Mary Wellesley: You're listening to the LRB podcast, and welcome to a new series of Close Readings, looking at the lives and voices of women in medieval literature. I'm Mary Wellesley, a contributor to the LRB, and I'm joined for this series by Irina Dumitrescu, also an LRB contributor, who teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn. Over the next four episodes, we'll be exploring the common experiences of women over more than a thousand years of history, roughly from the year 300 to 1500. And today we're starting on a love cruise to Jerusalem with an Old English text about a repentant sinner. It's a story that takes us from the sea to the desert, which features sex tourism, sin, redemption, and an obliging lion. It also contains one of the most compelling images of female authority to have come down to us from the medieval period. We are, of course, talking about St Mary of Egypt. So, Irina, who was Mary of Egypt and how do we know about her?
Irina Dumitrescu: Sure. Perhaps it might be useful for us to just see how she got to England in the Middle Ages. So Mary begins as an anecdote in the sixth-century Greek life of St Kyriakos, and then she's fleshed out into a longer story, also in Greek, which is attributed to Sophronius of Jerusalem, who was a monk and theologian. There's no evidence that she actually existed, but this doesn't seem to have stopped her career at all. In the eighth century, a monk named Paul, who is the deacon of Naples, translates this story into Latin and it's immensely popular. There are over a hundred manuscripts of it circulating around Europe. And then by the early 11th century, we have a translation into Old English which exists in three versions, but two of them are fragmentary – actually, all of them are fragmentary. It's anonymous. It's very close to the Latin, so it's often not very good Old English. It's a little bit clunky because it's following the Latin so closely and a little bit unimaginably, but the story is clearly interesting at the time, which is why we have multiple copies of it, when of course we only have one of Beowulf.
Mary: And what's the story that these texts tell us about Mary?
Irina: Mary's born in Egypt, anywhere between the third and the fifth century. She leaves her family at the age of 12 and goes to Alexandria. It's a Sex in the City situation, late-antique style. She basically just wants to live as sinful a life as possible, drinks, eats and has all the sex she can. And this is something that's quite fascinating about the story. There are late antique stories about sex workers which are quite judgmental about their erotic lives. In this tale it's very, very clear that Mary is not someone who has sex for money. She's poor, and she insists on staying poor, because she will not take money for sex, for fear that she might actually turn away suitors. So she is basically living in sin for 17 years, and then in her late twenties is drawn by some good-looking sailors who are about to go to Jerusalem to participate in the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She just wants to be on the boat with all of these men. So she goes with them, winds up in Jerusalem, seduces more people while there, of course. And as everybody's rushing into the temple to take a look at the Holy Cross a mysterious forcefield keeps her back. It's almost like a sci-fi movie. She just keeps trying to get through and she comes up against this forcefield and is thrown back, goes into a courtyard, prays to the Virgin Mary, and then with the support of the Virgin Mary is able to go into the temple and to worship the Holy Cross. She's then baptised, runs across the river Jordan with three loaves of bread and spends the rest of her life wandering around the desert, part of it, thinking about her temptations and all of the good times she used to have in Alexandria. And it seems that for the latter part of her life, sort of into her nineties, she is no longer troubled by temptations, but that's something we could talk about because the Old English does funny things with her memories and her old life in the desert.
Mary: I think what's striking about this story, by comparison with many other lives of female saints from the Middle Ages that had a similar kind of popularity, is that it's a very kindly story in a way. This is a woman who commits terrible sin and she does go through torments, but she finds redemption and she's not completely fallen. She's able to transition from her life of sin into this path of asceticism, and to become a figure of great authority. And there's something really comforting about the idea that an audience in the Middle Ages could be presented with an image of a woman like that, that wasn't so explicitly misogynistic in its description of that woman.
Irina: I love that. And there's a sort of standard reading on Mary, which is that she is a model of repentance. She exists to prove the extent of God's grace. And so the Life exaggerates her sinfulness almost to a ridiculous extent, or I should say she does so when she tells her own story in the Life, which is how we find out about her youth. So there's a sense that in order to really believe in God's ability to forgive human sin, you have to see the worst possible kind of sinner being forgiven, and not just forgiven but, as you said, lifted up, becoming even a greater saint or greater holy figure than other people might be. But what I would say appeals to me about her is that I think she's not a person who really stays put. And that's true in the literal sense in that she seems to wander around the desert her whole life, and that's quite unusual. And that's something I've been thinking about more and more recently, that it's really quite strange that even in this third, fourth, fifth-century world in which people go out into the desert to face demons, to purify their souls, to punish their bodies and become less attached to the desires and the needs of the body in order to make themselves more pleasing to God, even in that world hermits don't tend to roam around the desert wildly. They tend to stay put in one place. They might have a cell. They might live in a monastic community. They tend to be enclosed, as you said, and Mary's not enclosed. She seems to really sleep under the open sky. Her body is battered by the elements, it's darkened by the sun. She's thin, her hair is grey and short. There's a sense in which she's really been out in nature and almost a part of nature through this time spent in the desert. And I think there's something about the way that she wanders around the desert that also reflects her inner spiritual state, that she's always still a little in between sinfulness and holiness, especially in the Old English version. She's never fully without temptation.
