Though Highly Varied, European Identity


Rubin, Miri, History Today


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Early in the 11th century the monk-historian Badulfus Glaber (died c.1050) commented on recent history:

   Just before the third
   year alter the millennium,
   throughout the
   whole world, but must
   especially in Italy and
   Gaul, men began to
   reconstruct churches ... It was as if the
   whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging
   off the burden of the past, and cladding
   itself everywhere in a white mantle of
   churches. Almost all the episcopal churches
   and those of monasteries dedicated to various
   saints, and little village chapels, were
   rebuilt better than before by the faithful.

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This image--of Europeans hard at work replacing wooden churches with the 'white mantle' of stone churches--is one of the most commonly used in historical discussion of the making of Europe. Be it in its dramatic economic growth or its religious reforms, in the coalescence of dynastic kingdoms or the development of cathedral schools, Europe between 1000 and 1200 is seen as living through deep and lasting change. The great Italian-American historian Roberto Lopez named it a 'commercial revolution', R.I. Moore saw in the bureaucracies of church and state the birth of a 'Persecuting Society' and, more recently Robert Bartlett identifies in the period the 'Making of Europe'.

A single powerful figure emerged as the shared symbol of this diverse Christian continent--the Virgin Mary. Mary became so ubiquitous in both private and public spaces that it is easy to think she had always been there, the Madonna at the street corner. But this was not so. Early medieval Europeans preferred above all the cult of martyrs and local saints, of those who had heroically brought Christianity to their parts: St Peter in Rome, St Engracia of Zaragoza, St Martin in Tours, Sernin in Toulouse and Apollinaris of Ravenna. The new drive towards interest in Mary is associated with the lives and interests of monks and nuns in their monasteries--the cultural powerhouses of Europe--where liturgy and prayer were composed and intoned, where hagiographies were copied and created, where the struggle against sin was a daily relentless challenge. The new monastic orders--Cluniacs in the 11th century, Cistercians in the 12th--led the initiative in the hundreds of new houses built for them over these centuries.

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To men and women offered to the religious life at a tender age--like Radulphus himself--Mary offered comfort and maternal warmth to those struggling against sin. She gave encouragement to those charged with praying for benefactors, and to relatives she contributed her special brand of intercession. Prayers, like this from 11th-century northern France, expressed the belief that Jesus could refuse his mother nothing:

   Whatever you wish
   Your only son will give you.
   For whomever you seek
   You will have pardon and glory.

In front of Mary, monks felt able to unburden their deepest private anguish:

   O blessed and most saintly Mary, always Virgin,
   I am thus afflicted in face of your goodness, I
   am greatly confused by the abominations of my
   sins which have made me deformed and horrible
   in the eyes of angels and all saints.

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Mary thus became a special patron of the monastic condition, and so the creations of monks and nuns, the prime source for emulation and example in this period, had an impact far beyond their small number. The brilliant Italian-born monk Anselm (d. 1109), who ended his days as Archbishop of Canterbury, inserted Mary deep into his theological work; he developed a compelling argument for the necessity of the Incarnation--God made Flesh--and within it inscribed the central role of Mary, God's virgin mother. His influence spread widely through prayers and meditations on Mary which he offered to enthusiastic aristocrats like the Countess Matilda of Tuscany.

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Mary and the Making of Europe: As an Integrated System of Politics, Economy and Religion Evolved in Europe around the Year 1000, the Figure of the Virgin Mary-So Central to the Lives of Monks and Nuns-Became the Core of a Widely Shared, Though Highly Varied, European Identity
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