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John Mirk's holy women.

John Mirk's Festial, a popular English sermon collection, provided priests with orthodox, vernacular homilies for all the important saints' feasts of the Christian year (Fletcher 514). A canon-regular of the monastery at Lilleshall in Shropshire, Mirk composed these homilies from about 1382 to 1390 for St. Alkmund's, Shrewsbury, a church whose revenues supported Lilleshall Abbey (Spencer 311). Mirk's work was widely circulated, and during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Festial underwent twenty-four editions. (1) Throughout England, parishioners would have listened to these model homilies within churches that displayed wall paintings of the Virgin Mary and female saints. Like the wall paintings, Mirk's figurative language and fascinating narratives illustrate miraculous events in the lives of holy women. Many of these stories rely heavily on legends often depicted in churches. This essay explores the relationship between Mirk's narratives and Christian images by focusing on sermons devoted to the Virgin Mary and female saints. Festial provided preachers with homilies that encouraged parishioners to revere images and worship at shrines. Mirk made extensive use of figurative language, Christian symbols, and narration (as opposed to scriptural explication), and he urged the laity to see themselves as learned because they could read the symbolic in narratives and art. His stories of saintly women worked in conjunction with church paintings and carvings to produce the "truth" of legends and fables for parishioners.

When Mirk composed his model homilies, the use of images as "books" for the unlettered was a topic for debate. (2) Consistently denouncing images were the Lollards, the followers of John Wycliff. Wycliff saw some educational value in images, but he argued against their veneration. Embracing biblical teachings, his followers ardently opposed the laity's practice of worshipping at images, citing the Second Commandment against making graven images and linking the laity's behavior to devil worship (Aston, England's Iconoclasts 109-10). The Lollard movement was not entirely unified, but their opposition to orthodox use of images united them. In addition, both Wycliff and his disciples were troubled by literary influences on preaching. In their formulation, preachers should speak directly and should not "adulterate the Scriptures with contrivances" or make "affectations of verbal delivery." (3) Mirk's homilies about Mary, Mary Magdelene, Saint Katherine, and Saint Margaret are adorned with such "contrivances" and would have been particularly useful to preachers wishing to dismiss competing claims that the church's art fostered idolatry.

Festial does not simply defend Christian paintings and statues against Lollard charges of idolatry; rather, its narratives go much further to illustrate explicitly how their reverence saves the holy and converts the unbelievers. Mirk's stories prompted lay listeners to envision that something miraculous could occur in their lives if they, too, concentrated on depictions of saints. Mirk scorned Wycliffite notions about both physical and verbal images by shifting the meaning of the term "lewde" to signify a person's inability to grasp symbolic meanings. Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend supplied Mirk with miracle stories about saints. (4) For Mirk, lay people did not need to be able to read scripture to be "learned"; rather, sermon listeners needed to be able to understand the symbolism of Christian stories and art. Knowledge of this symbolism distinguished a "learned" person from a "lewde" one. Traditionally, the term "lewde" meant "lay" as opposed to "clerical," signifying one who was untaught in Latin. (5) The term also meant "ignorant" or "uneducated." In Festial, a "lewde" person is unable to interpret religious images, stories, or symbols.

Using church artwork to illustrate his point, Mirk defines the term "lewde" in his St. Luke's Day homily. He writes that the four evangelists are "lyknet to fowre dyuerse bestys, and soo byn paynted yn fowre partyes of Cryst, pat ys: for Marke a lyon, for Mathew a man, for Luke a calfe, and for Ion an eron" (Mirk 261). (6) As a result of these paintings, Mirk contends, "mony lewde men wenen pat pay wern suche bestys and not men" (261). (7) The word "lewde" stands for those unable to grasp the figurative meaning that each creature signifies an aspect of the evangelists' work. Wycliff also used the term "lewed" pejoratively. But he chastised clerics with whom he disagreed, and it took on the meaning of "reprehensible" (Knapp 100). Festial was produced around about the same time as the Wycliffite Sermons, although the homilies are ideologically opposed to Lollard ideas (Spencer 311). Clearly, preachers using Mirk's collection would have been encouraging lay people to position themselves against Wycliff's disciples. (8)

Both Mirk and Wycliff used "lewde" as an attack word, but they used it differently to either defend or condemn the laity's perception of images. A Wycliffite treatise on the Ten Commandments demonstrates how the "lewed" people worship false gods in images: "Also he that worshippeth or prayeth to any image i-made of man with that worship and prayers that is only due God and to his saints, maketh that image his false God. For such dead images be lewed men's books to learn them how the[y] should worship saints in heaven after whom these dead images are shaped" (Aston, Lollards and Reformers 152). Wycliffite texts also fashion commoners as victims of "lewed" prelates, condemning clerical figures with precisely the same terms used against peasants as ignorant, lazy liars (Barr 203).