Mary: Yes. And I think that's the very human and relatable part about her story. In your wonderful monograph The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature you have this great line that she’s ‘a living example of ongoing emotional struggle in the pursuit of asceticism’. And I think that really encapsulates it, that what we have here is this image of a woman who isn't perfect, who is striving all the time and who comes from a state of supreme imperfection and goes on attempting to reach perfection, but never quite achieves it.
Irina: Absolutely. And I think maybe this is the point at which we have to introduce the other character in this story in order to understand what's really so special about Mary. So in the Greek Life and the Latin Life and the Old English Life, all of which are translations of each other, we don't meet Mary directly. There's a frame story around her that begins with Zosimas, a monk who is basically given to a monastery as soon as he's born. He almost goes from his mother's womb into the monastic life, so you get a sense that he's never felt any kind of temptation whatsoever. He's never dealt with sinfulness or desire or anything like that, anything messy. And Zosimas grows up in this monastery and is perfect. He's basically perfect. He does everything right. He loves prayer, he loves to study scripture. He’s so immaculate in his embodiment of the monastic life that people come to him to learn from him, to hold him up as an example, and model themselves after him, which is a typical thing we see in these desert stories, that there are superstar monks who become attractions to others. He has divine visions. He's absolutely the model of a perfect monk. And around the age of 53, he has a bit of a monastic midlife crisis, and begins to be worried that he might be just a little too perfect. Let me read a section of Hugh Magennis’s translation of the Old English:
He was oppressed by certain thoughts to the effect that he might be perfect in all things and might need no further teaching or example in his mind. And he would speak thus: ‘Can it be that there is any monk on earth who can teach me anything new or help me in any matters that I myself do not know, or that I myself have not perfected in monastic works? Or is there anyone among those who love the desert who is superior to me in his actions?’
I think it really gives a sense of Zosimas’s pride at this point. He's done everything so well for so long, he's been really the good kid, the good student, that he now feels he has nothing left to learn. And that's troubling to him because he senses in some way that he is incomplete. So an angel appears to him, leads him to another monastery, which is even stricter and even more perfect. It's on the edge of the desert and no one knows where it is and they keep everything absolutely secret. So it's a little bit the opposite of his first monastery, where he seems to have been famous. And they have a practice at Lent where the monks go out into the desert and do something spiritual on their own and then come back and never tell anyone about it. He goes out into the desert, looking for a teacher. It's explicitly put that way: he wants to find someone to learn from. (We have to imagine he's pretty old at this point already.) And that's when he sees a creature, a body, some kind of unidentified thing speeding past him. And he gives chase and it turns out to be Mary, and he almost compels her to tell her story. So really what I'm trying to say is this whole story of Mary of Egypt is set in the context of masculine monastic perfection. What can a man who has done everything right spiritually as a Christian learn? And it turns out the things that he has to learn have to do with the power of not being so immaculate all of the time, of not having done everything right.
Mary: And I think we should just take a step back and really flesh out – pun somewhat intended – just how much Mary is an imperfect figure in this life before she gets to the desert. She lives this life in Alexandria, as you said, she won't even take money for the sex that she has. And then there's this extraordinary scene, which perhaps we'll talk about in a moment, when she sees basically these hunky dudes on the beach and she wants to go with them and she wants to be with them. And so she just gets on the boat and follows them. And while she's on the boat, travelling to Jerusalem, the sea itself is disgusted by her sinful ways. And then when she gets to Jerusalem, what she desires is to have sight of the Virgin. Which is also a really interesting moment. But the details about Mary's life are so fantastic in opposition to this image of moral rectitude that we get from Zosimas.
Irina: I think we have to go even a little deeper into how absolutely terrible she is, because on the sea she says something like ‘there was no form of depravity which I was not teaching in the boat.’ So you get a sense it's not that she's just having sex with all of these men, she's teaching them to do every possible thing imaginable. And there's this line in the Latin which says something like ‘I had sex with both the willing and the unwilling’ – volentes et nolentes – and we have this line in two versions in the Old English. In one it's translated literally, ‘the willing and the unwilling’, and in the other someone has changed it to ‘the willing and the giving’. So it sounds like one of the scribes had a problem with it, noticed that there was something deeply disturbing about it. And what I would say is that the implication is that she's a rapist. It's not just that she desires men and they see her and she's attractive and available and they have sex with her. It's also that she forces herself onto men. That's a tiny little detail, but it clearly disturbed one of the Old English scribes enough to change it.
Mary: I think ‘force’ is a really good word, because there's a real force to have sacral power later on in the story and a force to her authority as a teacher later on in the story, despite the fact that she brings out this kind of characteristic humility topos... well, perhaps it's not a topos, but she expresses her own humility and says that she's not worthy as a teacher, but nonetheless her story is one that has tremendous educative power.
