Academic journal article Medium Aevum

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

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

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

Article excerpt

Adrienne Williams Boyarín, Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2010). xi + 217 pp. ISBN 978-1-84384240-8. £50.00.

The Virgin Mary was perhaps the pre-eminent focus of late medieval Christian devotion: she was at once everyday intercessor and Queen of Heaven, well of mercy and harsh judge of righteousness, the ideal mother and the archetypal virgin, a modest woman of Israel and, in her medieval incarnations, a most severe punisher and converter of the Jews. In Mary's elaborate medieval biography, a world of intense feeling, emotion, and violence was developed which explored these paradoxes, as famously depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. Adrienne Williams Boyarin's fine new study of the textual life of the Virgin's antagonistic collision with the Jews alights on the later medieval 'literary phenomenon' (p. 4) of the 'Miracles of the Virgin' in England. These short, exemplary narratives, so beloved by medieval preachers, portray Mary's many miraculous interventions. Boyarin's main lines of argument are that the stories were 'an exemplary mirror of English ideas about Marian intercession' and consistently represented 'the Virgin Mary as an intercessor interested in, and supremely situated to take care of, matters legal, textual, and Jewish' (p. 7). The book as a whole argues that 'miscellaneity' is representative of these stories, revealing 'sets and subsets of miracle narratives' (p. 138) which show complex attitudes towards Mary.

Boyarin's book is coherently organized around four main case studies. The first two concern different aspects of the Theophilus legend, whose anti-hero sells his soul to the Devil, with the assistance of a Jewish magician. Boyarín considers the story first in terms of Mary's role as 'a powerful legal advocate with particular power over the written word' (p. 42) and then as a figure with a unique ability 'to intercede in legal dispute and through legal documentation' (p. 81). Here, Boyarín extends the recent excellent scholarship on the Charters of Christ and similar artefacts, to show how the Theophilus narrative's version of Mary is fundamental to other medieval representations of her. …

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