Author's Note: So I feel really good about the close readings, and the supporting research. However, while it all looks very neat and tidy, I'm not sure what the "So What?" question I'm answering is. I want to argue that the devil seen in the mystery plays, saint's legends, and lyrics was the folkloric devil, meant to be visually recognizable to the lay people and that they served a didactic purpose. The Virgin Mary served an adversarial position to the devil, representing the repentance and salvation that was possible for all.
I don't think I'm there yet though, and need to refocus on my argument more, and using the texts and secondary sources to support my argument.
Mary Beats 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 of folklore, as he was the devil of the people. The reason why he works as an adversary 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.
It was a common medieval belief that sin came to them through the devil as tempter. This belief was not just the popular belief but was also the theological doctrine. The people’s best defense against the devil was the Virgin Mary and the saints. While the devil sought to drag people into sin and down to hell, it was the job of the Virgin Mary to intercede for them against the devil and it was often the job of the saints to give the people the strength to resist or overcome the devil. These interactions were seen as “war and the ethics of war” (Taylor 504) where man represented the struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Virgin Mary and the saints interceeded when asked, and “sometimes they intervened voluntarily to protext a votary whose devotions had won their favor (Taylor 506). Common to these interventions is a genuine desire to repent on the part of the sinner, a devotion to Mary or the saint, a prayer for help, and then a change in the life of the sinner.
The legend of Theophilus is one of the oldest examples of Mary interceding for a human sinner who has signed a contract with the devil. When a new bishop arrives and passes Theophilus over for office, he decides to go to a Jewish sorcerer and seek a solution. The sorcerer summons the devil who asks Theophilus to renounce the Church and all its teachings. Theophilus does so, writing his renouncement out in his own blood, and signing it. In return for this contract the devil places Theophilus back in the bishop’s good graces, regaining his post. Theophilus begins to regret his decision and prays to the Virgin Mary to intercede for him, “Fourty dayes and fourty nyȝt: on hire he criede faste” (Horstmann line 105)(Forty days and forty nights to her he cried fast). Mary answers his prayer, appears to him, and identifies him as a sinner “þou wrechche Man…þou hast him forsake” (Horstmann lines 109-110) (thou wretched man…you have forsaken him (Jesus Christ)). Theophilus asks specifically for Mary to have mercy on him, “haue merci of þis sunfule wrechche” (Horstmann line 113) (have mercy on this sinful wretch). Mary calls on her son, Jesus Christ, as a source of power, stating that “þat was i-bore of me/ And þat þolede deth for sunfule men” (Horstmann lines 120-121)(that was borne of me and that endured death for sinful men) and that interceding with sinners, though Mary is part of what Jesus was supposed to do, “For he was for sunfule Men i-bore” (Horstmann line 127) (For he was for sinful men born). In the legend of Theophilus, the markers for medieval Mary are clearly seen. Theophilus prays to her for her intercession against the devil. He stresses her mercy and his sin. Mary evokes Jesus Christ as the source of her power and is able to negate the contract with the devil because of the grace granted her by her son.
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). In Theophilus’ legend, the go between for Theophilus to make his deal with the devil is the Jewish sorcerer, serving to connect Jews and the devil in the medieval mind. Russell argues that this connection served served political and social agendas (84). Mary as intercessor became a popular trope, with her rescuing people from “rash promises” or “written pacts” (Russell 90). In the thirteenth century Mary becomes Satan’s opponent, (Russell 161) the leader of the forces of good in the war for the world, so these miracle/saint stories pitted the “top teams” of good and evil against one another, one team captained by Mary, the other by Lucifer” (Russell 271).
