Literature Review: Mary and the Devil
The writings of the Cult of Mary and the medieval plays that feature the Virgin Mary provide an insight into how the medieval reader/audience viewed the devil. In these texts, the Virgin Mary is often portrayed as an intercessor, saving unwitting common people who have found themselves at the mercy of, or in a deal with, the devil. Because these texts were aimed at lay people they provide insight into the role of the devil in popular culture of the time. In these works, the devil is often seen as comical, as a marker of difference, although Said’s theory of Other often breaks down when applied, and represents social commentaries. All of these representations illustrate that the devil of medieval writings was the devil as folklore, as he was the devil of the people. The reason why he works as a counter to the Virgin Mary is because he stands in for the people that were the focus of these writings, his actions and his sins stand in for the wrongful actions and sins of the people.
Russell’s work in Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages situates all of these topics in their historical moment. He states that from the thirteenth century forward, the concept of demonic pact became “a favorite theme in sermons, poems, and theater” (82) and that these pacts “became one of the keystones in the demonization of minorities, the transformation of heretics, muslims, and Jews from ignorant souls steeped in error to conscious servants of Satan” (83). He argues that the demonization of Jews served political and social agendas (84). He also explains how variations on the pact theme functioned, specifically the idea of gifting a child to Satan, where the Virgin often came to the defense of the child, appearing “in court as defense attorney” (85). Mary as intercessor became a popular trope, with her rescuing people from “rash promises” or “written pacts” (90). Russell identifies “wide shifts in attitudes toward the Devil” in the thirteenth century stating that Mary becomes Satan’s opponent, and that the devil “also became more ridiculous and comic in sermons, art, exempla, and popular literature...perhaps a logical result of reducing his theological significance while increasing his sense of immediacy” (161). He also argues that there were several types of comedy in “medieval demon plays”; slapstick, broad satire (260), “satire of demonic human behavior”, and “elevated irony” (261). It is in these dramas where Mary is seen as a “mediator between humanity and Christ the judge. Mary became the leader of the forces of good in the war for the world, so the miracle stories pitted the “top teams” of good and evil against one another, one team captained by Mary, the other by Lucifer” (271).
Russell’s work is most useful to my own because of how he situates these issues in their historical context. He addresses the ideas I plan on addressing in my article; the comic nature of the devil as evidence of folkloric roots, the devil as a marker of difference, the devil as representative of the people, and how the character of the devil is used to accomplish social, political, and cultural commentary. While Russell identifies, and historicizes each of these items, he does not conduct close readings of texts, or do much more than list texts. I plan on using his work for reference and then expand on these ideas while supporting my point with specific textual readings.
In “Re-membering the Jews: Theatrical Violence in the N-Town Marian Plays” Price argues that Mary in these plays serves as an “ambivalent figure of power”, tampering “with the scales” of justice, protecting “the reputation of fallen women”, and arranging for “eternal salvation” (449). Price also states that in the N-Town plays violence is often associated not with the person being punished but with the body of Mary and what it symbolizes (439). As the purpose of these plays was often salvation and conversion, Jews were often used as stand ins as they were deemed natural doubters (444). Because they doubted the virginity of Mary, their doubt and subsequent conversion was seen as an example that all doubters could ultimately be converted to the faith (445). Price also notes that the “rapid development of the cult of the Virgin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries certainly parallels a number of interdependent political, religious, and economic trends that made life significantly more difficult for Jewish communities in Europe” (448) which parallels other scholarship which discusses Mary and her counter of the devil as a stand in of social and political issues. Likewise, Price argues that in this play Jews stand in for common people, acting as ideal witnesses to the Christian faith.
While Price’s article does not specifically mention the devil, the obvious associations between Jews and the devil in the medieval period make this an article worth including. Likewise, Price’s argument of “inscription and erasure as acts of violence” (456) is compelling, as the devil was often portrayed in a violent manner and it’s worth noting what characteristics of the devil are shared with representations of other characters on the medieval stage. Likewise, the focus on Mary’s body, as both controversy and a symbol of her authority, as it’s used in medieval drama is of interest as in her encounters with the devil she is shown as immune to his charms, tricks, and violence. Price’s analysis that Mary’s characterization in medieval drama is problematic because of her presentation by males, as a “Christian but Jew, mother but virgin, is potentially subversive in the extreme” (457) is interesting as I believed that Mary would be presented as an icon, and I didn’t see her as problematic. I also found this article interesting because if I’m going to argue how the devil stands in for common people as a folkloric representation I also have to look at the interactions Mary had with other characters in medieval drama in order to establish what the baseline of her interactions was.
