Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography

Article excerpt

The Legend of Mary of Egypt in Medieval Insular Hagiography, ed. Erich Poppe and Bianca Ross (Dublin and Portland, Oregon: Four Courts Press, i996). viii + z99 pp. ISBN 1-852-187-2. 35.oo.

Mary of Egypt is the most important repentant harlot saint after the Magdalen: beginning as a late antique conglomeration of vitae patru>n motifs, her legend includes spectacular prostitution, pilgrimage, conversion, and asceticism. It thematizes the relations of desert and city, coenobitism and eremiticism, urbanization and solitude, while its doubled narrative structure variously images institutional religious agendas and the mediation of female spirituality by churchmen, being retold within the framework both of the monk Zosimas's encounter with this female hermit, and of her own quest and his witness to it.

In this collection's own double agenda, the legend is used to exemplify principles and practices in insular studies. Pointing out that, in the waterborne world of medieval long-distance transport, insularity means, primarily, 'cultural interaccessibility', Hildegard Tristram introduces the volume with a thought-provoking account of the significance of vernacular writing in medieval Britain (and of the role of the Cambridge Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic tripos in its modern reception). The volume's individual studies, though of inevitably varying quality, achieve some useful sequences and interactions.

Particularly valuable is Jane Stevenson's exemplary study of the legend in its late antique context and its transition to Anglo-Latin culture, accompanied by her edition and translation of Paul the Deacon's vita from the early insular witnesses. Hugh Magennis follows up the Anglo-Latin career of the legend with a fascinating argument for a counter-cultural Mary of Egypt, her life included in important JElfrician collections, but witnessing both to a very different spirituality from lelfric's institutional and in many ways profoundly a-feminine hagiography and to the less than hegemonic status of the Benedictine reform and its effects in late Anglo-Saxon culture. …

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