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Mary and the Art of Prayer:
The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought

by rachel fulton brown
columbia, 656 pages, $75

In thirteenth-century France there lived a monk who served as confessor for many townspeople, including a beautiful married woman. Both the laywoman and her confessor revered the Virgin and prayed before her statue daily. Eventually, the monk and the wife fell in love. He agreed to flee his monastery and she to abandon her husband; they stole church treasures to pay for their misdeeds. After a day of sin together, the wronged husband caught up to them. Imprisoned, the monk and wife begged the Virgin for forgiveness. Persuaded by their tears, Mary not only gained their pardon from her Son, but also forced two demons to impersonate the monk and the woman and take their place in prison. When the townspeople saw two versions of the monk and the woman—the real ones free and the disguised devils in fetters—they concluded that demons had faked the crimes in order to blacken the names of the pious. All the people of the town, including her injured husband, fell at the feet of the monk and the woman, begging the two to forgive them for their prior accusations.

This episode is one of the thousands of Marian miracle stories from medieval Europe. The story is preserved in a sermon by the Augustinian canon, and eventually cardinal, Jacques de Vitry (d. 1240). Jacques maintained that he heard the story from a cleric who had lived in the town during these events. But how can that be true? After all, the point of the ending is that the Virgin ensured that no one—not even the cleric who told Jacques—ever knew of the tryst. The purpose of the miracle was to prevent anyone from realizing that sin had occurred. No wonder critics have long looked askance at such stories.

Veneration of the Virgin is central to Catholic Christianity. But even those who recognize its importance often view miracle stories and other features of medieval Marian devotion as decadent excrescences on an otherwise appropriate cultus. What is the point, for instance, of calling the Virgin bizarre names such as “pomegranate,” “cloud,” or “bedchamber”? Why would a devotional writer such as Richard of Saint-Laurent spend more than forty pages describing Mary’s physical beauty body part by body part, but only six pages on her spiritual beauty? Is the uniqueness of Christ not threatened when devotees claim that Mary’s flesh is also consumed in the Eucharist, that she is present in all physical things, that she knew everything without study, including astronomy, silk-working, medicine, canon law, and the future? And why tell stories about her that seem heterodox and amoral? In Jacques’s account, for instance, the Virgin and her demon lackeys hoodwink an innocent cuckold, the local justice system, and an entire town just because two thieving adulterers pray to her. Is this Mary righteous? Or is she the folkloric memory of a pagan goddess, willing to assist her worshippers in any crime as long as they honor her?

Against such skepticism, University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown has written Mary and the Art of Prayer, a meticulously researched defense of medieval Marian devotion. According to Fulton Brown, critics of Marian devotion misinterpret the cult because the standard methodologies of religious history are bad. Historians privilege external explanations based on psychology and economics over internal explanations founded on the experiences of worshippers. Fulton Brown insists that we can understand religious practice only by “allowing ourselves to look along devotion”: that is to say, by imagining that we participate in the devotional experience “in an exercise of empathy or, if you will, make-believe.” Medieval devotional writers often press readers to imagine themselves at the Passion or the Annunciation. Fulton Brown attempts the same. She begins each chapter with pages of narration written in the second person—like a “choose your own adventure”—casting the reader in the role of a thirteenth-century French choir monk who is praying the Hours and reflecting on their meaning. She urges her reader to feel, for a moment, what the practice of such devotion may have been like.

From this standpoint, Fulton Brown argues that Marian devotion is apostolic, rather than a late, semi-pagan addition to Christianity. Her methods will not reassure the orthodox, for Fulton Brown seeks to defend Mary from claims that she is a disguised pagan goddess by equating her to Asherah and Astarte—undisguised pagan goddesses. (To my mind, this interpretation appears closer to a concession to Mary’s critics than to a defense.) According to Fulton Brown, the poetic books of the Bible reveal devotion to a queen of Heaven, Asherah, or Lady Wisdom in the Jewish temple, until King Josiah expelled the cult. She contends that Marian devotion developed from this earlier cult to Wisdom. Fulton Brown seems to treat Josiah, Jeremiah, and other reforming prophets as villains, while Queen Jezebel—a strong adherent to Asherah (1 Kings 18:19)—is implicitly a heroine.

Fulton Brown borrows heavily from the independent scholar Margaret Barker, whose works are rejected by mainstream biblical scholars. (Barker tries to reconstruct the temple cult of pre-exilic Israel out of unreliable manuscript variants, etymological guesses, sources written five hundred years after the Temple’s destruction, and hypothesized source texts which may never have existed.) Fulton Brown indicates that she may not actually believe Barker’s arguments. Instead, she uses Barker’s work as a tool to help readers see how the Old Testament is open to Marian readings. This prepares them for Fulton Brown’s main point—fully separable from Barker’s work—that medieval people read Scripture typologically and believed they found symbols throughout Old Testament temple worship which spoke not only of Christ but also of his mother.

Some modern critics view devotion to Mary as a distraction from God. Fulton Brown contends that this objection coheres only if critics already reject the medieval belief that Mary is a revelation of God. Richard of Saint-Laurent, Jacques de Vitry, and the other clerics who promulgated Mary’s cult justified their bodily imagery and fairy-talesque miracle stories on explicitly theological grounds. They wrote learned theology, not popular folklore. Fulton Brown asks us to discover what we could perceive if we “looked along” medieval theology. Thus, for instance, Mary can be seen to help the repentant lovers not because she is amoral, but because she demonstrates physically what the mercy of Christ means. She is the demonstration.

Rachel Fulton Brown presents her work as an experiment. And most experiments fail. To my mind, she reveals a medieval devotion to Mary, not the medieval devotion. In all likelihood, only a minority revered Mary in the way Fulton Brown depicts. Some influential medieval churchmen—for example, Peter Lombard, the founder of scholasticism—barely mention the Virgin. In contrast, Fulton Brown’s chief examples—writers such as Richard of Saint-Laurent and Servasanctus of Faenza—were marginal in their own time and are forgotten today. Moreover, Fulton Brown promotes imaginative empathy as a new method for research on religion. I doubt, though, that this method is always useful or helpful. For example, most early modern Protestants assumed that Catholics were traitors and servants of the Antichrist. Ought we to experience imaginatively their anti-Catholic bigotry? At some point we must move from empathy to judgment.

Nathan Ristuccia is the author of Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our August/September 2018 issue.

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