Irina: Well, she's in this funny position where in order to teach Zosimas she has to confess to him, in a sense. She has to tell him how terrible she was, so that she could prove to him how generous God's grace is. But if she tells him how terrible she was, she stands in danger of seducing him, of tempting him, of introducing ideas into his mind. This is a man who spent over half a century in monasteries among other men. Not that there weren't temptations in monasteries with other men as well, and not that those weren't recognised, but certainly with Zosimas the idea is this guy has never thought about anything in his entire life. And she says this when he asks her who she is and what her story is, she says, I'm afraid that I will defile both you and the air. She's afraid of the power of her own words. And of course it is her own words which will teach him humility, the humility that he so desperately needs to learn in order to be saved. But it's a tightrope act. How do you teach someone through your own sinfulness?
Mary: The best manuscript version of this text is part of the Cotton collection in the British Library, and it contains a rather unified hagiographic collection, The Lives of the Saints by Ælfric of Eynsham, who was a tenth-century abbot, who wrote an extensive collection of lives of saints in the vernacular, some of which were clearly intended for a monastic audience, but clearly they were also intended for lay instruction because of the fact that they're in the vernacular. And it is a clear and unified collection. At the beginning of the text Ælfric has this preface where he addresses the scribes, ‘will you please copy this correctly and perfectly.’
Irina: That didn’t work out!
Mary: It did not work out when it came to this manuscript, because right at the start of this manuscript there's a table of contents which tells you which saints’ lives you can find on whichever page, and conspicuously absent from that table of contents is the life of St. Mary of Egypt. And clearly the life in this manuscript has been copied by a third scribe, not the main scribe and not even the secondary scribe. And without going into too much bone-dry codicological detail it's in a separate quire, or booklet, which means that the decision to include it was quite a late one, and it contains some blank leaves at the end.
So it's been slightly shoehorned into this collection and I think the detail about the physical construction of the manuscript is useful because stylistically it's also a bit of a cuckoo's child as well, because Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints... I was rereading some of them last week and I'd forgotten – I know this is heresy to say as a medievalist – but they're quite bad! They’re formulaic. The language is often quite repetitive. There are certain words that you hear repeated time and again. He uses the word ‘meox’, meaning dung, to describe the ways of the heathens. And you think, was there not more lexical range available to you? It's as though there are certain words that he finds so ideologically freighted that he has to just trot them out again and again. But the main point about Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, and more specifically his female saints, is that the kind of story he often tells – take for example, the life of St Agatha – is this beautiful young virgin who some kind of terrible heathen pagan figure, often a man in power, falls in love with and desires to marry, and she refuses to marry them and insists on affirming her faith to Christ. And therefore this heathen figure will have her subjected to some kind of terrible torture. And the way that Ælfric describes these tortures, he almost seems to delight in the description, for example, of Agatha's breast being twisted and then sliced off as she's attached to a rack. And it makes for very uncomfortable reading as a woman, and it's painful. And then you come to this... imagine what it would be like to read this text in this manuscript, which is the best copy of the text, to have read these kinds of texts and then to come across this life of Mary of Egypt, which seems to say so unambiguously that it's OK to be a woman and it's OK to lead this life of sin and to have these sexual experiences and to then become a figure of authority. And one of the things that's intriguing is that Mary's passion, her temptation, the arduous trial that she has to go through is not a physical one that is imposed on her. It's not like she's boiled in a bath like St Cecilia or any of these other kinds of terrible torments that we often find in these lives of female saints. Her passion is a very different one, in the desert.
Irina: Absolutely. Well, let me just back up a little bit and say something which we were noting about Ælfric. I think we could say his notion of virginity is very simplistic. He's really thinking about bodily purity, of virginity as a state of the body, really. And I think what we see when we're looking at texts from the fourth to the sixth centuries having to do with desert asceticism is that there's another sense of virginity as well, which is a kind of spiritual virginity and which comes from God's grace. So you can become – it's a little like the Madonna song – you can be like a virgin in the desert, touched by God for the very first time! And that's really the point. You can be physically a virgin and not be virginal because you are sinful, because you are proud, because you think so highly of yourself for having kept your body pure, but you can be re-virginified in a sense if you simply love God enough.
Mary: Shall we just gloss, perhaps, the eremitical tradition? We didn't really talk about that at the start. Why were people retreating into the desert in this period? And clearly these lives become very popular, and something of that tradition lives on in different contexts later in the medieval period. But perhaps it's a good brief summary to say that when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine, the opportunities for martyrdom, as it were, were greatly reduced and therefore great devotees were no longer able to show their fervent faith by dying for the cause of their faith. And therefore they had to choose other forms of self-abnegation and bodily mortification to prove their devotion. And this is where the eremitical tradition begins. And of course the key figure is St Anthony, who retreats into the desert and is often thought about as the father of monasticism, because he seems to have formed a community with some other recluses in this period. And this idea then is repurposed in various different cultural contexts. So in the early medieval period, there's a wonderful life of a saint called St Guthlac who's a soldier, and then he becomes a monk and then he retreats into the nearest approximation of the desert that early medieval England can offer, which is the fens in East Anglia. And there in the middle of the marshes in a disused barrow he sets up home and he's tempted by devils, but he also dispenses spiritual counsel to various people that come to visit him. So just to put a little bit of context about where this idea of wanting to be a recluse or a hermit comes from, although, as you've said, St. Mary in some ways is not the perfect hermit.
