Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Significance of the Demonic Episode in the Legend of St Margaret of Antioch

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Significance of the Demonic Episode in the Legend of St Margaret of Antioch

Article excerpt

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Of all popular medieval saints, St Margaret, known as St Marina in the Greek tradition, is one of the most fascinating, but also most problematic. The origins of her cult are not clear; her martyrdom is generally thought to have taken place in the late third century, but apart from the legend there is no evidence concerning the saint in other contemporary sources. The climax of the legend of Margaret/Marina is the saint's confrontation with the devil in the form of a dragon, when the devilish beast is said to have swallowed Margaret and then burst asunder unable to contain such a holy creature in its stomach, closely followed by a temptation by a black demon. This episode captured the imagination of the medieval West and was firmly established in iconography, making her one of the most frequently represented saints between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries. This same story eventually led the Vatican to suppress her cult in 1969, alongside cults of other saints with fairytale -like legends and no historical confirmation of their existence, such as St Christopher and St George. This article will attempt to consider how the dragon/black devil episode fits in the early Judaeo-Christian demonology and how it was read (or misread) later in the Middle Ages.

The oldest extant version of the Life of the saint, where she is named Marina, is thought to be the Passio a Theotimo} the name assigned to the text by the Bollandists since it claims to have been written by Theotimus, an eyewitness of the saint's martyrdom. The same Bollandists discovered three recensions of the legend, of which the oldest is published separately and is known as the Usener version.2 It contains a clause which names the commentator of the Passio as St Methodius, saying that he copied the Life from a martyrology during his stay in Rome between 81 5 and 820.3 An older hagiographie tradition, Greek or perhaps even both Greek and Latin, must have stood behind this Usener text copied by Methodius: although the earliest Latin versions do not follow it exactly, they demonstrate a great number of similarities.4

The earliest Latin manuscript of the legend is dated to the very end of the eighth century (The Royal Library of Turin, MS BN D.V.3), but most of the early copies are from the ninth and tenth centuries and closely correspond with the Usener Passio; they usually name the saint as Margaret, although TVIarina' readings are also present.5 The largest and most influential group of Latin Lives of St Margaret is classified under no. 5303 in BHL;6 it appears to be the main source for most of vernacular derivatives of the legend. The main version of the 5303 group is called Mombrìtius after its medieval editor.7

The Casinensis version (BHL 5304), compiled in or before the eleventh century, so called because of the only complete extant manuscript, is yet another independent version, which is close to Mombntius in phraseology, but is often interested in the topics Mombrìtius omits, and vice versa.8 For example, Casinensis preserves the Greek name of the saint, Marina, but leaves out the 'appearance of the heavenly dove after Marina's victory over the dragon which appears in her prison cell, and the first part of the black demon's confession'.9 Casinensis generally is less interested in demonology, yet it demonstrates parallels to the Greek Life, otherwise absent from Mombrìtius and the majority of other early Latin Lives of the saint.10

Those other versions include the Paris, Rebdorf, and Caligula versions. The Paris Life (BHL 5305), the earliest manuscripts of which are dated to the twelfth century, gives the saint's name as Margarita, and is yet another independent translation or composition, although close in its general layout to other Latin versions. This version does not contain such 'popular elements' as the dragon's swallowing the saint, nor is the dragon's name given.11 The text is aimed at educated readers, judging by its florid style and philosophical treatment of the confrontation between Margaret and the pagan prefect Olibrius. …

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