Dr Laura Saetveit Miles discusses the research that led to her monograph The Virgin Mary’s Book at the Annunciation published this month. She also discusses the Feast of Annunciation, celebrated on this day every year, which marks the historical event when the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ.
One of the most exciting things about researching the past, for me, is that despite all the books and articles already published, there still exist glaring gaps in our knowledge. Some corners of the past are well illuminated by our knowledge while others remain shadowy and unknown. When I was considering different project topics many years ago, I was surprised that nobody had fully figured out this book that the Virgin Mary is depicted holding at the Annunciation. I approached it as a medieval topic, but if you do a Google image search of ‘Annunciation’ you will see that there are millions of results and they come right up to the present day: 99% of the images, medieval and modern, feature Mary with a book. And you don’t have to be Christian to be familiar with the image – any visit to an art museum with early holdings would likely have exposed you to an Annunciation painting, it is such an ubiquitous scene. But there had been very little work on the history and meaning of the motif of her book.
When I embarked on the project that would eventually become the Boydell & Brewer monograph The Virgin Mary’s Book at the Annunciation: Reading, Interpretation, and Devotion in Medieval England, I dug into one specific question: “Where did Mary’s book come from?” The answer took me a few years to work out, but once I had organized all the evidence into an actual argument, the results were exciting. I published them in kind of prequel to the monograph, a July 2015 Speculum article, “The Origins and Development of the Virgin Mary’s Book at the Annunciation” (volume 89: 632-669). I discovered that patristic texts mention her literacy and studiousness, but it wasn’t until the ninth century and Carolingian monastic reform movements that both visual art and written sources imagined that Mary was reading at the exact moment that the angel Gabriel arrived with his news. This was much earlier than previous research had shown. As I wrote, the evidence allowed me “to pinpoint its meteoric rise in popularity to the late eleventh century—a rise concurrent with a dramatic growth in the cult of the Virgin, the expansion of women’s religious life, and an increase in women’s overall literacy and access to books. While representations of Mary’s solitary reading were initially directed towards male clerics and monks, in the long twelfth century the use of the motif shifted to include its prominent use as a mimetic devotional moment for enclosed religious women” (634). This conclusion was important because it set up a firm foundation for understanding how this literacy motif functioned in the later Middle Ages. After the twelfth century, what did Mary’s book mean for readers? What was its power for people in England, specifically, in the later centuries leading up to the Reformation? These were the questions I would pursue for the monograph coming out this month.
In my book, I try to look at all possible ways that Mary’s book shaped culture in medieval England. Its chapters cover many literary genres – spiritual guides, contemplative treatises, gospel meditations, visionary accounts, prayers, liturgies, and poems – that were written for many different people: solitaries, nuns, monks, and laypeople, men and women. I weave in a selection from the rich, extensive tradition of medieval art that features Mary’s book, to show how people saw, read, and heard about this reading woman. The evidence shows that people responded strongly to the idea that Mary had a book, both to approve and disapprove. It was a powerful and unusual image in a society that rarely valued women’s education. I agree with some critics that the image was a symbol of the Word of God become incarnate in the Virgin’s womb – of course it had a symbolic power, as all iconography does – but I disagree with those that see no link to actual historical literacy or reading practices.
People, today and yesterday, mirror themselves on the books they read and the art they look at; and likewise, books and art mirror historical practices, to different degrees. The evidence I analyze proves that some medieval people absolutely saw the reading Mary as a model of reading and were inspired to engage with texts like she did – and that such imitation was explicitly the intention of many medieval authors and artists. My book’s story of this imitation of Mary, or imitation Mariae, is complex and often unexpected, and illuminates some previously dark corners of our knowledge about the past and where our culture comes from.
Today, 25 March, is the Feast of the Annunciation. In the Christian calendar, this feast day occurs every year to commemorate the historical event when the angel Gabriel interrupted Mary’s reading to talk with her about the conception of Christ in her womb – the beginning of the entire enterprise of Christianity. While this Biblical episode would have actually occurred approximately 2,020 years ago, for believers the power of Christ’s coming is that it can be re-imagined and re-experienced at any time, through prayer. For medieval Christians, the Annunciation could happen every day, whenever Christ is conceived in their soul, as he was in Mary’s womb. As a researcher, I find this defiance of time’s linearity to be fascinating. We might pick a day each year to remember a specific day in the past, in order to give a shape and pace to each year that passes, but at the same time that moment in the past remains accessible by means of our human imagination combined with divine grace. So believed medieval Christians in a very vivid way (and so believe many today). Medieval authors produced huge bodies of highly inventive literature that taught how to enter mentally into Mary and Christ’s life as if it were real. Some Christians, by means of mystical or visionary experiences, actually did enter the Biblical world. Their testimony about these supernatural visits was seen as precious witnesses to a not-quite-lost past. The medieval need to find authentic sources about the distant past, and to be able to accurately re-create it in all its details, is a need that resonates with many people today who are interested in what came before us – not least researchers like myself.
This guest post was written by Laura Saetveit Miles, an associate professor of English literature at the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Bergen, Norway.