Irina: But I think you've just clarified this question of the passion of a saint or the suffering of a saint. So during the persecutions of Christians, you have the opportunity – let me put it that way – to be martyred, which is the straight get to heaven card, do not not pass Go, do not collect 200 drachma! And you’re set for all of eternity. So in a lot of the lives that Ælfric tells, which are very popular in the Middle Ages, the great climax of the story is the martyrdom of the saint. And they're always a little bit odd because the saints don't feel anything. They're often actually without any sort of pain. So terrible, horrible things are done to their bodies. They might be burnt, barbecued on both sides, they might have parts chopped off, they might be boiled alive. But they seem to not actually have any pain. There's a kind of disconnect with the body. In the desert in the age of this ascetic retreat to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine and Syria, the martyrdom becomes internal. There's not an external political force that is sentencing you to death or to torture. You take on the torture yourself by going to be alone in the desert. And there's something funny about that because on the one hand, some of these texts talk about escaping the city because the city is so sinful and it's full of pleasures and luxuries and temptations and distractions from God. So you go to the desert in order to be able to really focus on prayer. Sometimes solitary, sometimes communal, but always an ascetic life. On the other hand, what do these guys, and sometimes gals find when they go to the desert? They find demons. They're essentially forced to face themselves in the desert. And there's a sense in which that's even more painful than being in the cities and among other people with all of those distractions. They go out and they have to face the state of their souls. So I think Mary of Egypt has several different kinds of martyrdoms, in that sense. It begins with her physical lust, her passion, which is sometimes described using the word lust in the Old English, but there's this odd moment where the translator uses the word þrowung to describe her sexual erotic longings early on in her life. And þrowung is a word in Old English that's usually used for passion in the sense of suffering in this older Latin sense of suffering. It's the word that's used for the passions, the martyrdoms of saints in the classical sense, when they’re being thrown to the lions or whatever. And she seems to already be beginning her martyrdom in her erotic youth, and then continues it post-baptism in the desert, suffering both physically, fasting, being exposed to the elements, but constantly recalling her own sinful past and weeping over her own sinful past. So she has this kind of funny martyrdom, which seems to span, at least in the Old English version, right from her youth into her old age. And I think that's what's so fascinating. I think whoever the Old English translator was – and I was a little bit cruel to this translator earlier, I said it wasn't a very good translation, but I think they did do something neat in that they understood that there was a relationship between her erotic desire and, as you said, the spiritual force that she later has, it also seems to have to do with love or desire to some extent. It's almost as if the eros, the sex drive, is transformed into something else. But it's not put aside. These martyrs that Ælfric likes so much, like the Lucys and the Agathas, they seem to have no sex drive whatsoever. There's nothing for them to overcome. They only have to protect themselves from other people, but with Mary of Egypt, she has to overcome herself or transform her own sinfulness into something higher.
Mary: Yes. And perhaps we should just talk a little bit about when we first see Mary. There’s this extraordinary scene of Zosimas – you talked about it a little bit earlier, but he sees this creature on the horizon. And it's not clear whether it's a beast or whether it's a spirit and it has a completely black body and this white hair, like sheep's wool, and this figure is wearing no clothing. So everything about her female sexual body appears to have evaporated, been burnt to a crisp by the desert heat. And I think that's an interesting thing, the fact that her body has lost its sexual valence. And yet she has this ongoing battle, as you say, and there's this incredible bit where she describes how she's tormented with the memory of the lewd songs that she used to sing in her youth, and thoughts of wine which she wishes to drink.
Irina: It's true that she doesn't look like an appealing young woman any more, but that doesn't mean she's not appealing to Zosimas. So in that scene when he first sees her and he can't at first even tell what she is, if she's spirit or flesh, if she's an animal or a human being, his reaction is one of intense desire. I'll read another bit from Magennis’s translation:
Zosimas kept gazing intently at these details. And because of the longed-for loveliness of that glorious sight, filled with joy he ran speedily in the direction in which he had seen hastening that which had appeared to him there. Truly in all the days before he had not seen the sight of any human being or the appearance of any animals or birds or wild beasts. And therefore he ran eagerly and desired to learn what kind of wild beast that might be, which appeared to him.
Mary: Oh, I love that bit. Could you possibly read that in Old English?
Irina: Of course. Let me give it a go:
Ða wisan Zosimus georne behealdende wæs and for þære gewilnedan swetnysse þære wuldorfæstan gesihðe fægen gefremed ofstlice arn on þa healfe þe he efstan geseah þæt him þær æteowde. Ne geseah he witodlice on eallum þam dagum ær nane mennisclice gesihðe ne nanre nytena oþþe fugela oððe wildeora hiw, and he forðy arn geornlice and gewilnode to oncnawenne hwæt þæt wildeora wære þe him æteowde.
