Robert Campin's painting, The Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen, circa 1440

National Gallery, London

Robert Campin: The Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen, circa 1440

In January the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, suffered a minor scandal concerning the virtue of the Mother of God. It came to light that an English professor had taught Emmanuel Carrère’s 2014 book The Kingdom—a self-consciously provocative work about the author’s struggle with his Catholic faith and the unlikely survival of the early Church—to a group of five upperclassmen as part of an elective course in the spring of 2018. The Kingdom is something of an odd elegy to faith by an agnostic who finally couldn’t believe, and thus Carrère takes aim at the religion’s more incredible dogmas; the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary never seems to escape this particular kind of complaint. “This woman knew a man in her youth,” Carrère muses, somewhere between argument and fantasy. “She had sex. She might have come, let’s hope so for her, maybe she even masturbated.”

When word of The Kingdom’s use on campus began to circulate among the wider Catholic community, Franciscan initially came to its professor’s defense. But a day later, as outrage mounted, the university banned the book, and the professor who had assigned it was removed from his post as the English department’s chair. There’s more than enough in The Kingdom for a Catholic to dispute, but it was the doubt cast on Mary’s virginity that got the book banned and its unfortunate instructor chastened. If the Church and world persist for another two thousand years, the subject will still be maddeningly controversial.

Why is this particular doctrine of the faith so deeply important? The virgin birth emphasizes Christ’s divinity by giving him appropriately mystical origins. Permanent celibacy also maintains for Mary a special category of sinlessness, marking her as free of lust. And, set against her historical background, Mary’s perpetual virginity would have lent her a unique singleness of purpose. Scripture is full of people whose loyalties are divided between the earthly and heavenly—David is divided between his Lord and his lust; Peter is divided between Christ and cowardice—but Mary’s cause is one and all-consuming: “Her prerogative is the consequence of her divine motherhood which totally consecrated her to Christ’s mission of redemption,” as Saint Pope John Paul II put it in a Vatican audience in 1996.

But the perpetual virginity of Mary is also critical insofar as she is identified with the Church. “The model of maternity for the Church is the Virgin Mary,” Pope Francis remarked during a 2014 address, explaining that “her motherhood continues through the Church, who brings forth sons and daughters through baptism, whom she nourishes through the Word of God.” In a sense, the Church takes its cue from the Virgin herself: like Mary, the Church is devoted to its own singular mission, and like Mary’s, that mission culminates in directing Christians to follow the word of Christ—to “do whatever He tells you,” as Mary’s final line in scripture goes.

Thus the inviolable and pure Mary sees her reflection in an inviolable and pure Church—theoretically. It’s perhaps no surprise that Catholics (and here I should say that I am one) are especially protective of Mary’s virtue in a period of shattering sexual scandal. We are moderns; our faith is fragile, beset on all sides by relentless demystification, skepticism, and the accumulation of shame for the Church’s wrongdoings. Mockery and vulgar insults are as effective as any of these, because they arrive as messengers of modernity, sending up superstitions of the past: Could such a person as Mary have really existed, and what sort of fool would think so? When we protect her from disparagement or doubt, we also protect ourselves.

Medieval Christians (at least those of East Anglia during the late Middle Ages) felt less compunction on this front, argues Emma Maggie Solberg in her provocatively titled Virgin Whore, which explores a time, place, and literary tradition in which slights to Mary’s modesty arrived not as risks to the faith but as part of popular piety.

Solberg, a medievalist at Bowdoin, makes careful use of various medieval sources but centers her book on the N-Town plays, a cycle of forty-two mystery plays compiled in East Anglia between 1450 and 1525. (Their name is a reference to the place-holder term that appears in public announcements saying there would be a performance the following Sunday at “N-Town”—the N standing for the Latin nomen, the appropriate town name to be inserted as the troupe proceeded.) Medievals were different from us, her study quickly proves, though not strictly in the way often presumed—they swung their share of maces and waged their share of wars, but they were also no strangers to pleasure.