Mirk responded clearly to any competing notion that condemned Christian images: the cross, he contends, is set up in the church so that men can have their minds on Christ's passion, despite "whateuer pes Lollardes sayn" (171). Lollards sharply criticized the practice of worshipping at crosses and argued that the "creeping to the cross" rite was an "idolatrous performance" (Aston, "Lollards and the Cross," 100). Mirk's comment on Lollard's charges of idolatry suggests that he saw them as ridiculous. He easily dismissed them because he viewed images as a way for lay people to focus their thinking during mass. But he corrected what he saw as a misinterpretation of the meanings of an image. In "De Epiphania Domini," Mirk tells the story of the three kings who visited the infant Christ:

Then, when pe kynges passyd pe towne toward Bedeleem, anon pe sterre apered a3eyne to hom; and when pay syghen pe sterre coming a3eyne, pay wer gretly ioyet yn hor hertys. pen, as hit yn mony place ys payntude and corven, pat kyng pat ys yn pe mydell, for gret ioy pat he had, wryde bakward tohys fellow byhynd, and pytte hys hond vp, schewyng hym pe sterre; lewde men hauen an opynyon and sayne, pat he had slayne a mon, wherfor he turned backeward. But God forbade pat pys opynyon wer trew. (49) (9)

Mirk assumes that the laity are familiar with the paintings and carvings that illustrate the kings' story when he writes "that king that is in the middle." The "lewde" men misunderstand the reason for the king sitting backwards, reading the image as a form of public punishment. (10) The painting or carving provides the opportunity to discuss the narrative; it is crucial for lay understanding.

Festial also denounces idolatry, but, unlike Wycliffite works, it condemns only pagan images and plays up the idea that fiends reside secretly in them. Mirk tells of how St. Andrew confronts idolatry in the city of Patras where the justice forced men to make offerings to fiends within images. Similarly, in his homily about St. Phillip, Mirk relates how the saint preached against idols in Scythia, trying to prove they were devils. When the irate people forced Phillip into their temple to sacrifice to the idols, a dragon burst from the earth, breathing poisonous venom over the pagans. By healing their wounds, Phillip converts them. Mirk tells the same kind of story about St. John the Evangelist who confronts idolatry in Ephesus. In addition, his homilies for St. Katherine, St. Margaret, and St. James condemn the worship of pagan images. And in each of them Mirk reworks the same story: a pious Christian seeks to convert idol-worshipping pagans (demons in disguise) who were practicing witchcraft. (11) But for Mirk, the Christian representation of the sacred is educational, not demonic.

That most lay people embraced Mirk's position on images is clear: they provided the revenues for the church's artwork. (12) Parishioners may have had access to the competing ideas on images put forth by Lollards. The extent of the Lollard influence is a current controversy. (13) In Shannon McSheffrey's view, female parishioners may have been less inclined to adopt the Lollard stance on images: "Lollards most virulently attacked precisely those aspects of late medieval Catholicism that most reflected popular creativity, and thus women's devotion. In their zeal to rid Christianity of nonscriptural medieval accretions, they removed many of the elements that were both attractive to, and to a large extent created by, women" (138). Lollards, in McSheffrey's formulation, constructed their identities in opposition to the "simple pepul" who worshipped at images and venerated saints (146). Images of the Virgin were a particular target of the Lollard's verbal attacks; in addition, an extremist Lollard cut off the head of an image of Mary and burned it (Aston, England's Iconoclasts 138-39). Wycliff criticized lay women who he believed to be strongly drawn to jewelry on statues of Mary as Aston maintains (107). In contrast, Mirk reinforced women's participation in the veneration of saints, particularly female saints. His homilies for Mary and other female saints offered models for women parishioners to emulate. Like the representations of saints that adorned the medieval churches, Mirk provided verbal representations adorned with metaphors and analogies that invited lay women to form mental images of saintly women.

Throughout Festial, Mirk dwells on the importance of paintings, statues, and crosses for ordinary lay people, drawing connections between physical images and his sermon stories and encouraging parishioners to see the parallels between themselves and the figures in the narratives. Christian artwork helped the identification to occur. For the Annunciation feast, for instance, Mirk invites parishioners to identify with the timid Mary who was terrified when she met the angel Gabrielle. In the Book of Luke and in The Golden Legend, Mary is simply troubled (Voragine 205), (14) but in Mirk's version, she is "greatly abashed" at Gabrielle's presence, fearing that the angel is a fiend: "For per was pat tyme in pay contre a man pat cowpe moch of wycchecraft, and so, by helpe of pe fende, he made hym lyke an angyll, and come to dyvers maydyns, and sayde he was send from God to hom on pys message; and soo lay by hom, and dude hom gret vylany"(106). (15) Mirk works the "devil in the idol" theme into the Annunciation narrative and foregrounds how vulnerable Mary felt. The virgin emerges as less elevated and more approachable to parishioners. Mirk omits the theological discussion of Mary's conception found in his source text The Golden Legend; instead, in poetic language similar to the religious lyric "I Sing of a Maiden," he paints a verbal picture of Mary's beauty: she is like "a precious ston pat ys callyd Onys, and ys as clere as cristall" that opened to receive the drop of heaven's dew (107). (16)

