What did her neighbours say when Gabriel had gone?

Hilary Mantel

  • Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin
    Allen Lane, 533 pp, £30.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9818 4

In my Catholic girlhood she was everywhere, perched up on ledges and in niches like a CCTV camera, with her painted mouth and her painted eyes of policeman blue. She was, her litany stated, Mirror of Justice, Cause of Our Joy, Spiritual Vessel, Mystical Rose, Tower of David, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven and Morning Star. Not a woman I liked, on the whole. She was the improbability at the heart of spiritual life; a paradox, unpollinated but fruitful, above nature yet also against nature. She could have been a benign second mother, and on your side, but she always seemed to be in cahoots with authority; she knew your every move, and had a low opinion of it. It was because of her purity that you had to guard your darker thoughts; each of your little sins was, you were assured, a sword piercing her heart. She was the example you were urged to follow, while knowing that you would fail. Pray all you like, you are not going to be both a virgin and a mother; this was a one-off by the deity, a singular chance for sullied female flesh to make itself acceptable to the celibate males who were in charge of whether or not we got to heaven. It always seemed odd and distasteful to hear priests speak reverently of the Virgin Mary, when you knew they despised women or feared them or regarded them as being as strange as talking fish.

To outsiders, the cult of Mary can seem quaint and charming; but it introduced into the life of every small Catholic girl a terrifying bind, and into the mind of every small Catholic boy a standard impossible for women to meet. By adolescence they had perhaps given up praying to statues, but they carried into manhood a frozen concept of femininity, which they modernised only in so far as they held in mind more current models of abnegation. The adulation of God’s mother does not place any necessary limit on misogyny, because she is no ordinary woman, and indeed shows up their frailties, their faults and their follies; she is a standing reproach, best emulated not through spiritual exercises but through hard work and humility. In the Catholic world in which I grew up, men were ministers of grace, and women mopped the church floor on a Friday night with big soggy string mops.

Perhaps the worship of Mary would have been easier to live with if we had understood its deep cultural roots and appreciated how they bound us, schoolgirls with our garden bouquets wilting before plaster images, to the history and prehistory of Europe. I would have liked it if I had known that the ‘Regina coeli’, droned and muttered through my childhood, was a 12th-century prayer: ‘Queen of heaven rejoice, alleluia: for He whom you merited to bear, alleluia, Has risen as he said, alleluia. Pray for us to God, alleluia.’ Mary existed in eternity; we were not encouraged to think of her as having a history. Instead we were urged to ponder the practical use to which she could be put. If we didn’t sign up to some Marian sodality, and say our rosary diligently, the world would be taken over by Communists. The Russians would be marching down our high streets, and instead of May processions in the Virgin’s honour, there would be exhibitions of Cossack dancing.

Miri Rubin’s excellent and learned book explores how the meaning of Mary was constructed and directed, how its possibilities blossomed out through two millennia and were negotiated between clergy and faithful, between one culture and another, between Christians, Muslims and Jews. She shows how a symbol is fleshed out, and layers of meaning are accreted. She surveys Mary’s story roughly as it unfolded, whereas Marina Warner’s book, Alone of All Her Sex (1976), is organised thematically; the two books share a fascinating readability and cross-cultural ease. There is little about Mary in the gospels – she is mentioned more often in the Koran. Giving substance to the Mother of God therefore became a great exercise in Christian creativity. Rubin traces how the specifics of Mary’s life were sorted out, with confidence but not without fierce argument, by centuries of theologians and teachers, drawing on folklore and the gospel apocrypha. She describes Syriac Mary and Byzantine Mary as well as Rome’s Mary. She shows how Mary became part of the court ceremonial of the Eastern Empire, no longer just a young Jewish girl but a queen, the patron of Constantinople, her milk-stained dress serving as the city’s protective relic.

From the east, the image and worship of Mary spread through the Mediterranean. Black Madonnas were worshipped in the groves once sacred to Roman fertility goddesses. Egyptian Mary borrowed from the cult of Isis, a life-giving beneficent goddess, and was painted with ‘large dark eyes set under strong eyebrows’. Court painters in the 15th century showed Mary as a fashionable beauty, with a high plucked forehead, tight bodice and silk veil. It is dismaying at first sight that a statue at Ely Cathedral, commissioned for the millennium, still shows Mary as a Barbie blonde. No doubt it’s true to how she’s been imagined, the projections she’s carried. Centuries rolled by when she was an excuse for painting a woman, her breasts exposed and a smirk of gratification on her pretty face.