The N-Town plays bear witness to this apparent contradiction. While they cover the entire range of God’s entanglement with humanity—from the creation of the universe to earth’s final judgment—Solberg focuses on the pageants’ depiction of the Virgin Mary, who undergoes extraordinary trials throughout the cycle. There is the bishop who accuses her of fornication, the lawyers “who called her whore,” the devout man who denies her account of the virgin birth. Tests and ordeals follow these allegations, from the trial of the bitter waters (a ceremony attested in the Book of Numbers, which aims to suss out an adulterous wife with a miraculous test of poisoned water) to exacting and invasive examinations carried out by skeptical midwives.

In one shamelessly bawdy episode, a pair of midwives, Zelomy and Salome, make thorough searches of Mary’s postpartum birth canal, seeking evidence of her ongoing virginity. Solberg notes that “N-Town takes this remarkable theatrical tradition” of Mary’s gynecological exams “to its furthest documented extremity” by inviting the two curious birth attendants to place their hands inside Mary’s body, and all the while the text plays on erotic terminology. “The multivalent verb tast suggests both tasting and testing,” Solberg observes, meaning that the first midwife to demand palpable proof of Mary’s virginity experiences a kind of figurative communion. The second midwife’s doubtful venture turns on the word “assay,” which Solberg attaches to both its common usage and its euphemistic sense, “to have intercourse with.” In each case, Mary’s patient acquiescence is followed by certain acquittal. “The most aggressively penetrative probes defend rather than endanger her unnatural virginity,” Solberg concludes, prefiguring Thomas’s eventual doubt, testing, and belief in Christ.

In N-Town, Mary is not spared the epithets and slanders that stream from her detractors. Solberg illuminates with careful attention the specific insults hurled in one play at both the adulteress whom Christ rescues in the Gospel of John and the Virgin herself: “‘scowte,’ a variation on scold; ‘bysmare,’ meaning ‘a person worthy of scorn’; and ‘quene,’ an autoantonym that signifies both ‘queen,’ as in empress, and ‘quean,’ as in whore” are all leveled at the disgraced woman as well as the Mother of God.

Yet Mary does not seem to mind their mistreatment: as Solberg points out, “N-Town presents its obscene and violent harassment of the Virgin as a festival endorsed by Mary herself, who rewards the audience for their accusations, insults, and threats with thanks, blessings, and festivities.” Of course, Mary triumphs, and of course she is never surprised.

Perhaps even more surprising than the plays’ tolerance of vulgar slurs against the Virgin is her own thorough development as a character, despite her role in the cycle’s pious pedagogy. The Mary of the N-Town plays is like a woman you might know: she has a sparkling, witty sense of humor—“Such clene lyff, shuld ye nouht,/In no maner wyse, reprove,” comes her riposte to a priest who instructs her to give up her vow of virginity in favor of traditional means of fruitfulness—even finding the play’s multiple attacks on her sexual purity absurdly funny, and she vociferously defends herself against these accusations, demanding her day in court. She has her moments of laughter, equanimity, serenity, and also stern self-confidence and boldness.

The vulgar piety on display in N-Town was not, of course, the only Marian devotion on offer in the Middle Ages. Just as it would be wrong to erase the lascivious aspects of N-Town, The Canterbury Tales, and the Decameron, it would be misguided to conclude that medieval Christianity was little more than dirty jokes and risky theology. (Though Protestant reformers would certainly suggest as much in the decades following N-Town, as Solberg observes.) In The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy points out that in late-medieval England Mary’s cult was “second only to that of Christ himself, and towered above that of all other saints.” There were endless poems, prayers, and icons devoted to the Virgin’s joys and sorrows, and some of them bore titles ordinary Catholics still recognize today: “Ave Maria,” “Salve Regina.” By and large, Duffy writes, “the cult of Mary appears to have been successfully harnessed to underline and reinforce a programme of Christian education, both in affective devotion to the Passion and in the elements of the Christian life.”

That medieval Christendom could easily house the wild whimsy of N-Town and the familiar verses of the Salve Regina should come as no surprise. These were faithful people, they loved their religion, and they were given, like all lovers, to indulge in a little excess.1 Thus, the trials of N-Town’s Virgin, coupled with her winning character, seem to articulate a pious message. Mary’s chastity, like the strength of the Church, is finally inviolable. It is strong enough to withstand the pressure of human inquisition, mockery, and doubt. All of those things it simply converts into opportunities for greater faith.