Despres addresses a similar topic in “Immaculate Flesh and the Social Body: Mary and the Jews” when she argues that Marian “devotional works...allow us therefore to investigate in some detail the significance of Jewish presence in late-medieval English religious culture”. Despres explains that the “narrative and iconic tradition conflating ritual crucifixion, ritual cannibalism and host desecration mythology spread with the image of the Christ child as sacrifice, demonstrating the fundamental differences between the stubborn, literalist Jew and the spiritual, metaphorical Christian” (50) which serve as marker of Jewishness and as counter to what the Virgin Mary represented. Despres supports Price in stating the Virgin Mary, particularly her body, was a focus of medieval writings, specifically her body as representative of the Eucharist (53). Despres also states that this focus on the body also emphasized the Virgin Mary as a healer and conduit to Christ. Despres supports this with examples from illustrations that show Mary feeding sick monks, using the Host to battle fiends within the body of monks and without- illustrating the duality of Mary’s purpose. Despres also uses the argument that Mary being able to convert Jews illustrates her ability to convert anyone (55). The weakness of Despres’ argument is that she states that “no practicing Jews were permitted to reside in fourteenth-and fifteenth century England” (47). While technically correct, the implication of this argument is that there were no Jews in England at this time, which has since been disproved, and may simply be attributed to the age of Despres’ article (1998).
Despres’ argument again seems a little tangential to my topic, however, her discussion that apocalyptic Mary was used to represent social change and the argument of “Mary’s function as a symbol of bodily theocracy was of course complicated by her female nature” (57) is important to my larger argument of how scenes between Mary and the devil function not only as a lesson/model for laypeople but also as commentaries on larger social issues, with the devil used for his representative nature. Despres’ focus on Mary’s body and how this is meant to be read is also important, because in order to understand what the devil is used to represent or counter, I need a clear understanding of what Mary represents. Also, the body as writing is a common approach in medieval studies, and I feel it’s important to address this and show my awareness of this.
Cox’s argument in “The Devil and Society in the English Mystery Plays” builds on a similar argument as Despres and Price, stating that “the Devil is identified theologically and politically with social oppression, not with social resistance” (426). He states that it is often argued that stage devils reinforce the idea of plays “informing theology” (407) but that “Devils need not be understood either as exuberant subverters of a hegemonic social order on one hand or as risible examples of failed attempts to challenge cosmic order on the other” (408). Cox argues the devil is an integral part of a “cultural system” where the devil was to blame for everything that goes wrong. Cox also states that the purpose of the devil in these mystery plays was to illustrate and “define what the community was not” (410). Cox’s statement that Lucifer was often connected with “joy”, “bliss”, and “mirth” would seem to connect to Young’s argument for analyzing the comedic nature of the devil and what it represents, however, what Cox means to emphasize is joy or bliss connected to God, therefore highlighting this loss when Lucifer rebels. Cox states that the fall of the devil was “inevitably understood in feudal terms” (413) which reinforces the concept of the devil as foil representing societal fears. Particularly, the devil’s pride and his revolt against God can be read Cox argues as an indictment of “everyone in the stories who possesses wealth, social prestige, and political power” (414). Cox also states that the Chester and N-Town cycles “introduce non-canonical devils” which identify “pride and the demonic violation of community with the socially privileged” (418). Cox counters ideas of the devil as clown or comic when he says that the devil “involves little, if any, of the comedy that is often attributed to devils as if it were their inherent characteristic” (414) although he does state that these “carnivalesque conventions” could be the author playing to the masses. Despite this, he argues that “the N-Town devils are treated with remarkable theological sophistication, and a more credible reading is that the carnival detail has been brought into line with the plays’ celebration of communal values” (414-415). He also explains that in many cycles, “the devils function as prosecuting attorneys” tying them back to their origin in Job as Adversary (420). He points out that the York and Towneley plays emphasize this sense of justice more than the Chester plays do (421).
Cox’s examination of the N-Town plays is most useful to my research, as he states that ten out of the forty one plays in the N-Town cycle feature devils, making it the cycle “with the most pageants containing devils” (415). While Cox’s argument focuses on devils with no mention of the Virgin Mary, he does argue that these “plays celebrate the paradox of Satan’s defeat in his apparent victory and thus vindicate the ultimate effectiveness of God’s redemptive power” (423) and the emphasis on redemptive power is also a focus in the characterization of the Virgin Mary. Cox also connects the anti-Jewishness of these plays to the devil, stating that they were “thought of as very close to the great enemy Satan himself” (431) which supports my approach of looking not just at devil figures but also characters that were aligned with the devil in these plays. This also relates to the larger project of my dissertation as Cox argues that this prejudice gets forwarded into Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
Boyarin’s Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England pulls several of these themes together through an examination of the Theophilus legend. Chapter two, “The Theophilus Legend in England: Mary the Advocate, Mary the Jew” argues that it is “emblematic of English Miracles of the Virgin that the earliest groupings of Marian miracle stories in England, whether Latin or vernacular, are addenda to the Theophilus story” (42). The Theophilus legend is about Theophilus who sells his soul to the Devil, with the help of a Jewish magician, and Mary has to intervene to break the contract. Boyarin argues that this legend is key to developing the idea of Mary in medieval times as it proved her “unparalleled power” (47), her ability to face the Devil on equal terms, and her knowledge of the law so she can break the contract (46). She also describes the role of the Jewish magician as unique in medieval drama- while he is used as a marker of Theophilus's downfall, and is described as evil, the “direct agent” of Theophilus's downfall (55), in the end Boyarin argues that in the end “the Jew ends up little more than a guide, and he is eventually indistinguishable from the Christian” (55). This ties into the idea that the Jew is often used as a signifier for the devil, but also how the Jew is shown as an example of Mary’s power in saving anyone. Boyarin traces the legend from Aelfric’s conception, through Dominic of Evesham and William of Malmesbury.