Rubin is a fluent and stylish writer whose recent book The Hollow Crown, a history of Britain in the late Middle Ages, showed her skill in keeping together a vast and many-layered narrative. She writes with sensitivity and delicate expertise of how, through art, music and Marian poetry, the Virgin’s life story became elaborated. She was valued as an intercessor, a high-level negotiator between erring humans and the heavenly judge; her son could refuse her nothing. Blathmac, Irish monk and martyr of the ninth century, wheedles: ‘Let me have from you my three petitions, beautiful Mary, little bright-necked one; get them, sun of women, from your son who has them in his power.’

Her worship has taken many forms, not just artistic and liturgical but acrobatic: a lay brother at the monastery of Clairvaux, who had joined not knowing the liturgy, offered his praises to Mary by walking about on his hands at night, while his brethren were asleep. Every aspect of her miraculous career was dwelled on, reimagined. Sometimes these imaginings have great sweetness. The eighth-century preacher Andrew of Crete pictured the Angel Gabriel hesitating on the brink of annunciation, wondering how to enter the Virgin’s room: ‘Shall I knock on the door? And how? For this is not customary for angels.’ Neither woman nor girl, Mary hovers on the threshold of experience, rapt in a domestic interior swarming with symbols, like a house but a heavenly house; she is baffled by the angel’s message and enthralled by the glitter of gilded wings. The German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann, in her book Putting Away Childish Things, calls it ‘stork theology’, but what it really reminds us of is Zeus impregnating Leda. As Yeats describes it, she is ‘mastered by the brute blood of the air’. Then she is left with the consequences, human and divine.

It’s easy to imagine the figure of Mary as ubiquitous and always present, but Rubin shows that the early church preferred martyrs, missionaries, local saints. The monastic orders founded in the 11th and 12th centuries were the cheerleaders for Mary, and pilgrims to sites throughout Europe took home news of cures and miracles and carried her devotion far and wide. Between 1000 and 1200, as the parish structure was set into place throughout the continent, statues of Mary appeared in almost every church. Over the next two centuries she was made ‘local and vernacular’. A 15th-century commonplace book kept by a Norfolk alderman had the facts of her life all sorted out:

The Virgin parent Mary lived 63 years.
She was 14 at the blessed birth,
She lived 33 [years] with her son,
And 16, she suffered alone, like the stars.

She becomes an icon of tenderness; the plates here include a carving from Poitiers, where the rapt interlocked gaze of mother and child seems drawn from life. For generations of monks and celibates, absorbed into all-male communities as children, Mary was the only mother they knew. The orders of friars incorporated Mary into their myths of origin. She consoled female celibates too: St Clare assured the women who followed her that they could always carry Jesus ‘spiritually in a chaste and virginal body’. The German Dominican nun Christina Ebner, born in 1277, dreamed she was pregnant with Jesus, and that she held his baby form in her arms. Sometimes Mary allowed these lonely women to nurse her child, filling their virginal bodies with the satisfaction of the breast-feeding mother. In the 14th century, St Birgitta of Sweden felt one Christmas Eve as if ‘a living child were in her heart turning itself around and around’.

Mary’s body was a battleground from the beginning. Who was she before the angel called? Why was she chosen, why not some other good girl? Did she suffer pain in childbirth? What was her afterlife? Did she have more children? What happened to her body when she died? There’s something about Rubin’s respectful, soothing, even-handed tone that makes you want to raise all the old embarrassing questions, as if you were some sniggering medieval novice in the first week of your induction to the convent. When Jesus was delivered, what happened to Mary’s hymen? The scholar Jovinian in the fourth century thought her virginity came to an end in childbirth. He was excommunicated for his error. Body-loathing Manicheans did not believe that a divine person could be born in the messy human way. For Syriac scholars, and later for the Cathars, Mary conceived through the ear when the Holy Spirit whispered to her, and she was pregnant for only two months. In the Koran, where she is an ordinary woman, she gives birth to a prophet, a talking baby, but she delivers alone and suffers an agony which ‘drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said: “Would that I had died before this and become a forgotten thing.”’ But in Christian legend Christ’s birth is painless, even ecstatic, and his mother is surrounded by signs and wonders.