So he's like a hunter in that moment. He's like a hunter and he's like a young lover. There's this trope in classical literature and in medieval literature of hunting and love being similar, you can use the same language for both. And he's almost stepped out of an Ovidian poem in this moment and is hunting his beloved, who's like a wild beast. She's running and he's running after her. And they spend a slightly ridiculous amount of time in this story running after one another, they're on the move. And what I love is if you really start to picture the scene... forgive me, they're geriatric, they're quite old at this point! So just running through the desert, she's completely naked, but pretty fast and spry. He's getting exhausted and yelling after her to stop and talk to him. I think it's funny, too. Whoever wrote the original Life could appreciate the humour of the scenario of this youthful passion in this elderly body.
Mary: So this leads us to what does Zosimas learn from Mary? What is the lesson that she has to teach both the audience of this text, be they readers or listeners, and what does she teach Zosimas?
Irina: Well, here's where I have to add in a few more details, which is that he very quickly starts to see that Mary knows a little too much. And Mary has some powers which are a little bit beyond the mere human. So the first thing is she calls him by his name and he's already a little bit shocked because how does this strange person in the desert know his name? At one point they're praying, she levitates in the air. Later in another meeting, she walks on water, she walks across the river Jordan. She seems to quote scripture, even though she's never had any kind of formal education. And when he wonders about that, he asks her about it, she says, well, I don't need any education, I have the inner illumination of the Lord to teach me. So she seems to learn directly from God in some way that's beyond these normal human processes of people teaching one another. That's the way he grew up. He learned from other people, and then he went and taught others. She's outside of that system altogether and has this privileged relationship to God. You used the word ‘authority’ a number of times already. And I think that's really to the point.She has this kind of authority that's beyond masculine learned authoritary. It can do the things that educated monks can do because she can pray and she can quote scripture, and so on. And later it turns out she can write, because at their very final meeting, he finds her body with her writing, it seems by implication, her writing in the sand next to it, where she says I'm Mary, and please bury my body and so on. So it seems she can write, how does she know how to write? Nobody knows. God must have taught her, and so on. And there's this really great moment, which I have to say, I just love. She seems to know exactly how things are done in his new monastery. And at one point, I believe it's in the first meeting, which is the longest one of their encounters, she says to him, ‘by the way, there are some practices in your monastery which aren't very good and ought to be corrected. So could you let Abbot John know to correct these things?’ And this is really neat because in the Latin, it seems to be there are ‘some people’ in the monastery who need to be corrected. In the Old English it's been transformed to ‘monastic practices’. So someone's thinking about Mary of Egypt, this wild uneducated sexpot running through the desert as an administrative mind, a sharp administrative mind. And one of the very last things that happens in the whole tale is that Zosimas goes back to his monastery and they correct the practices in their monastery. So there's really a sense, especially in the Old English version, that she has access to a wisdom about male life that even the men don't. So that's the intellectual side of Mary and it's actually quite robust. When one starts to look for the little details they pop out, that she could do a lot of things, she has a lot of powers. But then the other aspect is just the humility. It’s quite simple and profound, which is that Zosimas lacks humility, and he doesn't understand that he's not perfect. And that in the face of God, it doesn't even make sense to try to be perfect because salvation is given, it's not earned. He doesn't really get that yet. He thinks he can earn salvation if he's a good little boy, he can get all his checkmarks and get good grades on his salvation report card. And Mary blows all of that out of the water, because the point is it's just grace that's given, and repentance will get you more grace than thinking you're perfect already.
Mary: Yes. I think that's the central appeal of the story, that she knows she's imperfect and she realises it's an ongoing struggle, and that's in a way the salvific power of the story for an audience. It doesn't matter what you've done, if you seek redemption you can also be offered salvation.
Irina: What do you think it suggests about the relationship a Christian might have to their body, because there's, I think, a stereotyped version of medieval Christian thought which is very body hating, right? It's all about a dualistic division between body and soul and the soul is good, it needs to be cherished, and the soul is cultivated through the pain of the body. You weaken the body through fasts and through, sometimes, flagellation or discomfort, and try to decrease its hold on the soul. But what do you think the story of Mary of Egypt suggests about the soul and the body?
Mary: Well, it is striking that clearly Mary's body is one that no longer is young and beautiful and sexy when we meet her, or rather when Zosimas meets her. And so it does seem to suggest that the body must be mortified in order to achieve a state of enlightenment. But perhaps it's useful here to take a step outwards and talk about other stories of the so-called ‘harlot saints’, Pelagia and Thaïs. Those are both stories about very beautiful women who have this incredible sexual appeal who then become these saintly figures. But in both of those stories they...well, in the story of Pelagia she is this incredibly beautiful actress and she's famed throughout the city of Antioch. And when we first meet her, it's described that she's wearing nothing but gold jewels and pearls, and she even has jewels on her feet, but no clothing. It's just an unambiguously sexy description.
