Women’s Literary Culture : Guest Blogpost

Pieta. Markisches Museum, BerlinThis week I am guest-blogging over at the ‘Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon’ website. You can find my post here.

I am talking about my favourite fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe and how she uses medieval religious objects such as the pietà (Mary holding the dead body of Christ, pictured left) as an opportunity to perform her identity as a holy woman.

Margery was a married laywoman with fourteen children and when she decided to reinvent herself as a mystic and holy woman, she had to find a new way of staging that identity and convincing her fellow Christians that she was truly holy. Pop over to the blog to find out more!

The blog is based on my recent article, available open access here.

Laura Varnam, ‘The Crucifix, the Pietà, and the Female Mystic: Devotional Objects and Performative Identity in The Book of Margery Kempe,’ Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 41, No. 2 (2015), pp. 208-237.

(Medieval pietà in the Markisches Museum in Berlin, photo by the author).

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‘Midwinter of the Spirit’: Saints and Sacred Space

Midwinter‘You have to picture the cathedral not just as bricks and mortar but as the accumulated force of centuries of prayer and devotion. It’s like one vast psychic engine but one that can be stopped in its tracks if people’s faith is shaken. If Hereford cathedral is forever defined by an awful event then the place will be a spiritual ruin.’

These are the words of Rev Huw Owen (played by David Threfall) in ITV’s recent drama Midwinter of the Spirit (adapted from a novel by Phil Rickman). Rev Owen is training young vicar Merrily Watkins (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) to become a ‘deliverance minister’, more commonly known as an exorcist. Hereford cathedral comes under attack from an evil spirit in the form of a man called Denzil Joy and his followers, and it is up to Merrily and Huw to deliver both the community and its cathedral from evil.

Watching the final episode and hearing Rev Owen’s words, I was struck by how well they tied into my own research into medieval attitudes towards the church and its status as a sacred space (I am currently finishing my academic book on this subject for publication with Manchester University Press).

Hereford CathedralThe medieval church was not just bricks and mortar, it was ‘the House of God on earth and the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28:17), a sacred space sustained by communal prayer and liturgical ritual. But it was a fragile space that could become a ‘spiritual ruin’ if the congregation’s faith was shaken or if an awful event took place.

In the ITV drama, the awful event that is about to take place is a murder in the cathedral– the ultimate act of desecration- and the perpetrators plan for it to occur when the bones of the cathedral’s saint, Thomas Cantilupe (c.1220-1282), have been removed from his shrine. This is because with Cantilupe absent, there is no saint to protect the cathedral and keep it safe.

Luckily, Rev Owens is able to return the bones to the shrine just in time and the murder is prevented. At the end of the episode he says that will go and light a candle for the saint now that his bones are back where they belong, ‘keeping the badness at bay. Fending off demons.’

shrine of st thomas cantalupe

(Shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe, Hereford Cathedral)

This reminded me of two stories in the Middle English texts that I work on that depict saints fighting for their shrines and their churches. The first comes from the prose life of the Anglo-Saxon bishop of London St Erkenwald (d.693), whose relics were translated into St Paul’s cathedral in the twelfth century.

The life reports that there was a great fire in the city of London that ‘neither sparid churchis ne towris but devourid them fervently’ [neither spared the churches nor towers but devoured them fervently] St Paul’s itself is also on fire: part of the roof falls in, the lead begins to melt, and the heat shatters the stained glass, but suddenly the people see ‘the blessid Seinte Erkenwolde ouer his tomb fyghtyng with þe fyre’ [the blessed Erkenwald over his tomb fighting against the fire].

erkenwald_LondonBurning beams fall upon the tomb but it remains unharmed and the people pray to God that as he had ‘preseruyd his tombe of theire holye fader harmeles’ [preserved the tomb of their holy father without harm] that he would have pity on them and save their city. The community’s prayers work and the cathedral and the city are ‘delyuerid fro the outeragyous fyre by the merytis of the holy seinte Erkenwolde’ [delivered from the outrageous fire by the merits of the holy saint Erkenwald]

St Erkenwald defends his tomb from fire and in another story from the fifteenth-century preaching compendium The Alphabet of Tales, the saints rise up to battle against demons who have taken over the church because of the bad behaviour of the parish priest.