Chapter three, “The Theophilus Legend in England, Again From the Devil’s Charter to a Marian Paradigm” begins with an examination of William de Brailes first known Book of Hours (c. 1240) that while it does not include the text of the Theophilus legend, does include multiple illustrations with annotations beneath on the story (75). The devil shown is the folkloric devil, animalistic in appearance against which Mary fights, both spiritually and physically (76). The physical contract/charter and its burning is also featured heavily (78). Boyarin stresses the role of the contract in this chapter, stating that “Theophilus's contractual bindings of his soul to Satan while demon scribes furiously record the proceedings bears resemblance to daily scribal activities in the thirteenth century” (80). The legal implications of Mary “snatching the charter away from the devil” and destroying it were an appeal to laypeople, and Mary’s power (81). Boyarin states that with the South English Legendary it was the power of Mary to intercede that was emphasized, and was the didactic lesson. Here, there is an overlap between Judaism and Christianity which also points to the role of Jews in the Theolphilus legend as well as Mary’s dual role of Jew/Christian (85).
Boyarin’s work is valuable to my own because it traces connections between several of the main themes that have come up in my research, Mary’s dual nature, the importance of legal language and contracts, as well as how Jews were characterized as aligned with the devil. The completeness of her research in tracing the Theophilus legend, which I plan on referencing in the larger work of my dissertation, is also helpful as it traces the evolution of the legend and how the devil’s role changes. The elevation of the character of Mary so that she can stand on equal footing against the devil is one of my main arguments, as is the fact that the devil she faces is the folkloric representation which represents the people. Given the didactic nature of Marian texts this also supports my argument.
“...In Diversas Figuras Nequitias: The Devil’s Image From The Viewpoint of Rhetoric” focuses on the unnatural aspect of the devil’s image (27) and how this unnatural look serves as a marker of difference, and represents his “alienation from the order of the universe” (30). Makhov examines these images as a form of rhetoric, with the devil as a rhetorical figure who moves from “the verbal to the visual domain” (31). He examines how there are six modes of gesture that have meaning, that these modes are “disordered” (32) and that devil images illustrate each of these modes. Makhov states that the “visual image of the devil can be compared to highly metaphorical speech” (33) which serves to represent the disorder, transmutation, and alienation that the figure of the devil represents.
Hundsbichler’s chapter, “Devils in Visual Proximity” examines the plurality of the devil, stating that he ignores the “differentiations between terms like “devil(s)” or “demon(s)” or names, impersonations, and functions of any other religious symbols of the ill and evil as, for example, the serpent” both because a medieval audience would have read all of these as the same thing, and because the Bible recognizes the plurality of the devil, “we are many” (53). Hundsbichler also argues that the devil’s image in manuscripts was “unnatural, awful, terrible, brutal, naughty, ugly, insidious, imbecile” for didactic reasons, so that he would be visually recognizable to lay people (55). He describes the proximity of the devil to humans and Christ/the Lord in images as representative of the separation between the devil, and sinners from salvation (57). He argues that this proximity works with the portrayal of the devil as unnatural, as well as his disguise as a form of distancing all of which serve to show his distance from the Lord (63). Hundsbichler argues that “Didactic pictures also capitalize on failures of the devil” (67) which serve, along with images that illustrate the devil in proximity to saints and Mary, to mark the devil. He also addresses the issue of proximity shown when representing the devil and bargains.
The chapters from Angels, Devils: The Supernatural and Its Visual Representation may at first seem a little tangential to my work, but is valuable due to Makhov’s identification of the visual markers of the devil that he lists. Due to the visual nature of drama, these visual markers are an excellent lens through which to view how the devil is represented. Hundsbichler’s work examines the same issues I plan on arguing in regards to the Mary-Devil interactions in medieval plays in visual representations which, like Makhov, gives me a list of markers to identify and work with in the dramas.