These illustrations from de Brailes Book of Hours (1240) also demonstrate the main characteristics that defined Mary in the medieval period; the fact that she could intercede for sinners, her ability to beat the devil, and her knowledge of law and contracts. Mary and the devil are also shown as opposing forces, with Mary illustrated in white, while the devil is shaded in dark and red colors. Mary is also shown as larger than the devil, a visual argument that she is more powerful. The devil shown is the folkloric representation; he has horns, is animal in nature and has claws for hands and feet. The focus here is on the unnatural aspect of the devil’s image (Makhov 27) and how this unnatural look serves as a marker of difference, and represents his “alienation from the order of the universe” (Makhov 30). It also serves to present the devil in opposition to Mary through visual rhetoric- she represents law and order while he represents the unnatural, the alien. This representation of the devil is in keeping with other manuscripts where the representation is always “unnatural, awful, terrible, brutal, naughty, ugly, insidious, imbecile” for didactic reasons, so that he would be visually recognizable to lay people (Hundsbichler 55). Usually the proximity of the devil to humans and Christ/the Lord in images is representative of the separation between the devil, and sinners from salvation (Hundsbichler 57). Here, Mary is not shown as separate, but her large size does emphasize her might against him, and given the fact that this illustration shows an actual battle between the two, you would not expect to see separation. However, “Didactic pictures also capitalize on failures of the devil” (Hundsbichler 67) which serve, along with images that illustrate the devil in proximity to saints and Mary, to mark the devil. Here, it is Mary’s size along with her coloring in symbols of purity and goodness visually represent the devil’s failures.
Mary holds the contract for Theophilus’ soul in her hand, and while the devil is reaching for it, it is clearly in her possession. The contract is the center of the image in both this page (40v) and the following (41v) stressing the importance of the contract, and by extension the legal system. In the following verso page, Mary is illustrated in the same manner as she returns Theophilus’ contract to him. She is again shown in white, with Theophilus shown kneeling, and showing obeisance to Mary. The contract is placed in the center of the image stressing the importance of the legal document. In the 41v the contract is blank, versus 40v where the contract has writing on it. This deleting of the text, the negating of the contract, emphasizes Mary’s power over the devil. “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” (Boyarin 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 (Boyarin 81). This legend is key to developing the idea of Mary in medieval times as it proved her “unparalleled power” (Boyarin 47), her ability to face the Devil on equal terms, and her knowledge of the law so she can break the contract (Boyarin 46).
It is worth noting that 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 in the end “the Jew ends up little more than a guide, and he is eventually indistinguishable from the Christian” (Boyarin 55). This ties into the idea that the Jew is often used as a signifier for the devil, and how the Jew is shown as an example of Mary’s power in saving anyone.
In Play 44 “The Death of Mary” of the York Corpus Christi Plays, Jews ask Mary to intercede for them, “Thou helpe us nowe, thou veray virginne,/ That we may be brought unto blisse” (lines 125-126) (You help us now you true virgin,/ That we may be brought into joy/bliss). A common medieval assumption is shown here, one is that Jews were portrayed as sinners who could only be saved through the intervention of Mary because of their betrayal of Jesus. Mary prays to her son, Jesus Christ, asking him “thou graunte me thy grace” (line 128) (you grant me your grace) emphasizing the fact that Mary’s power comes from him, and also stressing the concept of Mary as a vessel for his power. Mary goes on to call on her son, “I sadly beseke thee” (line 136) (I sadly beseech you) and asks for the power to help this sinner again stressing that she has no power of her own, only what her son grants her.
In the York Corpus Christi plays, as well as the N-Town plays, Jews served a specific dramatic function. As the purpose of these plays was often salvation and conversion, Jews were often used as stand ins as they were deemed natural doubters (Price 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 (Price 445). In play 44, the Jews ask for Mary’s intercession, implying that they are sinners, building on period prejudices that all Jews were sinners. This characterization of Jews at this time is reflective of “ a number of interdependent political, religious, and economic trends that made life significantly more difficult for Jewish communities in Europe” (Price 448). While this bias can certainly be read in these plays given the time, it is also possible to read the Jews as stand ins for the common people, acting as ideal witnesses to the Christian faith, and serving as a model, for if they can be saved, so can everyone else (Despres 55).
