Praising Mary is a difficult task for medieval authors; doing the Virgin justice despite their own perceived lexical and moral limitations is their first concern. Among our readings for last class, Conrad of Saxony’s Mirror of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Walter of Wimborne’s “Ave Virgo Mater Christi” come to grips with this task. Both authors seek to praise Mary in similar ways, but their works yield different images of the Queen of Heaven. Conrad and Walter are inspired by the Hail Mary in structuring their pieces, and use repeated imagery and other rhetorical devices to evoke their own ideas of Mary.
Conrad begins by expressing his concerns about his undertaking to praise Mary, citing his “utter insufficiency” by dint of the “sublimity,” “supreme glory and praiseworthiness” of the subject, his lack of sufficient knowledge, the “aridity of my speech” and the “unworthiness of my life” (Prologue). Encouraged by the words of St. Jerome and St. Augustine, he concludes that it is his duty to glorify her “’with all his might’” (Prologue). As a Franciscan monk trained in effective preaching, he constructs repetitive and structural memory-aids into Mirror of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He uses the familiar structure of the Hail Mary to give shape to his argument. For instance, in delving into this angelical salutation, he finds five adjectives that describe Mary (“pure,” “full,” “firm and secure,” “worthy,” and “useful”) that correspond to the five clauses of the Hail Mary (Ch, I). Conrad uses the first word of the prayer, which he interprets as meaning “without woe,” to introduce the “threefold woe” of actual sin, original misery, and eternal punishment (Ch. II). Each of these is threefold, dividing respectively into the woe of guilt of the heart, lips, and deeds; of the misery of them that are born, them that bring forth, and them that die; and the greatness, multitude, and duration of punishments in Hell (Ch. II). Similarly, an etymological exercise in Chapter III finds four different meanings of “Mary,” which Conrad introduces as the second word of the Hail Mary. In structuring his homiletic text according to the Hail Mary, he grounds his interpretation of Mary’s qualities in a prayer that would have been familiar to Conrad’s audience, which adds a mnemonic aspect as well as legitimacy to his opinions. Furthermore, providing his work with a precisely outlined, family tree-like structure fraught with repetition of key terms makes his ideas about Mary easier to remember.
Walter of Wimborne uses many of the same devices as Conrad in his “Ave Virgo Mater Christi.” The entire poem is based on the Hail Mary as well. Though the prayer does not guide and inspire analysis here, it functions as a loose guide for the structure of each stanza: many begin with “hail,” followed by a Marian epithet, but all address Mary in the second person singular and seek to define some aspects of her, much like the Hail Mary does. Like Conrad, he relates the limitations of praising Mary in human writing, whom no one has the “ornaments of eloquence to praise” (58). He does, however, make a lexical exercise out of his praise with his use of a huge vocabulary to, like Conrad, repeat themes, and specific reference to Latin grammar (54, 59-61, 122). Perhaps with a different audience than Conrad’s in mind, Walter weaves some grammatical jargon into his exalting of Mary that otherwise adheres to the same themes of conventional devotion. She is she “through whom passive/that Word is made, that active/was from the beginning” (a reference to her role in conceiving Christ and to her general importance), by which “a substantive acquired an adjective,” in whom “the primitive [root-word] is derived” (Christ, from whom everything is derived and built off of, like a root-word, is “derived” from her) (54, 59, 60). Additionally, she is “the ablative of death” (perhaps in reference to the case’s sense of motion-away-from), the “genitive of a son/born without sin” (maybe to do with the case’s possessive uses or as a pun with the “genite” on the next line) and through whom “the verb becomes a participle,” a weaker, adjectival verb (a transformation which reflects the others in stanza 122) (60, 61, 122). Whatever the intended meaning of this syntactical wordplay, it reveals Wimborne’s work as one focused, perhaps in later examples in a tongue-in-cheek way, on the specifics of praising Mary despite being able as an unworthy mortal to do so properly. This is perhaps fitting as praise of the Mother of the logos.
Despite their structural and rhetoric similarities, these two texts present very different images of the Virgin. Conrad speaks of Mary as she relates to mankind, likely in part because of his audience. His Virgin is without the many varied woes that plague mankind, and that this makes her appear unique in relation to other humans. He also elaborates on her “five sweet prerogatives” and further defines who she is with different definitions of “Mary” (Ch. 1). To Conrad, whose prose seeks to be a “dim mirror” of the Virgin (Prologue), Mary is a figure unquestionably far surpassing humans in virtue and who has an essential role in Christian worship, reinforced by imagery reflecting her importance. By contrast, what we have taken to calling “temple imagery” pervades “Ave Virgo Mater Christie” in the place of Conrad’s more specific honouring of Mary in her own right. To Walter, Mary is primarily a vessel for God, and important as such. His entire poem runs in this thread, aided by his lexical agility; she is a “hamper full of bread,” a “drinking bowl”, a “bright vessel” and her “belly is a casket/of celestial incense” (13, 33, 44, 10). His many colourful descriptions of her, often through metaphor, give the reader the sense that Mary and her function are reflected in many everyday things and concepts, and that she is important in her capacity as Mother of God as well as for her own characteristics.
Conrad and Walter, as skilled Franciscan writers, employ many interesting devices despite (or, perhaps, because of) their worry of inadequately praising Mary. Using the Hail Mary as a structural template and repeating terms or imagery are effective rhetorically in conveying their ideas about Mary and their exaltation of the Virgin. Conrad’s Mary is one vastly different from humans by her own nature and merit. Walter’s Virgin, on the other hand, is lavishly described in verse, and considered important as she who gave birth to Christ and well as in being a marvellous and deeply holy figure on her own.