And she’s seen by this group of bishops, and there’s this one bishop, Bishop Nonnus, who sees her. And afterwards he says to the other bishops, did you not see how beautiful she was? And they all hang their heads in shame because presumably they do recognise how beautiful she was, but they don't want to admit it. And he says, well, think about how much time this woman spends trying to be beautiful, trying to make herself pleasing to others. And so the good Christian soul should spend a similar amount of time making themselves pleasing to God. This is really interesting because here beauty and sexual appeal are not entirely condemned because they're seen as to some degree a sort of route to salvation. Then later on in the story Pelagia escapes and she goes and builds herself a little cell on the Mount of Olives and her body becomes so wasted that she appears to be a man, and people think that she's a man. And it's only when she dies that they realise that in fact she was a woman. Again, I think that's an example of the body being mortified in order to achieve salvation and its distinctively feminine qualities being wasted away, in the same way that Mary's skin is burnt black by the desert heat. But there's an idea that the body was nonetheless a kind of vessel, a vehicle that allowed the soul to take itself to the path of salvation.
Irina: I think that's right. And I think there's something about this ascetic way of thought, mode of being, that has a lot of rules but is not invested in following them. And I'm thinking, for example, of Barbara Newman's essay in the London Review on medieval bodies where she talks about the way that ‘even though the Bible prohibits cross-dressing, both saints’ lives and romances celebrated women who donned male garb to spend their lives as monks, clerics or soldiers.’ And that's very much true. Men and women are not supposed to cross dress according to the Bible. And yet we have these heroic female figures, especially, who live as men in the desert. And some recently have been considered to be trans figures. They're certainly not figures who follow the rules in any kind of obvious or banal or simple sense. And so I think there is the sense that these relationships are not as simple as simply opposing body and soul or opposing virginity and sexuality, for example, because sexuality is still a form of love. And that's why I think there's the popularity of these repentant saints who are renowned either for sex work or for desire, for just desiring to be with lovers and to be pleasing to lovers. There's a sense that sexual love is a stepping stone to love itself, it's not its opposition. To Christian love, I should say. So you have the popularity of Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages, who's really a composite figure put together by Gregory the Great from different parts of the Gospel. That's the Mary Magdalene who becomes famous, as it were, and she, I think, is one of the most popular figures in the Middle Ages. After the Virgin Mary it's Mary Magdalene for women or for anyone else, because she's also someone who loves. And her past in sex work is not in opposition to that. It's a stepping stone to the love of Christ. And what's quite interesting is that in the Middle Ages the Life that circulates about Mary Magdalene cannibalises a bit of the Life of Mary of Egypt. So near the end of the story that develops around Mary Magdalene, she winds up going to the desert and meeting a hermit there and telling him her story. So you see that there's also something a little bit interchangeable about these figures, that they're all appealing and attractive, and they all – Pelagia, Thaïs, Mary of Egypt, Mary Magdalene – have traditions of their own. Partly because of the names, there are a lot of Marys involved, and a lot of them have similar patterns to their stories. There are often quite creepy or disturbing scenes where men try to get them out of the brothel, holy men try to get them out of the brothel by pretending to be customers. In one case, it's an uncle trying to rescue his niece from sex work, but before he reveals himself to her, he really plays the part of a potential customer very well. So there are these slightly titillating story elements which seem to be repeated in these tales, but what it all adds up to is a powerful interest in the early and then also in the late Middle Ages in women who are sexually uncontrolled or sexually voracious or simply sinful early on, having then privileged relationships to God through that sexuality. Not beyond that sexuality, not despite it.
Mary: OK, Irina, maybe let's perhaps read another passage. We've been thinking about what Zosimas learns from Mary, but I wanted to think about this moment towards the end of the text when he comes to see Mary again. And I'm just going to read now:
Then when the course of the year had passed, he came into the vast desert and eagerly hastened to the glorious vision, and he travelled for a long time seeking hither and thither until he perceived some clear sign of the longed-for vision and the place of his desire. As he eagerly looked both to the right and to the left, with the keenness of his eyes, just like the most skilful hunter seeing if he might be able to catch there the sweetest wild animal, when he could not find anything that moved he began to soak himself with tears, and with upraised eyes, he praised and said, ‘Reveal to me, Lord, that hidden treasure of gold, which formerly you condescended to show me. I ask you, Lord, for the sake of your glory.’