In Play 45, “The Assumption of the Virgin” from the York Corpus Christi plays, the angels come down from heaven and call Mary out of her tomb to raise her up to heaven. The words they use to describe her are again the markers we see with her intercessions for sinners. They call her “maiden and modir so milde” (line 105) (maiden (virgin) and mother so mild), “chefteyne of chastite” (line 107) (chiefly of chastity), “tabernacle” (line 110), and “chosen childe” (line 114) (chosen child). The concept of Mary as virgin, the emphasis on the purity of her body, and her chosen nature are all the characteristics stressed in Mary intercession stories. Likewise, here again is the stress on Mary as a vessel, a tabernacle, of God/Jesus.
Play 45 focuses on Mary’s body, as both problematic and a symbol of her authority. As referenced in Play 12 “The Annunciation to Mary and the Visitation”, it is because of Mary’s virgin state, her immaculate conception that she is able to bear the Son of God. However, 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” (Price 457). A focus on Mary’s body is also problematic because it stresses her humanity, and not her role as Queen of Heaven. While it is her humanity that allows her to feel and intercede for human sinners, her assumption presumably erased her humanity as she rose to heaven, so the fact that she still retains human qualities is a problem never resolved in the mystery plays. In her role as Queen of Heaven, her body is also described in language that emphasizes the Virgin Mary as a healer and conduit to Christ.
In the N-Town Plays, the connection between the devil/Lucifer and the law as well as his place as the Adversary is stressed. In Play 1 “The Creation and the Fall of Lucifer”, upon his expulsion from heaven, Lucifer states “At thy byddyng, thy wyl I werke/ And pas fro joy to peyne smerte./ Now I am a devil ful derke/ That was an aungell bryht” (lines 75-78) (At your bidding I work your will, and pass from joy to smarting pain. Now I am a full dark devil that was a bright angel). In the first line, Lucifer is addressing God, stating he will work his will which echoes the language in the Book of Job where Lucifer is the Adversary, part of the Court of Heaven and only works against Job because it is God’s will. Later, in Play 42, “Judgment”, the devils also make reference to legal contracts, “And that on here forehed- wyttness I take,/ For ther is wretyn with letteris blake/ Openly all here synne” (lines 75-78)(And that on her forehead I acted as witness, for there is written in black letters openly all her sins). While the devils here are specifically referencing the sins written on the foreheads of the damned, the language also calls to mind written, legal language. This language is notably absent from the same play in the York Corpus Christi play, where the interaction between God and the devils focuses on their punishment for the evil “wirke” they have done against God (line 222). In the N-Town play it is the voices of the damned that answer the devils, whereas in the York Corpus Christi plays it is God himself who answers them. While Mary does not interact with the devils in the Judgment play we do see the markers of the folkloric devils here, their ability to negotiate, their place in God’s plan, and their association with legal proceedings.
These stage devils reinforce the idea of plays “informing theology” (Cox 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). Both Lucifer and the lesser demons in the York Corpus Christi plays support this rejection of binary as Lucifer stages himself as part of God’s plan, and while the lesser demons in Judgment Day place themselves more in a legal context rather than a grand cosmic order. Despite this, in the different versions of Judgment Day, the devil was to blame for everything that goes wrong, and it eventually defeated because their role in these mystery plays was to illustrate and “define what the community was not” (Cox 410). Since Lucifer’s fall in Play 1, he is shown as operating both outside of the system, as lesser than God and Jesus and within the system, working God’s will. The function “the devils function as prosecuting attorneys” ties them back to their origin in Job as Adversary as well as identifying them as representing the people (Cox 420). Lucifer, and the rest of the devils can then be read as “inevitably understood in feudal terms” because they have a specific place within God’s system (Cox 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). In this way, the devils of these plays become stand ins for the people, specifically people who sin though covetousness, pride, or lust. This conflation of devils and sinners within the audience supports the theory that the folkloric devil is the representation that the audience would have seen on stage as he was meant to appeal to the people. The characterization of the lesser devils as clowns 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” (Price 32).