St Ambrose stressed her purity: her sealed womb, her intact state, her substance unmingled with the alien substance of the body of the opposite sex. The tension between her divine and her human nature is troubling and exquisite. Augustine said that Mary and Joseph were really married, but without ‘intercourse of the flesh’. If Jesus was divine, every aspect of his story had to accord with his divinity, and Mary’s life had to be worthy of him. Was she conceived without original sin, or did she receive a special grace in the womb that made her sinless? The dispute ran for centuries. Rubin traces, as it evolves, the notion of Mary’s Immaculate Conception: the idea that she herself was conceived without the stain of original sin, which has been the heritage of humanity since the sin of Eve. It was impossible that such a temple of purity should die and rot in the ordinary way. Scholars reassured the faithful that gusts of perfume, not the whiff of putrefaction, issued from her corpse; she did not so much die as fall asleep, and was ‘assumed’ to heaven.

This did not mean nothing of her was left on earth. Her relics were drops of milk, hairs from her head, threads from her robes. A medieval serf called Boso was less than respectful of the Virgin’s slipper, and Mary our vindictive Mother twisted his face into a painful rictus; he had to go back to church in Soissons and adore the slipper before she put him right and he looked like himself again. Miracles proliferated: Mary’s house flew from the Holy Land and rebuilt itself in Loreto in Italy. Medieval Mary was a luxury object, cast in silver and gold, draped in velvet and silks. Her lineage had become aristocratic; sometimes in paintings she is seated in a rose garden in the grounds of a castle. Eve’s garden is the garden of death, Mary’s of life.

What had the universal mother to teach her mortal followers? Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, born at the end of the third century, established Mary as an exemplar of the ascetic life, but also, one can’t help notice, as an example of feminine compliance; she did not have ‘an eagerness to leave her house, nor was she at all acquainted with the streets; rather, she remained in her house being calm, imitating the fly in honey . . . And she did not permit anyone near her body unless it was covered, and she controlled her anger and extinguished her wrath in her inmost thoughts.’ Centuries later her life was still being turned to exemplary account. A Paris bourgeois writes a handbook of instruction for his young wife, suggesting she model herself on Mary who, when she was called by Gabriel to mother the saviour, didn’t say: ‘It is not reasonable . . . I will not suffer it.’ Fingered by the angel, she jumped to, obedient as every good wife and daughter should be. Medieval Mary cooks and spins, she knits, she weaves Christ’s seamless tunic herself. A whole extended family is constructed around her: the life stories of her cousin Elizabeth and her mother St Anne (and her three husbands) embellish the legend. Mary’s image becomes intimate, even banal. Joseph, squeezed out of the nativity scene by magi, shepherds and livestock, makes himself useful at the periphery of religious paintings, mending shoes or working away at his carpenter’s trade.

But childhood ends; the blithe figure of the mother with babe in arms gives way to Mary at the foot of the Cross. Artists portray her ‘fainting, leaning, falling, sometimes pulling at her son’s body’. The image of the Pietà – Mary with Christ’s bleeding body draped across her knees – emerges in the 13th century, the era of plague, war, famine. Here, as in her book Corpus Christi (1992), about the Eucharist, Rubin fights shy of psychological exploration. It is a good idea, in dealing with the medieval mind, to be aware of its impenetrability. But it is hard not to think that, during years of vast premature mortality, the worshippers of Mary were sublimating their own grief and loss, finding purpose for short and blighted lives in their belief in redemption through suffering; for did not the Virgin suffer? God placed her in shame and peril; 33 years on, he left her childless, broken with grief. God’s reasons for tormenting us may, after all, be revealed somewhere; if we don’t know why he does it, perhaps Mother Mary knows why. For the charismatic 15th-century Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena, Mary was queen of knowledge about God’s creation: ‘There is not a star of the starry sky whose course Mary would not know.’ Chosen herself for a singular hard destiny, she must understand adversity, rejection and scorn; for what did her neighbours say when Gabriel had gone, and her belly filled with her inexplicable conception?

Rubin’s book contains and illustrates a chilling history of anti-semitism. Christians borrowed their learning from Jewish scholars, using Old Testament exegesis to justify themselves, dignifying both Christ and Mary as living fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. The central text is in Isaiah: ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.’ The word used is alma, which means a young girl rather than a virgin, but early Christian thinkers were keen to tell the Jews that they didn’t understand their own scriptures. Jewish scholars familiar with the Greek world were uncomfortably aware that Christian claims about virgin birth echoed pagan legends. Jewish polemicists continued through the centuries to dissent, and struck back against Christian myth, sometimes ferociously: Mary was an infertile woman, who had intercourse not with Joseph, but with an enemy of Joseph who tricked her; and to make matters worse, this trickster had sex with her during menstruation, when she was unclean. A Jewish text of the early 13th century asked shrewdly why Jesus was born to a 13-year-old, not a three or four-year-old; now, that would have been what you call a miracle. In the 13th century the rabbi David Kimhi of Provence (1160-1235) asked:

[How can I believe] in a living God who is born of a woman, a child without knowledge and sense, an innocent who cannot tell his right from his left, who defecates, urinates and sucks from his mother’s breast out of hunger and thirst, and cries when he is thirsty and whom his mother pities; and if she would not he would die of hunger as other people do?

