The Maudlin Impression: English Literary Images of Mary Magdalene, 1550-1700

Article excerpt

The Maudlin Impression: English Literary Images of Mary Magdalene, 1550-1700. By Patricia Badir. [ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern.] (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 2009. Pp. xix, 300. $38.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-268-02215-0.)

Who was Mary Magdalene? A woman by that name received exorcism of seven demons by Christ (Luke 8) and attended the sepulcher to see the risen Lord in all Gospel accounts. Pope Gregory the Great identified her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the woman who anointed Christ's head (Matt. 26, Mark 14, John 12) and with the "sinner" who bathed Christ's feet in Simon the Pharisee's home (Luke 7). Multiplying legends to embellish the Gospel accounts, succeeding ages depicted the Magdalene as profligate sinner and penitent saint. Patricia Badir skillfully surveys early-modern English reimaginings, as they appear in a wide array of poems, biographies, religious tracts, homilies, dramas, and illustrations.

Beginning with the work of Katherine Jansen, who demonstrated that the Middle Ages invented a Magdalene to embody the evils of vanity, luxuria, prostitution, and female frailty, Badir shows how later writers, particularly Protestants, reappropriated this legacy. Lewis Wager's morality play, The Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene (1566), for example, presents a polemical rereading wherein the Magdalene's conversion from sin suggests the Reformation, her rejected sensual finery standing for Catholic ceremony. Catholics like Henry Constable, Robert Southwell, Richard Verstegan, and William Alabaster focused instead on the sepulcher and hortulanus scenes. For them Mary's lamentations on the absent body of Christ expressed the desolation of early modern Catholics in England, bereft, cut off from sacraments and clergy, yearning for the Lord.

Identified as Martha's sister who chose to listen and adore rather than act, the Magdalene also became a model of piety that inspired a poetics of devotion and contemplation for all. …


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