It is curious to note that, compared with our oft-maligned medieval predecessors, we might be somewhat puritanical. Their more durable faith may be one reason why this is so, but their view of sex itself may be another. True, N-Town’s bawdiness is at times comic and cartoonish, but we can’t presume that every application of sexuality to the divine would have struck medieval audiences as an unbearable contradiction. As the medievalist C. Stephen Jaeger argued in his 1999 study of medieval love, Ennobling Love, the Middle Ages brought a valiant effort to unite sexual passion with the highest, most spiritually enlightened forms of love.2 “The great challenge” faced by medieval artists, Jaeger writes, “was to maintain love’s ability to ennoble even while declaring the sexual act and its fulfillment a quasi-legitimate element.” Jaeger winds up unconvinced that they ever really succeeded. But that this aspiration arose, and that it exhibited itself in some of the most spiritually inspired literature of the Middle Ages—the letters of Abelard and Héloïse, for instance—remains a part of the medieval story.

And a certain cynicism about that dream—a kind of sexuality wholly integrated with virtue, both physical and transcendent—still haunts us now. We like to think of ourselves as having solved the problem of sexual disintegration by claiming that sexual desire and experience are ordinary, unremarkable aspects of mammalian life. Sex for us, more often than not, is imagined in relation to health, which is now its own kind of organizing moral principle. But health as an ethos has a clear horizon in death and the ultimate dissolution of the body—after which all the eros of a lifetime has no further meaning, no continuing significance. It was, and then it isn’t. There is some irony in the hypothesis that we rational creatures could be ruled by something finally a matter of molecules, chemicals, excitable nerve endings. We look curiously upon the awkward motions of our own bodies, weird machines that they are.

It’s hard to fault the medievals for imagining, however briefly, that there could be more to it than that.

If N-Town provides a glimpse of a moment in the life of an unself-consciously fleshly Christianity, Margaret Arnold’s The Magdalene in the Reformation supplies a convincing account of what happened to that remarkable sensibility by studying the fate of a very different Mary. Arnold presents a meticulously researched account of the figure of the Magdalene as late-medieval piety gave way to the age of reform. The Magdalene’s role in popular religion vastly diminished if not disappeared during the wave of iconoclasm that swept away so much of medieval Catholic piety. But Arnold argues that the Magdalene was finally versatile enough to survive the upheaval—that her unique appeal allowed her medieval Catholic cult to be repurposed and retrofitted for a Protestant age. The exact nature of that remodeling provides insight into contemporary Christian piety’s great distance from its medieval roots.

Caravaggio's painting, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, 1606

Private Collection

Caravaggio: Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, 1606

Arnold begins with a careful examination of the Magdalene’s medieval following. Because the medieval Catholic Church under Pope Gregory the Great had created a composite character in the Magdalene by interpreting several different scriptural figures as referring to a single woman—the close disciple of Jesus who spreads the gospel of the risen Messiah, the sinful woman who bathes Christ’s feet in her tears in Luke 7, and Lazarus’s sister Mary of Bethany—she took on a complex and markedly sexual character. Although scripture provides little detail about the life or sins of the Magdalene, during the Middle Ages she came to be understood as an abandoned wife who, left to her own resources, “gives herself to sensual pleasure and promiscuity,” and, in some popular tellings, engages in prostitution to support herself.3

Sexuality in the veneration of the Virgin had to be hedged and resolved in certain ways, as Solberg argued in the case of the N-Town plays; with the Magdalene, sex was much easier to consider, which the medievals did. “Hers is an emphatically gendered sin and salvation,” Arnold writes. “Her preconversion state is conveyed by voluptuousness, while her penance is burnished by feminine tears and blushing modesty.” She was identified by some medieval writers with the bride in the Song of Songs, emphasizing both her deep, transformative devotion to Christ and hinting at its eroticism. Her cult thus bore traces of that great medieval hope—uniting spiritual virtue with deep sensuality, even if the central point of the Magdalene’s legend is that she gave it all up in the end.