The smug unanswerable Christian argument to all logical objections, to all historical and philological objections, was simple: God knows best. He makes the words that frame experience, he makes human anatomy, he is Lord of impossibilities; he can break his own universal laws at a whim. Denying Christ’s divine nature, Jews were seen, by the Middle Ages, as not just ignorant but malevolent, active enemies of Mary and those whom she protected. In an essay in Framing Medieval Bodies (1994) Rubin explored medieval horror stories in which Jews cut out the wombs of Christian women. In 1240 Louis IX staged a mock trial in which the Talmud was tried for blasphemies against Mary. As the blood libel took hold of Europe, Mary’s miracles served to bring the murderous misdeeds of Jews to light, and to resuscitate their innocent victims, who sang the Virgin’s praises even with their throats cut. Marian chapels were built on the razed sites of synagogues and Jewish houses.

On the cusp of the Reformation, Rubin shows, Marian devotion was still developing. The process of disenchantment was slow. The late 15th century saw a resurgence in devotion grounded in scripture rather than legend. Bejewelled (and sometimes bleeding) statues of the Virgin became objects of suspicion. Erasmus, visiting the shrines of Walsingham and Canterbury, wrote satirically about the greed and credulity he encountered. Though Luther rejected much accreted Marian lore, he still saw her value for keeping women in their place: ‘She seeks not any glory, but goes about her meals and her usual household duties, milking the cows, cooking the meals, washing pots and kettles, sweeping out the rooms.’ And the years of the Reformation were also the years in which Mary’s cult was carried to the New World, where its power was reinforced.

Rubin ends her story at the Counter-Reformation, but she points out how Mary’s image survived into the Protestant world, and beyond, into the world of the Enlightenment. Elizabeth I converted herself into an icon of a ruling virgin, and the French republic created the image of Marianne. In the 19th century the Catholic Church found it necessary to reinforce the theories of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, codifying as doctrine two beliefs which had been debated for centuries. It would have been interesting to have Rubin explain at greater length why this happened and why it happened when it did, just as it would have been interesting to read her on Mary in Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain, and to have her thoughts on modern Marian visions and pilgrim sites: on Lourdes, Fatima, Knock. There is an intriguing pattern here: Mary, as patron of the meek and the marginal, sometimes chooses scruffy peasant children, not bishops, as recipients of her message. The Church frowns on parish cults and yokel enthusiasts, then embraces the commercial benefits; as before the Reformation, oases of superstition become blessed if they are lucrative. Pilgrim towns are built, or, as at Knock, an airport; Mary becomes a patron of economic regeneration. The Mother of God makes herself useful after all.

Will we always need Mary? Is she in some way innate, an archetype we can’t escape? In the closing pages of her book Rubin says that ‘Mary is a conduit towards the exploration of female subjectivity,’ but she is aware that mostly the exploration has been performed by men, who colonised what was most intimate in feminine experience, laying claim to what nature had decreed they could not share. For modern day ‘consumers of Mary’ she remains an ambivalent figure. ‘Mary has been truly rediscovered through a feminist sensibility,’ Rubin says, but admits that ‘scholars and activists see the Mary tradition so closely linked with a history of subjugation and subordination as to make it unfit as a vehicle for the successful integration of women into contemporary Catholicism.’ Marina Warner’s view was that Mary’s legend is now ‘emptied of moral significance’. But Rubin has only a brief afterword in which to reflect on Mary in the modern world. We may wish she would write other books. This one does what it sets out to do, gracefully and enticingly, and it is at its most elegant, mysterious and touching when it leads us into the heart and mind of the medieval world and its wondering, emotional, awe-struck believers, finding the heavens patterned in the earth, and earth in heaven:

The dew of Averil, id est gracia et bonitas Spiritus Sancti; Haveth y-maked the grene lef to spryng, id est Beatam Virginem . . . My sorrow is gon . . . My joye is comen . . . Ich herde a foul synge, id est angelum . . . Ave Maria.