Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Scope and Intention of Marian Miracle Stories

More often than not, the texts we read in class – even if they are straightforward – tend to contain some assumption or detail within them that doesn’t seem to quite mesh with our expectations from the reading. Being sensitive to these jarring moments and asking questions about them is often a valuable mode of historical inquiry. I think it’s useful, then, that we address this question that comes up again and again, of why so many prayers to the Virgin Mary – rather than Christ –  and why so many miracle stories where these prayers are fulfilled? As we observed in class, there is more to these stories than meets the eye, and a look at the corpus of miracle stories as a whole gives us something to say about the particulars of Marian devotion that might explain why exactly the Virgin is in everyone’s prayers.

The Marian miracle stories are not just shallow fables, spread throughout Europe to amuse or frighten naïve rustics; beneath their simple exterior they contain a deeper devotional message. Clearly there should be something more: the stories were compiled by monks and theologians (and sometimes a king) precisely because the stories had some inherent worth to them as literary and spiritual works. The many scribes through whom these works survive did not suffer countless cramped wrists and strained eyes just to waste their paper on a silly yarn devoid of spiritual value. Indeed, the Cistercian Caesarius of Heisterbach (ca. 1180-ca. 1240) wrote a huge collection of miracle stories – including some about the Virgin Mary – that were accompanied by dialogues discussing the theological value of the tales. I find it unlikely that someone would carry out this enterprise if the stories were originally irreverent and missing the theological worth that we now give to them.

This suggests that the body of miracle stories belies some greater truths about devotion to which everyone from the lowliest tumbler to the richest king was meant to adhere. At this point we run into my original question: why is it that Mary is such a universal addressee for intercession? In many miracle stories, one who is devoted to the Virgin is invariably given a second chance by Mary, who is able to stay the hand of justice even when the subject’s wrongdoing seems unpardonable by any reasonable standard. Murderers are given reprieves from hangings, the most theologically ignorant monks are granted benefices by virtue of their saying of the Hail Mary, and Christ Himself is apparently stymied by her when about to punish the sinner. Sometimes, the miracle stories hint at a hierarchical muddling. In all cases but one, in all the Marian miracle stories we have read, there is no question of Mary’s omnipotence and supremacy in all matters spiritual and worldly. However, there is a moment in Johannes Herolt’s Miracles of the Virgin Mary, story 62 (14 in the document), where the Virgin prostrates herself before the Host. And yet in other miracle stories, she is the one who has the authority and ability to mollify Christ when, in His anger, He decides to mete out punishment to some offender. In reading this story as well as other stories of Marian intercession, we might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s in charge here?”

The author of The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour also addresses this tension; the purpose of the stories is to render praise to Christ and honor to Mary. In the preface to the third book of miracles, he writes

For given that the Creator of all has deigned to restore for the praise and glory of his name, should we…refuse to show obedience to the divine will and command? Without him we are nothing, and with him and in him we can achieve much. So why should we not attach ourselves to the tower of strength, the fount of wisdom, the plenitude of all good things?

The message of the passage is devotion to Christ, but in the miracle stories themselves, it’s not Christ who takes the role of “tower of strength” and “fount of wisdom”, but Mary!

I think the most satisfying explanation for this dilemma is the one we discussed in class. In light of our discussion of these miracle stories, we see that those who prayed to Mary had one specific aspect of hers in mind. The act of prayer to Mary was carried out in front of a figurine of the Mother, as in the case of the Shrine of Rocamadour. The vast majority of the time these figurines artistically depict Mary seated, holding the infant Christ, in her role as Throne of Wisdom. Thus, even when the stories themselves do not use this specific epithet (stella maris is more common), the image and associated symbolic undertones are always present, so that wisdom is also sought in Marian devotion. The prayers are not only for heavenly intercession from injury and disease (though that’s definitely there); they are appellations to Mary for an increase in inner light. Viewing the stories from this new layer of intention, Mary’s intercession is not only merciful, but guided by the promise that the benefactor of Mary’s mercy will use this second chance in search of this inner clarity. This is why most of the miracle stories of Mary interceding on the behalf of the sick, stupid, or wicked end with the subject of the story devoting themselves to a heightened spiritual service. The few “reformed criminal” stories that don’t end this way have the subject making a full confession and then dying a good death, attaining a different sort of inner light, but one that fulfills the Marian mission nonetheless. In this way, albeit indirectly, Christ’s justice is carried out, even though Mary is the active participant in the tale.



  1. You have hit here on what I think is the great mystery framing (to use a Marian metaphor) the way in which Mary is able to act in the stories that we read: just as she provides the frame for her Son in making him visible to the world through the Incarnation (as represented in the Throne of Wisdom statues), so he provides the frame for her intercession as "tower of strength" and "font of wisdom." I liked very much the way in which you tied the miracle stories into Mary's theological role as bearer of Wisdom: this, as I see it, is the reason for the great emphasis on service in so many of the stories, for it is in serving Wisdom that Christians hope to gain the vision of God, the inner light of understanding to which Mary points as star of the sea. RLFB

  2. That’s an interesting observation that the subjects of the stories are praying to Mary as the Throne of Wisdom for an increase in “inner light.” Additionally, I think that the image of Mary holding the infant Jesus may reveal another theological aspect of these Marian miracle stories.

