Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends

Article excerpt

Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends. By Adrienne Williams Boyarín. (Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, an imprint of Boydell & Brewer. 2010. Pp. xii, 217 $90.00. ISBN 978-1-84384240-8.)

Adrienne Williams Boyarin's book is a welcome and erudite contribution to Marian scholarship. Its chronological coverage is broad and necessarily patchy, given her chosen subject and the diffuse, varied, and sporadic nature of the sources for it, including Latin and vernacular texts, and illustrations in manuscripts and stained-glass. Out of these miscellanea, ranging from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, whose randomness the author convincingly asserts is a key aspect of their value as evidence, emerges the argument for an enduring "Marian paradigm" in English religious culture. This is characterized by Mary's repeated associations, inflected in different ways at different times, with having dominion over texts; possessing an expertise in legal texts, procedure, and judgment; and- through her moral and theological distinction as both Jew and mother of Christ- having an enduring narrative value in the service of antisemitic Christian polemic.

The "Miracles of the Virgin" genre was an English innovation of twelfthcentury Benedictine monks, the legendary and disparate nature of whose contents distinguished it from conventional miracle collections more grounded in institutionally oriented and historicized miracle collections. Their literary and miscellaneous qualities spurred what Anthony Bale has called the "exemplary imagination" (qtd. on p. 17) of vernacular clerical culture in the later medieval period- certainly from the end of the thirteenth century, when they surface in the South English Legendary and take their authority from the Anglo-Norman moment of their monastic invention. In fact, Boyarín traces these stories to Anglo-Saxon liturgical and homiletic precursors, demonstrating continuity in the themes and motifs explored by Ælfric in his Catholic Homilies and those of Anselm of Bury, Dominic of Evesham, and William of Malmesbury's Marian collections, through the South English Legendary, John Mirk's Festial, Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Prioress's Tale," sermon cycles, the Vernon manuscript, the thirteenth-century de Brailes Book of Hours, a fifteenth-century religious miscellany, and ultimately to Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam's satirical take on the shrine of St. …

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