Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Flesh and Food: The Function of Female Asceticism in the Digby 'Mary Magdalene.'

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Flesh and Food: The Function of Female Asceticism in the Digby 'Mary Magdalene.'

Article excerpt

Traditionally the subject of studies concerned with staging and provenance, the Digby Mary Magdalene has, in recent years, become the focus of arguments over its unity of character, plot, and theme.(1) Not surprisingly, this shift in the play's critical focus has led many recent scholars to examine the central character in much greater depth than did earlier scholars. Mary Magdalene - in Digby a composite character drawn from traditional folklore, biblical and liturgical sources, and medieval saints' lives such as The Golden Legend - was a popular and familiar saint, well known to a fifteenth-century English audience.(2) Because of Mary's widespread popularity in the late Middle Ages, today's scholars of the Digby play find her to be an important symbol for spirituality. Clifford Davidson tells us, "During the Middle Ages . . . she had become the standard example of the serious sinner's repentance and ascent to bliss," and, "for many Christians in the late Middle Ages, Saint Mary Magdalene might even have been described as the paradigm of God's mercy to penitent sinners."(3) Davidson sees Mary, then, as a model for other sinners to imitate when seeking redemption; she serves as a point of identification for members of the audience. David Bevington describes Mary as a female type of Christ: "Mary Magdalene's temptation in the wilderness and her ascension into heaven are patently modeled on those of Christ."(4) As a female and more human version of Christ, however, Mary offers a more accessible model for behavior. Victor Scherb also associates her with the Son of God:

In portraying Mary's success as a Christian nuntia, the dramatist stresses how Christian speakers could become "a vessel of the Spirit, bearing the Word to mankind," in their turn allowing others to internalize the Christian message. . . . Significantly, Christ himself appears onstage for only a small fraction of the play. His message, conveyed through preachers like Peter and Mary, must bear the evangelical burden.(5)

Scherb sees Mary as separate from Christ yet still closely associated with him as a character. Her role is that of a messenger who brings Christ, in an accessible form, to the world in general and the audience of the Digby play in particular. There is consensus among most scholars that Mary's post-conversion experiences in the play, whether they are motivated directly by Christ or typologically linked with experiences in Christ's life, are important points of identification for the audience. While there have been several valid studies on Mary as a character, however, scholars have not focused on Mary's gender and how being female might affect her role as a model for audience behavior. A character whose primary role in iconography and literature is that of the lover - of men and of God - would seem to lend herself to a gendered reading. I believe that a look at medieval ideas of gendered spirituality, and a juxtaposition of these ideas with the play, could add to a more complete understanding of Mary as a character and of her purpose and meaning for the audience.

In light of Mary's gender, her role as "an holy apostylesse," and the focus on the sins and spirituality of the body in this play, one medieval phenomenon which might prove useful in examining Mary Magdalene is female asceticism.(6) Caroline Walker Bynum, who has written extensively on the spirituality and asceticism of medieval women, argues that their spiritual concerns reflected cultural reality: most spiritual women expressed their adoration of God through food- and body-related behavior. Bynum discusses "food practices - fasting and feasting" as "the very heart of the Christian tradition."(7) The eucharist, a metaphoric meal, defined a Christian through food-related behavior. However, Bynum states that food-related spirituality - mostly fasting - was much more common to women than to men in the period from 1200 to 1500:

most males who were revered for fasting fit into one model of sanctity - the hermit saint (usually a layman) - and this was hardly the most popular male model, whereas fasting characterized female saints generally. …

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