In later Middle English Marian Lyrics, we see the characteristics that are markers of Mary’s ability to intercede with sinners. In §59, the prayer to Mary asks for specific help, “Schilde me fro sorwe and tene;/ Marie, out of synne help thu me,” (lines 6-7) (Shield me from sorrow and suffering; Mary help me out of sin). The image of Mary shielding sinners from sin is repeated throughout this lyric; “And schilde us all fro helle pyne” (line 16)(And shield us all from the pain of hell) and “Schilde me” (line 17 and again in line 19). Mary is shielding, or asked to protect these people from hell, wicked company (devils), and from shame. The image of a martial Mary may seem out of place at first, but when examined in light of Mary fighting the devil, it does not seem out of character. While the devil is not specifically mentioned in this lyric, the speaker does mention hell as one of the things that Mary must save him/her from.
In “The Jealous Wife”, devils seek to break apart a holy knight and his wife. They influence the woman with their devilry. The woman asks her husband if he loves any other woman more than her. He answers yes, referring to the Virgin Mary. The devils use her sense of betrayal to manipulate her, telling her the knight routinely leaves their bed to seek another, and instructing her to watch him. She does, and sees him leaving every night, in reality to go to the chapel to pray to Mary, but the wife does not know that. She stabs her children and then commits suicide by stabbing herself in the heart. Her husband prays to Mary to intercede for the soul of his wife. Mary intercedes because of the great faith of the man, not because of any action on the part of the wife.
The devils portrayed are the folkloric devils who are “ragyd”, “long tailed”, “sharp clawyd and long nayld” (lines 295-296)(ragged, long tailed, sharp clawed and long nailed). They are also tricksters, beguiling the woman into committing her sins. However, because the knight is holy and dedicated to Mary “prayd Our Lady swyth fast/ Send hym of hyr grace” (lines 278-279) (prayed to Our Lady with faith/Send him some of her grace) Mary comes to his aid. “Thorow the might of meyd Mary,/ That sche come doune from hevyn hy/ Agene the fendys felle” (lines 307-309) (Through the might of maiden/virgin Mary, She that came down from high heaven, against (her) the fiends fell). Mary’s interaction with the devils is described as a “duelle” (line 312), so we again have the martial aspect of Mary. Likewise, her virginity is emphasizes, as is her grace, that the knight prays for. She is also later described as “The quen of heven” (line 319) (The queen of heaven). The text breaks off before we see the salvation of the knight’s wife, but the identifiable pieces of Mary intercession are present in the fragments we have.
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.
Davidson, Clifford, ed. The York Corpus Christi Plays. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications. 2011. Print.
De Brailes. “Hours of the Virgin” 40v, 41v. Book of Hours. London: The British Library MS 49999.
Despres, Denise L. “Immaculate Flesh and the Social Body: Mary and the Jews.” Jewish History 12.1 (Spring, 1998): 47-69. Print.
Horstmann, Carl, ed. The early South-English legendary, or, Lives of saints: MS Laud 108. New York: C. Scribner & Co. 1887. Web. 2 May 2014.
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.
Shuffleton, George, ed. Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications. 2008. Print.
Sugano, Douglas. The N-Town Plays. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications. 2007. Print.
Taylor, Henry O. The Medieval Mind Volume I. New York: MacMillan and Co. 1911. Print.
 All translations are my own
 While the manuscript does not include the text of the Theophilus legend, it does include multiple illustrations with annotations beneath the story (Boyarin 75).
 Marie moder, wel thee be. Index no. 2119. MS: Bodl. 15834 (Rawlinson liturg. g.2), fols. 4b-6a (late fourteenth century). Editions: B14, no. 122; Stevick, no. 46. The verses occur in the Speculum Christiani (a late-fourteenth-century instructional work, probably by an English Franciscan),
 Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse 1479 - 1510