A storm is threatening the parish church and the priest, called Henry, is sitting in the tavern with his clerk. They rush back to the church but are knocked out by a clap of thunder. The clerk is unharmed but Henry’s clothes are torn and his ‘membrys war all to-swythyn’ because he is a fornicator [members: genitals; to-swythyn: scorched, dried out*]. The clerk looks up and sees ‘fendis feghtand in þe kurk’ [fiends fighting in the church]. The saints whose relics are deposited in the altar appear and ‘withstude stronglie þe fendis and þer was betwix þe saynttis & þaim a grete batell’ [withstand the fiends strongly and there was a great battle between the saints and the fiends] The demons are eventually defeated but they run away with a piece of the church roof, in lieu of the body of the sinful priest.

cropped holkham(Image from the Harrowing of Hell in the Holkham Bible, 1327-35, British Library Additional 47682: fiends blowing trumpets and wielding grappling hooks on the roof of a rather architectural hell)

Returning to Rev Owens, the story in the Alphabet shows that the sanctity of the church can be endangered by the behaviour of the congregation. The priest’s fornication lays his church open to attack by demons and even the saints can’t prevent them from hightailing it with a piece of the sacred architecture. Saints such as Erkenwald protect their churches but they also rely on the good behaviour of the congregation and its ministers.

In my next post I will finally return to John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests to think further about the advice that Mirk gives for behaving well in the parish church and safeguarding its sanctity.


*Thanks to @bananadine and @ndicenza1 for help with the meaning of ‘to-swythyn’.

I have published a chapter on the church in Marion Turner, ed., A Handbook of Middle English Studies (Blackwell, 2013).

The Alphabet of Tales, ed. Mary Macleod Banks, Early English Text Society o.s. 126-7 (1904-5)

Prose life of St Erkenwald in Supplementary Lives in Some Manuscripts of the Gilte Legende, ed. Richard Hamer and Vida Russell, Early English Text Society 315 (2000)

British Library blogpost on depictions of hell in medieval manuscripts: ‘Prepare to Meet your Doom’

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National Poetry Day: The Virgin Mary lights our way

Cropped virgin‘Heyl, levedy, se-stoerre bryght,
Godes moder, edy wyht,
Mayden ever vurst and late,
Of hevenriche sely gate.’

[Hail, lady, sea-star bright, / God’s mother, blessed creature, / Mother ever first and last, / of the heavenly kingdom the blessed gate]

(The Assumption of the Virgin, St Peter and St Paul, East Harling, Norfolk. Image from Simon Knott’s fantastic Norfolk Churches website)

This is the opening of an early fourteenth century Middle English lyric, translated from the Latin hymn Ave maris stella [Hail, star of the sea] by the Franciscan friar William Herebert (d.1333-37). The theme for National Poetry Day this year is light and here the Virgin Mary is addressed as ‘se-stoerre bryght’ or lodestar. She is a star that shows the way and guides us to safety.

In his homily on the Virgin Mary, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) explains this image further (quoted by Karen Saupe, editor of the TEAMS edition of Marian Lyrics):

Star 1Surely she is very fittingly likened to a star. The star sends forth its ray without harm to itself. In the same way the Virgin brought forth her son with no injury to herself… She it is whose brightness both twinkles in the highest heaven and pierces the pit of hell, and is shed upon earth, warming our hearts far more than our bodies, fostering virtue and cauterizing vice… O you, whoever you are, who feel that in the tidal wave of this world are nearer to being tossed about among the squalls and gales than treading on dry land, if you do not want to founder in the tempest, do not avert your eyes from the brightness of this star.