    As you mentioned, the subjects of the stories either end up with a more intense devotion or making a full confession and dying in the state of grace, and so the subjects are either closer to attaining salvation or have achieved salvation. Thus, the stories show Mary playing an active role in humanity’s redemption. The image of Mary holding Jesus helps clarify this role. When Mary is holding Jesus in her lap, she is presenting Jesus to the world and helping people see Jesus. Since the Christian idea of heaven is seeing God face to face, when Mary helps lead people to salvation, she’s doing the same thing she does when holding Jesus in her lap – helping humanity see God.

    You touch on this when you mention Mary being an “active participant in the tale,” and Professor Fulton-Brown mentions Wisdom’s role in helping “gain the vision of God.” I just wanted to explicitly tie this into an understanding of heaven and Mary’s role in salvation. My point is perhaps obvious when you remember that salvation = heaven = seeing God = fully understanding God = achieving a sort of perfect wisdom. But I think it’s worth making the connection since Mary doesn’t just help people understand God; she also helps sinners change their ways, which is also a way to salvation and seeing God.


  3. I really appreciate how you point out that the "unbelievable" nature of these stories - fanciful as they might seem to us - didn't necessarily preclude their spiritual value to medieval audiences. This is one of the big changes we saw in the Renaissance when scholars began to apply the humanistic, philological methods of criticism (that apparently worked so well on ancient pagan texts) to the Bible: how can this scientific, rationalistic inquiry be applied to a text that almost every ancient authority agrees cannot be understood by reason alone? Dante explains that when Virgil (the voice of Reason) gets tricked by demons in the Inferno: Christians need reason, especially for understanding complex scripture (e. g., where most medievals would have drawn their biblical understanding of Mary, directly or indirectly), but it can only take you so far unless it is accompanied by Faith. Even Virgil can only go as far as the top of Mount Purgatory, where he is replaced by Beatrice - herself a kind of Reason, but one that proceeds directly from her greater proximity to God.

    This give an interesting perspective to the "redeemed criminal" miracles you mention. In Luke's account of the Annunciation, Mary is both of these things: she uses her reason (Luke 1:29: "But she was much perplexed by [Gabriel's] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be") when confronted with the impossible mystery of the Incarnation, and ultimately consents through faith (Luke 1:38: "Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word'"). With Mary as their guide, even the most wayward souls (thieves, murderers, incompetent clerics, or - to continue the metaphor, since Mary really is responsible for his rescue and journey - Dante) can find their way to Heaven. In a way, this echoes her role in the Annunciation - most patristic authors seem to think that God had no real obligation to give humans salvation (if God can be said to have obligations at all), but instead did so out of love, when he sent Gabriel to Mary. She's a real-life Beatrice (literally - she makes her followers beati), no matter what corner of Christendom they find themselves in.

    F. S.

  4. Thinking about the potential inner clarity that you mention these statues of Mary offer the medieval Christian, in a sense they offer a rare chance at external clarity as well. Most normal people’s lives in the middle ages would have been very image poor. Add to this the fact the third commandment prohibited the making of images, especially of God. It was argued three dimensional sculpture in particular (as opposed to a flat painting) came worryingly close to a God-substituting image instead of just a representational model. Mary does not only frame/show us God, she actually delivers us an image of God, Jesus, which exempted Christians from Jewish law and allowed for an image of the divine. Christ’s humanity means it was not sacrilegious to depict him. Mary ‘clarifies’ the image of God in a very literal sense. Mary’s presence in these statues offers a visual reminder not just of her role as the seat of wisdom, but, as NCY comments above, her role in helping us see God. To go further she legitimises Christian’s attempts to actually see and represent God. I think this works to give these statues even more symbolic meaning, as a realisation of this process.

    W. Russell

  5. I agree that it is very jarring and even deeply concerning from our perspectives to see all of these prayers in the miracle stories being addressed to Mary rather than to Christ. I’m not sure, however, that Mary has “supremacy” over spiritual matters in these stories: even though she does get everything she asks Christ for on behalf of her devotees, she still has to ask; the ultimate authority is still Christ’s, he is just willing to use it as she desires. However, I definitely agree that in some ways, Mary is creating a new justice for those who follow her by entering into this intercessory judgement role. You say that Mary saves (for a very distinct life of total religious service) people whose crimes are “unpardonable by any reasonable standard.” Does this, then, mean that Mary’s role in these stories is unreasonable? You also say—rightly so, I think—that in these stories, it is Mary rather than Christ who is the “tower of strength” and “fount of wisdom.” You also argue that Mary is taking an active role in judgement; this must necessarily detract from Christ’s agency during judgement. Is any of this appropriate? If the answer is no, then the miracle stories are failing in their purpose, which is to lead their readers closer to the true faith.