Holy Harlots

Holy harlots – sexual sinners-turned-saints such as Mary Magdalene or Mary of Egypt – were models for the John Wycliffe and the Wycliffites (proto-protestant dissenters c. 1380s-1420s) but came to represent the Catholic Church and were condemned for it by reformists in the early sixteenth century.

Holy harlots are in many ways synonymous of the medieval period in England. In my book, aptly (if not very inventively) called Holy Harlots in Medieval English Religious Literature, I explain why these saints were hugely popular throughout the English Middle Ages: their story, one of abject sin, repentance, and election in Heaven, held a particular appeal for everybody: aristocrats or common people, clerical and laypeople, men and women: all could see in the holy harlot their own hope for salvation.

More than this, holy harlots’ exemplarity is one that is utterly feminine: these women perform a sin that is particularly gendered as feminine in the period – lechery – and then turn to a particularly female-inflected sanctity as Brides of Christ. This model is evidently particularly popular among women, but it also participates in increasing the value of femininity as a whole as the medieval period unfolds, so that behaving as a woman, and more precisely as a “holy harlot” type of woman, ends up often being conceived as superior to acting “as a man.”

The representation of the holy harlot as a universal model that values feminine behaviour over the masculine leads her to become a particular darling of medieval reformists and female mystics, who see her exemplarity as an alternative to the traditionally male and clerical associations of the Church.

This is how the holy harlot becomes a model for the late-fourteenth- / early-fifteenth-century Wycliffites. These dissenters, followers of the theologian John Wycliffe, propounded a form of Protestantism avant l’heure, condemning the clergy’s stranglehold, for instance, on preaching and confession, desiring a more direct and less institutionalized access to the divine. Holy harlots appear as logical models of this reformist impulse since Mary Magdalene, the most popular of the repentant harlots, gives a lot of scriptural fodder for the Wycliffites’ two most important tenets: silent confession and lay preaching. Indeed, Mary Magdalene, as the sinner of the city in Luke 7:37, is the first person in Christianity to be forgiven her sins, and does not need to confess them out loud. Similarly, she is arguably the first preacher of Christianity as well, since she is sent by Christ in John 20:18 to preach the truth of the Resurrection to the Apostles.

It is not only Mary Magdalene but the feminine behaviour of the holy harlots that appeals to the Wycliffites and helps define their model for the ideal preacher, one who is not afraid to preach and share dissenting truths in public. The holy harlots’ particular mix of easy persuasion and pigheadedness, their being open to love, their outspoken, “in your face” disregard for shame and social pressure, as well as their garrulousness, is seen as particularly feminine, but rather than conceive of these attributes as negative (connecting for instance easy persuasion with Eve, or garrulousness with the misogynistic stock character of the old gossip), they see it as the positive traits constitutive of the “true” preacher. A Wycliffite commentary for instance presents Mary Magdalene as the ideal Wycliffite preacher because she loves the truth (“in louynge þe treuþe”) and is a gossip: as she does, all men who have a spiritual truth to share should “bisily […] telle it to her neiʒboris”.[1] Another text again evokes Mary Magdalene as the perfect preacher because she is a woman and is therefore more credulous than men, thus being convinced more easily: “for wymmen ben freele as water and taken sunnere prynte of bileve.”[2] The feminine resistance to social pressure in expressing her faith of Raab, another repentant prostitute, is also offered in another Wycliffite passage as the model of the ideal preacher.[3] To become a great Wycliffite preacher, therefore, one has to perform femininity, a particularly “holy-harlotish” brand of femininity.

Although, then, the holy harlot was a model for Everyman, she was particularly popular for dissenters. However, the end of the medieval period sounds the death knell for the popularity of harlot saints. Indeed, the alliance of holiness and harlotry which made the repentant prostitute so appealing in the Middle Ages ceases to be acceptable in the Early Modern period, when a push for a clearer definition of women’s roles in religion, marriage, and reproduction leads to the holy harlot becoming a paradox. The best example of this is the controversy over the figure of Mary Magdalene in the 1510s and 20s. Mary Magdalene was a conflation of different scriptural figures, including the anonymous sinner of the city (Luke 7). In the early sixteenth century, the notion that Mary Magdalene should have been so beloved by Christ and at the same time have been a former prostitute (the very reason she was such a popular figure in the medieval period) came to be rejected by some, sparking a furious debate that involved some of the most important humanists and theologians of the day, including Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, John Fisher, and even Erasmus. Lefèvres d’Etaples’s solution to the debate – that there were three different Marys in the Bible, a former prostitute, a holy virgin, and a chaste matron or widow – demonstrates well the Early Modern impulse to provide a clearer classification of women according to their sexual status. Although Lefèvre faced important backlash for his views, narrowly escaping an accusation of heresy, they nevertheless represented a shift in the conception of femininity that did not allow for holy harlots to exist anymore. Thaïs, a well-known harlot saint can in this way appear stripped of her sanctity as the whore Lucretia in Erasmus’s colloquy Adolescentis et scroti (“the Young Man and the Harlot”), providing bawdy comic relief to the young man’s sometimes convoluted rhetoric.

Instead of being used by the agents of the Reform and of Protestantism as a figure of dissent, in the same way their Wycliffite ancestors had done, the holy harlot’s universal appeal in the medieval period and her tarnished reputation in the sixteenth-century led to her becoming a figure of conservative and Catholic values opposed to the reform. The association of “disorderly” women, especially whores, with recusant Catholics has been well documented, notably by Frances Dolan, and it is clear that John Fisher, bishop of Rochester and a staunch defender of Catholicism, identified Lefèvre’s attack on the Magdalenian conflation as a threat to the integrity of the medieval Church as a whole. Bishop Fisher consulted Elizabeth Barton (also known as “The Holy Maid of Kent”) on the three Marys debate. Barton was a mystic who claimed to have received a celestial letter penned by Mary Magdalene herself in letters of gold, and who could thus, presumably, be trusted to know “what was what” in connection with the harlot saint. Barton was executed on 20 April 1534, attainted for treason because of her prophecies against the king’s divorce. Bishop Fisher was at the same time condemned to forfeit his estates and imprisoned. The fact that Elizabeth Barton, the expert on Mary Magdalene, was the first victim of Henry VIII’s Reformation, is a testament to the holy harlots symbolizing late medieval popular Catholicism, and the demise of their popularity in the sixteenth century.


[1] The Wycliffite Glossed Gospels in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 243, fol. 171rv, my transcription

[2] Anne Hudson and Pamela Gradon (eds), English Wycliffite Sermons, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983–86), vol. 3, Sermo 65, p. 199.

[3] J. Patrick Hornbeck II, Stephen E. Lahey, and Fiona Somerset (eds and trans), Wycliffite Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2013), at p. 234.

This guest post was written by Juliette Vuille, Lecturer in Old and Middle English at the University of Lausanne.

Holy Harlots in Medieval English Religious Literature
by Juliette Vuille
9781843845898, Hardcover, £39 or $64.35