I think it's really striking that even towards the end of the text Mary remains this prey and Zosimas is hunting her, and these overtones of eroticism remain. But also this idea that Mary is still this bestial creature, at least in Zosimas’s imagination and perhaps in the imagination of the reader audience as well, she remains this imperfect figure, she hasn't achieved perfection, which I think is really interesting when we think about the moment right at the end, after she's dead, when Zosimas finds her body. And you talked about how he finds next to her written in the sand her name, which is really wonderful. It's this big reveal, that he just doesn't know her name until that point. But then as he's attempting to bury her body, this lion appears. And interestingly, in the Old English text it’s a female lion. And the lion is intriguing because there are lots of lions. There are lions in the Bible and there are hagiographical lions, and so it's a relatively common trope. We find, for example, in the life of St Edmund a similar sort of thing, this idea of animals helping saints. St Edmund has his head cut off and a good wolf finds the head and keeps it hidden in a bush until the friends of Edmund come, and they hear the head shouting to them saying, I'm here, I'm here. And then they're able to reattach the head to the body of Edmund and he achieves sanctified status. So it's a similar kind of trope in the sense that here's this beast from the natural world aiding in God's work. But I think there's a larger symbolism, perhaps, that Mary, having been this bestial figure, having been the prey, having been hunted, having had these base bestial sexual desires as we understand them at the beginning of the story, now she's transcended beyond the bestial realm and beyond even the human realm to the celestial realm. And Zosimas, a beast like the lion, must bury her body, and bury the vessel that had held her soul, such that her soul can then ascend into heaven.
Irina: I left out this detail earlier on, but it's one that I've come back to over and over again kind of obsessively, in the way that one gets obsessed with these little passages that make no sense in medieval texts. When he chases her the first time he's just seen her, and she jumps into a kind of valley which is marked as though a dried-up river had gone through it. And then she hops up the other side, turned away from him, and he seems to be stopped by this valley. He can't move, even though it's empty, it's dry. I think it's a wadi. I think it's really originally referring to one of these desert riverbeds. It makes no sense by the time it gets into the Old English. But there's something about this invisible river that still stops him. And there's another part in the Old English where she jumps into the river again. And suddenly it seems as though there's a river there. So there's something about the desert landscape which also flickers. The river Jordan is solid enough for her to walk on, but then is water... there's a kind of instability about the space that they're moving through which seems to echo her instability as a person. She's not someone who can really be fixed down as one kind of human being or another as sinful or saintly.
Mary: And there's an interesting way in which the landscape responds to the lives of the human beings within it, thinking back to the way the sea is disgusted by her sexual acts on the boat. As you say, there are these fascinating boundaries and borderlands in the text. And there's a moment in the text where it talks about her proceeding to the inner desert, the idea that there isn't just a desert, but there's a place that's just so far from everything, so far from civilisation. The way the text moves between these different places is quite exciting. It's interesting for the reader, but it's also full of symbolism.
Irina: The other thing that maybe we could say about her is that she seems to cover a lot of ground, as opposed to Zosimas who spends over fifty years in one monastery and then spends his time in a second monastery and just gets out into the desert these two or three times. She travels from rural Egypt, I guess, to Alexandria, she gets to Jerusalem. She goes across the river, she's in the desert. And this is something we're going to see again in some of the figures we'll talk about in future podcasts. We see women who are covering a lot of ground as they negotiate the struggle between sanctity and holiness and sinfulness and desire. They're moving through space, much more than it's maybe appropriate for women to do. The ideal holy woman would stay put. I think that's true in the sixth century as well, and in the tenth century. But maybe they get some of their authority from their movement, from the fact that they go to a lot of places and they gather experience, which is maybe the other thing to say. I'm thinking of the Wife of Bath right now, her great opening line, ‘experience though not authority’. Mary of Egypt is already gathering experience in order to build her authority.
Mary: I think what we're going to think about a lot in later episodes is just what it means for a woman to be a teacher in the Middle Ages, and where they get that authority and where they get their knowledge. It's very interesting, thinking about that moment when Zosimas finds the note that Mary has seemingly left for him. And the text says very clearly she had never learned to read or write, that this is some kind of divine miracle that she has this literacy. And this is, again, something we'll think about in later episodes, the way that women to some degree might wish to pretend that they don't have literacy or they don't have this power, they don't have this knowledge, because they lose their authority as teachers if they do. And therefore their knowledge has to appear to come directly from God in this unmediated way.
Irina: They are almost putting on a certain kind of simplicity or thinking the way Margery Kempe later says, I'm not teaching, I'm not preaching, I'm just telling some stories. But to come back to Mary of Egypt, there's a way in which she needs Zosimas too. And in some of the later versions of the Life, certainly some of the old French versions, there's no Zosimas, the frame disappears and you meet Mary first thing, she's centred in the story. But in this classic version which we have in Old English and which was circulated so widely in Latin, we see all of it through Zosimas’s eyes. He's the figure through whom the reader enters the story. And there's almost a strange sense that Mary almost called him to her because Zosimas is a priest, and that gives him access to something that she cannot get, which is the Eucharist. So she seems to want to be shriven once before she dies, she seems to want to confess and to get the Eucharist. And he provides that to her, and she dies quite soon afterwards. So there's a sense in which she can never be fully separate from his masculine institutional power from the church, from the rites of the church, nor does she want to be. She still needs the thing that only he can have and which she can't. And then maybe we could say, even though he buries her, he gives her funeral rites and he's the one who then tells her story after her death. And she swears him to secrecy as long as she's alive, but she allows him to tell the story after she dies. There's a sense in which she owes her tradition – obviously she's fictional, but within the logic of the text, she owes her tradition and her story and her message moving beyond her own life to him as a witness. He has to be the person who then goes back and tells the story.