Devotion to the Virgin Mary was hugely important to medieval Christians and in art and literature she was regularly associated with imagery of light. Herebert’s poem continues:

Thylk Ave that thou vonge in spel
Of the aungeles mouhth kald Gabriel,
In gryht ous sette and shyld vrom shome,
That turnst abakward Eve’s nome.
Gulty monnes bond unbynd,
Bryng lyht tyl hoem that boeth blynd,
Put vrom ous oure sunne
And ern ous alle wynne.

[That same Ave that you received in speech / from the mouth of the angel called Gabriel, / in peace us set and shield from shame, that turns backwards Eva’s name. // Guilty man’s bonds unbind, / bring light to them that are blind, / put from us are sin, / and procure joy for us all.

Here the Virgin is asked to bring light to the blind, to save us fBL Harleyrom our sin, and to set us in peace and security, recalling the image in the first verse of the sea-star that guides us to safety. The poem also draws on important Marian traditions, such as Mary’s role as a second Eve (Eva backwards is Ave, the first word of the ‘Hail Mary’ or Ave Maria). As Herebert’s poem explains, Mary was addressed ‘Ave’ or ‘Hail’ by the angel Gabriel when he appeared to tell her that she would give birth to the Son of God (an episode known as the Annunciation, see Luke 1:28-33).

[the Annunciation from British Library Harley 3181, complete with beams of light]

Imagery of the Annunciation in stained glass also makes use of light to represent the descent of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s conception. This is a gorgeous example from All Saints Church at Bale in Norfolk in which the Holy Spirit descends as a dove and the beams of light point towards Mary. (This image is used as the frontispiece of Barry Windeatt’s edition of The Book of Margery Kempe)

Bale knott image(Image from Simon Knott’s Norfolk Churches site, here)

In this image from St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, the light becomes a pathway, almost like a little slide, along which the Christ child travels on his way to Mary’s womb. If you look carefully you can see that he is bearing a small cross on his shoulder, a reminder that his birth is the first stage in his Passion, culminating with the crucifixion.

anunciation st peter mancroftshute

(Images from Simon Knott, Norfolk Churches website, here)

The association between light and stained glass is important in Marian iconography because the metaphor of light travelling through glass is used as a way of explaining the Virgin birth.

Ase the sonne taketh hyre pas
Wythoute breche thorghout that glas,
Thy maydenhod onwemmed hyt was
For bere of thyne chylde.
[As the sun makes its way / without breaking the glass, / your maidenhood was unblemished / in bearing your child]

Mary’s virginity is ‘onwemmed’ which means intact, without imperfection or spot. Her body has been entered by the Holy Spirit without its virginity being damaged, just as a beam of light shines through a window. (Mary’s unblemished state comes from the Song of Songs in which the bride is described as ‘all fair’: ‘Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee’, Songs 4:7).

In a final fifteenth century lyric, this time a carol that is accompanied by music, the imagery of light, stars, and glass comes together in a meditation on the nativity:

An angel of cunsel this day is borneEgerton
Of a maide y seide beforne,
For to save that was forlorne,
Sol de stella.
That sunne hath never doun goynge,
Nother his lyght no tyme lesynge;
The sterre is evermore shynynge,
Semper clara.
Right as the sterre bryngeth forth a bem
Of whom ther cometh a mervelus strem,
So childede the maide withoute wem,
Pari forma.

[Image of the Nativity from British Library Egerton 1070, with beams of light descending from the sun onto Christ]

[An angel of counsel [Christ] this day is born, / of a maid as I said before, / for to save that which was lost, the sun from a star. // That sun never goes down, / nor ever loses his light, / the star is shining ever more, / ever bright.// Right as the star brings forth a beam / from which comes a marvellous stream, / so the maiden gave birth without blemish / in like manner.]

