Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England

Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England

Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England

Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England

Synopsis

A sinner-saint who embraced then renounced sexual and worldly pleasures; a woman who, through her attachment to Jesus, embodied both erotic and sacred power; a symbol of penance and an exemplar of contemplative and passionate devotion: perhaps no figure stood closer to the center of late medieval debates about the sources of spiritual authority and women's contribution to salvation history than did Mary Magdalene, and perhaps nowhere in later medieval England was cultural preoccupation with the Magdalene stronger than in fifteenth-century East Anglia.

Looking to East Anglian texts including the N-Town Plays, The Book of Margery Kempe, The Revelations of Julian of Norwich, and Bokenham's Legend of Holy Women, Theresa Coletti explores how the gendered symbol of Mary Magdalene mediates tensions between masculine and feminine spiritual power, institutional and individual modes of religious expression, and authorized and unauthorized forms of revelation and sacred speech. Using the Digby play Mary Magdalene as her touchstone, Coletti engages a wide variety of textual and visual resources to make evident the discursive and material ties of East Anglian dramatic texts and feminine religion to broader traditions of cultural commentary and representation.

In bringing the disciplinary perspectives of literary history and criticism, gender studies, and social and religious history to bear on specific local instances of dramatic practice, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints highlights the relevance of Middle English dramatic discourse to the dynamic religious climate of late medieval England. In doing so, the book decisively challenges the marginalization of drama within medieval English studies, elucidates vernacular theater's kinship with influential late medieval religious texts and institutions, and articulates the changing possibilities for sacred representation in the decades before the Reformation.

Excerpt

In the parish church of saint andrew in BramWeld, SuVolk, fragmented letters against the golden background of a rood screen panel spell out the identity of the elegant female Wgure that it depicts: “SANCTA MAG” (frontispiece). the most beautiful of all the East Anglian rood screen images of the saint, the BramWeld panel evokes the Magdalene of wealth and status whose late medieval vita found wide circulation through works such as the Legenda aurea. At the same time that the woman’s luxurious attire alludes to the darker, proXigate side of such elegance, it epitomizes tendencies of late medieval hagiography and the visual imagination to represent the saints as familiar and immediate. in the BramWeld panel, the lush drapery and rich fabric of dress and cloak, the jewel-like adornments of headdress and belt, carefully coordinated with the ointment vessel borne before the breast, render this Magdalene as a late medieval aristocratic woman—and thus a worthy patron of noble ladies such as Isabel Bourchier, countess of Eu, who commissioned a life of the saint from Wfteenth-century East Anglian friar Osbern Bokenham. If the material splendor of the BramWeld Magdalene bespeaks late medieval habits of representation that linked saintly biography and the contemporary world, the rood screen that privileges the saint’s aristocratic image memorializes just as emphatically the biblical foundations of her sacred identity. Appearing to the left of the Magdalene image on the BramWeld screen are panels that depict evangelists John and Luke, whose gospels were the most important sources for Mary Magdalene’s scriptural biography. the arrangement and iconography of the images on the BramWeld rood screen thus glance back to biblical meanings that deWned Mary Magdalene’s signiWcance for centuries, even as they signal the adaptation and appropriation of her vita for late medieval devotional ends. This Mary Magdalene, whose complex spiritual and social identity emerges from symbolic and interpretive processes implicit in the BramWeld screen, played an exceptionally vital role in late medieval East Anglian religious culture; deWning that role and exploring those processes form the project of this book.

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