Mary: Which is something we find very, very commonly in lives of saints, particularly throughout the Middle Ages, that it's very rarely a woman's testimony that can form the basis of a saint's life. It often has to be validated by a male witness in order to have an authority.
Irina: I want to come back to this question of what these stories serve. Mary of Egypt was an extremely popular story, as you mentioned, in the later Middle Ages. It's translated into French, into Spanish, into German, I think into Icelandic as well. So clearly there's a long tradition to these stories of these repentant women, sometimes in a passionate tug of war with the men, the ascetic holy men who love them. What can we say about the ways that audiences might relate to them?
Mary: I was thinking in the last few days about the popularity of this story, and whether we can see anything of this story in contemporary popular culture. And I was thinking about the 1990 film Pretty Woman, and how in a way this story has many of the contours of the story of Mary of Egypt. It's about this woman – well, it's not clear that Mary is a sex worker at the beginning of the story, but nonetheless she represents the kind of archetype of the fallen woman, and she meets this man. And yet she has this power to reform him because in Pretty Woman the point about Edward is that he's this kind of hollow man who can't love, and Vivian is this woman who is able to love, and through her love she's able to redeem him. And I was thinking that that has a certain similarity to Mary of Egypt. And it's interesting, thinking about the dynamic between Zosimas and Mary, that here this powerful male figure is reformed by this supposedly fallen woman.
Irina: And that suggests to me that these figures are also in a way possibilities for social or institutional critique. That the figure of the fallen woman is not part of the order of the people who run things, and therefore can see things differently. That reminds me again of Mary's little side remark, ‘there are some practices that are wrong in your monastery, let Abbot John know.’ Vivian reforms Edward, but she's also showing him what's wrong with his line of work, that there's a sense in which his line of work is rapacious and destructive, and she helps him see that. And the movie helps the viewer reflect on that as well. And I think that's actually the powerful thing about Mary of Egypt as well, that she is suggesting that monasteries have limitations to them, that they can only take a person so far spiritually speaking. That's actually kind of radical, you know!
Mary: There's also an interesting question about how these stories might be interpreted in the modern day. And I was also thinking about other contemporary stories that have something of Mary of Egypt. And I was thinking about Fleabag. And again, Mary of Egypt, in a way, she's the fourth-century Fleabag. Fleabag is a story about the central character who has these very hollow sexual encounters. There's this moment in the show in season one when she talks about how it's not so much the sensation of sex that she enjoys, it's the chase and the awkwardness of it. And in our post-1960s conception of sexuality, the only kind of sex that's truly sinful is that that is without pleasure. And so this in a way is the modern version of Mary of Egypt’s sinful sexual misdemeanours. But Fleabag is also a story about redemption. It's a story about being imperfect and learning to make better choices and coming to terms with your past sins in a way. And so the story of the ‘harlot Saint’ has echoes in contemporary culture.
Irina: I think so. And I think it's so easy to take these old tales of repentant women and treat them en masse, but in fact they're quite different from one another. Pelagia, as you mentioned, is really a figure of love. She's a figure of love and beauty that's simply misdirected. And once the love and the attempt to please are directed correctly, she becomes holy. Mary, I think as you suggested, really seems to desire the sin more than the pleasure. And she really likes the chase. So just as she and Zosimas are always running around in the desert after one another, she's running at the beginning, she's always running, she's running towards something and she wants other people to run towards her. So there's something about – I keep saying there's something about Mary! – but there's something about Mary which almost has a kind of emptiness in it, she’s trying to fill things. And I'm not sure with her if she ever really fills it, because we only really ever see her running and running and running. And the only time she stops running is when she's dead. So I see her as a fundamentally different figure than even Mary Magdalene, in that sense, who we see as loving Jesus, loving Christ. She is a great figure for the love of God in that sense. Mary of Egypt is a little more complicated and that's why I think she...I talked about her slightly rapist behaviour. Literally, she's a rapist on that boat to Jerusalem. There's a sense that she stays dangerous throughout. And again, that's where I think we have the sense of her being possibly a demon, possibly an animal. Even in late antiquity, if you were a woman out in the desert, even a man out in the desert living the aesthetic life, you would probably live in a cell. You would stay in one place. She almost becomes one with the desert. She's absolutely restless. That, I think, is part of what's so compelling about her as a figure, is that even though she's encased in this narrative and there's a moral attached to her, she's a riddle that can never be fully answered.
Mary: Thank you so much, Irina.
Irina: Thank you, Mary.
Mary: So join us next time when we'll be discussing a very different kind of holy life with the work of the mystic and anchoress Julian of Norwich, who wrote the first work in English that we can be sure was authored by a woman.