Young’s “The Comic Devil in Medieval English Drama” addresses many of the points I hope to integrate into my article; the characterization of the devil, his function, his interaction with Mary, and most importantly the connection between this comic representation and folklore. Young argues that “The Devil of the religious drama was apparently little more than a noisy clown” (29) which has connections to Bakhtin’s theory of carnivale. He also points out an important gap in the literature, that of viewing Devil and also Vice as a foil to the Devil as representing the people. Price points out Cushman’s argument that “the Devil is the ‘product of theology, not of the folk’” but counters it stating that the characterization of the devil as clown was a “response to popular demand” (31) and therefore shows the devil as folk character. Young uses the scholarship of Tiddy to support this, quoting his argument that medieval devils “in actual practice they became buffoons, drawing most of their comica traits from the clowns and devils of the more primitive folk play” (32). Young also addresses the concept of “laughter as a weapon” (24) which has connections to other devil literature, particularly connections between Merlin and demons.
Young’s work is most helpful to me for how he situates the argument amongst other literature. His argument for a connection between the comic devil and folklore is particularly helpful to my argument. His connection of the devil in medieval drama to burlesques and fools not only connects my argument of using Bakhtin to view these comic devils but also potentially opens a way to view the devil’s interactions with Mary. His argument of the comic devil used to compel “defensive laughter that serves to screen terror” (39) also allows for a psychoanalytic reading of the Marian/devil interactions which is a helpful guide for me integrating theory into my article.
Young’s argument of viewing the comic devil as evidence of folkloric influence also ties into Ashley’s argument for viewing the devil as a trickster. Ashley argues that the “chief problem for the Middle Ages, however, lies in clearly distinguishing folk from establishment culture” (126) and her article seeks to examine tricksters through patristic theory and why this reading was privileges by “the medieval religious mentality; its predication on the folklore figure of the trickster” (127). Ashley supports her argument by stating that God wagering with the Devil over Job’s fate illustrates the trickster as “a kind of projection outward of the darker aspects of the divine nature”. She also states that later Greek and Latin patristics “not only adopt the theory but expand the motif of the deception of the Devil” (128). This concept of deception and its relation to disguise defines the trickster figure. The strongest part of Ashley’s argument is when she states that “After the twelfth century, the cosmic tricksters appear primarily in religious literature designed either for consumption by the lowest level of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the parish priest, or by the layman” and that the “explosion of religious literature aimed at other than monastic or scholarly audiences and this literature makes use of folklore mythologies which the eminent theologians now avoided” (130). One of the key elements of folklore is that it is a reflection of the people, so despite the fact that theologians originally supported this idea of devil as trickster, her point that in the twelfth century this idea continued albeit away from theology and towards lay people is important. Rather than focus her argument on Satan/the devil as trickster, Ashley seems more concerned with viewing God, then Christ as a trickster figure (132) arguing that this is necessary in understanding the medieval concept of how “the Devil is outwitted at his own game” (134). Her approach is fairly typical of other scholarship I’ve encountered that mentions viewing Satan through a folkloric lens- she uses it to set up her argument but then quickly disregards it as a way to follow through on her argument.
While I disagree with Ashley’s argument that “A list of typical traits associated with the trickster contains many which do not fit the medieval conception of Christ or even Satan” (127) the fact that she attempts to view Satan as a trickster and through a folkloric lens is helpful to my general approach/work. I also found her argument that the folkloric representation plays in the background of early Christian theology helpful, as was her explanation of when the folkloric representation was left behind by the Church as it was embraced as a folk trope.
Ashley, Kathleen M. “The Guiler Beguiled: Christ and Satan as Theological Tricksters in Medieval Religious Literature.” Criticism 24.2 (Spring 1982): 126-137. Print.
Boyarin, Adrienne Williams. Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends. Cambridge: D.S Brewer, 2010. Print.
Cox, John D. “The Devil and Society in the English Mystery Plays.” Comparative Drama 28.4 (Winter 1994-95): 407-438. Print.
Despres, Denise L. “Immaculate Flesh and the Social Body: Mary and the Jews.” Jewish History 12.1 (Spring, 1998): 47-69. Print.
Hundsbichler, Helmut. “Devils in Visual Proximity.” In Angels, Devils – The Supernatural and its Visual Representation, Edited by Gerhard Jaritz, Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Department of Medieval Studies and Central European UP, 2011. Print.
Makhov, Alexander. “The Devil’s Image from the Viewpoint of Rhetoric.” In Angels, Devils – The Supernatural and its Visual Representation, Edited by Gerhard Jaritz, Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Department of Medieval Studies and Central European UP, 2011. Print.
Price, Merrall Llewelyn. “Re-membering the Jews: Theatrical Violence in the N-Town Marian Plays.” Comparative Drama 41.4 (Winter 2007-8): 439-463. Print.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984. Print.
Young, Wilfred. “ The Comic Devil in Medieval English Drama.” Hermathena 86 (November 1955): 29-39. Print.