Christ is the Son/Sun of God whose light never goes out and Mary gives birth to him without blemish like a beam of light shining from a star.


Marian Lyrics, ed. Karen Saupe, available online via TEAMS here

Simon Knott’s Norfolk Churches website, http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/

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What to do if a spider falls in the communion wine, and other top tips from John Mirk, Part I

SpiderIn his manual for the clergy, Instructions for Parish Priests, John Mirk (fl. c.1382-1414) explains what to do if a spider, gnat, or fly falls in the communion wine:

3ef any flye, gnat, or coppe
Doun in-to þe chalys droppe,
3ef þow darst for castynge þere,
Vse hyt hol alle I-fere.

[If any fly, gnat, or spider, down into the chalice drop, if you dare for vomiting there, swallow it whole altogether] (Spider image from BL Royal MS 13 B VIII, here; if, like me, you’re a Tolkien fan, see my note on the word ‘coppe’ at the bottom of this post)

The poor priest is advised to swallow the insect whole or, if he cannot bear it, to take out the ‘fulþe’ [filth] with his hand, wash it over the chalice and then burn it. This is because the wine is transformed into the blood of Christ during the Eucharist and the presence of the insect would be a form of desecration.

John Mirk’s Instructions are full of fascinating insights into medieval parish life. Another of my favourite passages about the Eucharist is the penance that the priest must suffer if a mouse or rat eats the host because he hasn’t looked after it properly:

3ef hyt were eten wyth mows or rat,
Dere þow moste a-bygge þat;rat with eucharist
Fowrty dayes for þat myschawnce
Þow schalt be in penaunce.

[If it were eaten by a mouse or rat, dearly you must pay for that, forty days for that mischance, you shall be in penance]

(Image of rat stealing the host from BL Harley MS 4751, see here)

John Mirk was an Augustinian canon who wrote a popular collection of Middle English sermons called the Festial as well as two priests’ manuals, the Instructions (written in Middle English rhyming couplets) and the Manuale Sacerdotis (written in Latin prose). His work is part of what we call the literature of pastoral care: texts such as sermons, penitential handbooks, and collections of moral stories, that were produced to help parish priests to educate themselves and the lay congregation for whom they were responsible. A huge number of such texts were produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a result of the decisions made at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (a great gathering of the church hierarchy) which determined that the laity must go to confession once a year and be educated properly. I’ll be discussing more of these texts over the coming weeks as they form a major part of my research.

The Instructions opens by reminding its priestly audience why their own education is so important:
God seyth hypriest wi eucharistm self, as wryten we fynde,
That whenne þe blynde ledeth þe blynde,
In to þe dyche þey fallen boo,
For þey ne sen whare by to go.
So faren prestes now by dawe;
They beth blynde in goddes lawe,
That whenne þey scholde þe pepul rede
In to synne þey do hem lede.

(Image of a priest celebrating the mass from a Book of Hours, BL Harley MS 2915, here)

[God says himself, as we find written, that when the blind lead the blind, into the ditch they both fall (Matthew 15:14) for they do not see where to go. So fare priests now, they are blind in God’s law so that when they should advise the people, they lead them into sin]

Therefore the Instructions contains everything a priest needs to know to preach in the parish and teach their congregation. This includes material on the seven deadly sins, the ten commandments, the sacraments, the articles of the faith, and how to examine a parishioner on their sins. On the subject of keeping the Sabbath holy, the priest should ask:

Hast þow holden þyn halyday,
And spent hyt wel to goddes pay?
Hast þow I-gon to chyrche fayn
To serue god wyþ alle þy mayn?
Hast þou any werke þat day I-wro3te,
Or synned sore in dede or þo3t?

[Have you kept the holy days and spent them well to God’s satisfaction? Have you gone to church to serve God with all your might? Or have you done any work on that day, or sinned sorely in deed or thought?]sunday christ

In popular culture, working on the Sabbath was thought to cause injury to Christ, as this fifteenth century wall painting from Breage, Cornwall, shows. Known as the ‘Sunday Christ’ or the ‘Warning to Sabbath Breakers’, all of the tools that a workman might use on the Sabbath are shown wounding the body of Christ as a clear deterrent against working on holy days.