Still, it seems no accident that, as my philosopher friend Samuel Kimbriel once pointed out to me, Christ spent his time with “people whose eros was very close to the surface”—passionate people, in other words, who were forthright about their desires, for better or worse. In this reading, which comports with Arnold’s description of the medieval cult of the Magdalene, powerful desire isn’t inhibitive of faith but rather conducive to it: the Magdalene becomes no less passionate as a penitent disciple, but rather converts her natural passion into longing for Christ, erotic feelings and all.4

But the medieval Magdalene’s embodiment of apparent contradictions—earthly desire and heavenly devotion, worldliness and asceticism—finally could not last. Arnold writes that, by the sixteenth century, the paradoxes of the Magdalene’s composite nature had become a central question in the debate over sola Scriptura. The proto-Protestant reformer Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, for instance, sought to distinguish the different characters Gregory the Great had combined in the Magdalene, in part to dissolve “the impropriety of a sinner maintaining so intimate a relation with Christ.” Arnold writes that the Magdalene’s

complex legend developed over centuries, adding layers of imaginative explanations about character and circumstances, wealth and sex, love and persuasion, holding in tension what is ultimately inexplicable: how a fallen humanity pursues a divine purpose. With the coming of the age of reform, the medieval solution eventually failed: for many of those desiring the purification of the church, so sinful a saint simply could not fill so crucial a place.

The purification of the Magdalene occurred alongside the same iconoclasm that sought to cleanse medieval Christianity of its mariological components, in part based on allegations of her prostitution and sensuality, which popular performances like N-Town had probably done little to dispel. A less corporeal, more ethereal spirituality came to replace the old medieval devotions in both Protestant and Catholic churches. The excesses of popular piety, with its grand hopes and sometimes wayward imagination, diminished.

Arnold goes to great lengths to establish that, for the Magdalene, the end of the medieval era wasn’t altogether a loss. If her composite identity had once emphasized her multifaceted femininity—as an archetypal bride, then whore, then pious celibate—the paring down of her character also gave her an unexpected liberty. The Magdalene becomes, in the work of Protestant writers, a kind of every(wo)man—a surrogate for all human readers of the Gospels. “Mary Magdalene is Luther’s paradigmatic sinner,” Arnold writes, “at once condemned and saved. She is elevated to the status of Christ because she claims no status for herself, making no appeal to her own merits because she knows that she has none.”5 Arnold notes that Johann Spangenberg, a sixteenth-century Reformation theologian, considered the Magdalene “not merely a model for particularly sinful sexual miscreants, nor even for women as such,” but rather an example of “the universality of the sinful condition.” Without all her medieval accretions, Arnold points out, Lutheran preachers “could hold the Magdalene up as a figure for ordinary believers in listening to the Gospel even as they attended to their daily tasks.”

This is not to say that the Magdalene’s womanhood did not feature in Protestant debates. Arnold takes careful account of intra-Protestant (and, later, Counter-Reformation) arguments over women’s public ministry, leadership in the church and state, and scholarship. In all of these domains, Protestant women could call upon the example of the Magdalene to contravene social convention and even their own churches’ discipline. So, too, did the Magdalene supply justification for Catholic women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to insist upon their own holiness even in the midst of daily life, challenging the traditional view of secluded religious life as superior to faith lived in the broader world.

There is no shortage of male penitents in the Gospels. But despite their witness, and despite the centuries of debate over women’s place in a Christianity that viewed the Magdalene as a figure both inside and outside the institutional Church, she remains the faith’s foremost model of the penitent sinner, hopeful for redemption.

Traditionally in Christian writing, the Virgin is given as a new Eve, a woman whose yes in response to God’s offer to participate in the salvation of humanity effectively reverses Eve’s instigation of original sin.6 But there are also echoes of Eve in the Magdalene. Like Eve, she is tempted and chastened, and like Eve’s, her life goes on, mingling a profound spiritual commitment with the facts of human existence. Eve’s narrative in Genesis makes her into a representative of all humankind—fallible and morally ambiguous, but also resilient and hopeful. The Magdalene is much the same. It is a little curious that, as proud as we modern people are of our progress and reason, we still find ourselves embroiled in occasional arguments about whether women in film or literature can really represent the experience of all people, or whether a female lead inherently limits the scope of a work’s meaning. Whatever else one can say about the medievals, they seem to have settled that question.