The Life of (and devotion to) the Virgin
Introduction & Links
On o[ur] Ledy mine hope is,
Moder and virgine:
We shulen into Hevene blis
Thurh hire medicine…¹
It was sentiments like these, which certainly did not diminish over later centuries, that led to accusations from reform-minded churchmen that the people were worshipping Mary in a way appropriate only to the Father and the Son. In technical terms, hyperdulia – the highest form of adoration and veneration, and appropriate to the Virgin Mary – was becoming, so the accusations ran, latria or worship, appropriate only for God himself. Hence the term ‘Mariolatry’ – those deemed to indulge in this were guilty of worshipping the creature (for Mary is herself merely a creature) rather than the Creator.
How many people, clerical or lay, really understood the distinction is obviously highly debatable. But the need in the medieval church for a female figure had been recognised by its leaders almost from the start – Mary was the Second Eve, unloosing by her obedience what Eve had bound. It was right and inevitable that she should be held in special veneration.
At any rate, devotion to the Virgin in the Middle Ages was high in England, as it was everywhere in Christendom. The great Marian shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk received pilgrims in vast numbers from every corner of the Christian west Statues and paintings of her abounded. Some of these show Mary alone, as a ‘Devotional’ figure, but stories about her life, spinning elaborations (especially about her later years) on the Scriptural account came in from many apocryphal sources. Her Espousals, her mother St Anne teaching her to read, her girlhood spinning or weaving in the Temple, her Death, Burial, Assumption and Coronation in Heaven, as well as her part in the story of the Nativity and the Passion, were all painted in the English church. Many of these are now in fragments or very faded, but there are links to some of them in the table below, and more will follow.
¹Anon, later C13/early 14. Part of a poem in BM. MS Harley 2253, f.80a. In RT Davies, Medieval English Lyrics, Faber, 1963, p.70