In Part II of this post I will return with more of John Mirk’s teaching on how to behave in the parish church and why it was so important that parishioners follow his advice.

(Image of the Sunday Christ from Anne Marshall’s Medieval Wall Paintings website)

Note on ‘Coppe’

The word for ‘spider’ in Middle English was ‘coppe’ or ‘atter-coppe’ which comes from the Old English ‘attor-coppe’ which literally means ‘poison-head’. In The Hobbit, chapter 8 (‘Flies and Spiders’) Bilbo sings the following song to try to distract the spiders from eating Thorin and the other dwarves:

Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me!

Bilbo also uses the term ‘Lazy Lob’ in his song and ‘lob’ is also a medieval word for spider (so ‘Shelob’ in The Lord of the Rings is she-lob, female-spider).

For more on insects in medieval manuscripts see the British Library’s ‘Bugs in Books’ post
John Mirk, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, Early English Text Society o.s. 31 (1868)

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‘The Church is not a Hare’ said the Glutton: A Medieval Proverb

In the late fourteenth-century Book of Vices and Virtues, the glutton uses a proverb to excuse himself from getting up early to go to church.

St Helen's AbingdonGod biddeþ hym ryse herly; his womb biddeþ hym lye stille, for he is to ful to rise so herly. ‘I mote slepe, for þe chirche is noon hare; he wol abide me wel.’
[God bids him to rise early, his stomach bids him to lie still, for he is too full to rise so early, ‘I must sleep, for the church is not a hare, he will abide me well.’]

The proverb uses the image of a hare to capture the idea that the church is not going anywhere, it can wait for the glutton to drag himself out of bed to visit. I came across this proverb in the course of my research for my book on the ways in which the church is represented in Middle English texts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the late Middle Ages a lot of time and energy was spent on teaching the laity how to behave in the church and proverbs are one way of thinking about the commonly held beliefs and attitudes about the building.


Rabbits and hares often appear in marginal illustrations in medieval manuscripts, frequently taking on the roles of humans to humorous effect. Such images represent ‘the world upside-down’. Here (right) is an example from an early fourteenth century Book of Hours in the Walters Art Museum (Walters MS 102; for further images and a description of the manuscript, see here). Like the proverb in which the church is declared to be ‘noon hare’, the image of the rabbit ringing the church bells is incongruous and amusing.

In the medieval bestiary tradition, the hare is known for its swiftness and speed and in the proverb the comparison is used to stress the solidity, stability, and permanence of the church building. These are all positive qualities and although the comparison conjures up a wonderful image of the church scampering away into the hedgerows in a ‘world upside-down’ scenario, there is a serious issue at play. The sinful man manipulates the positive image of the constant and enduring church as an excuse for neglecting his spiritual duties. And although the church building will abide, the state of his soul will not.

The proverb also appears in a fifteenth-century sermon collection called Jacob’s Well and the author concludes with an architectural metaphor, declaring that gluttony is ‘gate of synnes, be þe wiche alle oþere synnes entryn in-to man’ [gate of sins, by which all other sins enter into man] By putting off entering the door of the parish church, the glutton opens the gates to further sins which may, ultimately, lead him to the gates of hell.


Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases : From English Writings mainly before 1500, ed. B.J. Whiting (1968) [Thank you to Nadine, @bananadine, for the reference to Whiting!]

Church and Hare edited(Doodle of the church running away after a hare by Steph Simpson, @DDDaydreams)

The Book of Vices and Virtues, ed. W. Francis Nelson, Early English Text Society o.s. 217 (1942)

Jacob’s Well, ed. Arthur Brandeis, Early English Text Society o.s. 115 (1900)

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