The homily's conclusion illustrates lay interest in the symbolism of the Annunciation: "Thus, good men, 3e haue now herd of pys annuncyacyon. Pen ben per summe pat asken why per stondyth a wyne-potte and a lyly bytwyx our lady and Gabyrell at hur salutacyon" (108). (17) If Mirk's words represent a genuine question posed to him by lay people, the question itself might have arisen from the plethora of wall paintings on the Annunciation. Such images of a flower in a pot between the angel and Mary were abundant in late medieval England, and parishioners would have been able to study these paintings while listening to explanations about the symbolic importance of them. Extant stained glass from Hadzor Church in Worchester illustrates the flower pot and the surprised Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. (18) Next to the Crucifixion, the Annunciation was the most popular subject for wall paintings in the fourteenth century (Tristram 22). In Northhamptonshire, paintings exist at Croughton and Slapton that depict the lily between the angel and the virgin (Marshall). Similarly, images of the lily pot exist at South Newington, Oxfordshire, Little Melton in Norfolk, and Tarrant Crawford, Dorset. In addition to stained glass and paintings, the lily pot element of the Annunciation is also displayed in woodcut images that illustrate some of the later editions of Festial. (19)

Mirk's sermon on the Annunciation anticipates lay questions about the symbolism of the event, prompting listeners to think explicitly about its meanings. The lily pot symbol dominates Mirk's sermon. Interpreting it, Mirk tells an antisemitic conversion story of a Jew who doubted the authenticity of Mary's conception. Sitting on opposite sides of a wine pot, a Christian tells a Jew that Mary's conception was like a lily stalk turning green and bringing forth a white flower without man's craft: Christ is that flower. The skeptical Jew exclaims sarcastically that if a lily springs out of this wine pot, he will believe the tale. Immediately, a lily appears in the wine pot and the Jew converts. The story itself is an extended metaphor: the disputation between the Jew and Christ represents the disputation between Mary and Gabrielle. Although this narrative includes the lily, Mirk names this symbol as a wine pot--a designation which adds a further layer of meaning to this story, as the converting Jew appears then to be taking a type of communion with his Christian teacher. Mirk chooses to include this lily pot story that was so often depicted in medieval church art even though it is absent in his source text.

Not only did lily pots figure in Annunciation illustrations, but this symbol also decorated wall paintings capturing the Visitation. Surrounding a painting of Mary and Elizabeth at Salisbury (St. Thomas), Wiltshire, flower pots are arranged in a repeating pattern (Marshall). This extant image emphasizes the women's pregnancies: both Mary and Elizabeth touch each other's enlarged bellies. Lay people, it seems, considered both the larger, symbolic elements of Mary's conception and the practical considerations of Jesus's birth. The lily stands for her purity and its perfume, her incorruptibility. Mirk's homily suggests that parishioners wondered how Mary managed Christ's birth, and his inclusion of such details in these reworked, traditional stories indicates their interests. Such moments in his text demonstrate that medieval sermons were not "monolithic institutional discourse," in Katherine Ludwig Jansen's terms (7); rather, they are dialogical. (20) Mirk responds to the laity's questions.

Unlike his source text, Mirk tells sermon listeners that after Mary conceived, she learned how to have a child by working as Elizabeth's midwife. The detailed story of Christ's birth Mirk tells his parishioners comes from the apocryphal Book of James (Warner 28). Mary and Joseph find a cave for their shelter, and when Christ is about to be born, she sends Joseph to town to get two midwives to help her. But she delivers Christ before the midwives 3ebell and Salome can assist her.3ebell exclaims that sheisa clean maiden, but Salome refuses to believe this idea and roughly handles Mary. Salome's hands dry up because she mishandles Mary, but she is healed when she touches the baby Jesus. Not only does the apocryphal story that Mirk relates illustrate the penalty for not believing in Mary's virginity, but this narrative also shows that Mary, unlike other women, needs no help in delivering the Christ child. Mirk also addresses the difficulties of childbirth in his homily for Mary's Nativity, writing that a woman carries out God's sentence in bearing children. But "hit is wondyr pat scho ys not all tobroken and braydon lymemal yn hur burthe-tyme," Mirk exclaims, making childbirth seem as if the mother is literally pulled apartbythe experience (246). (21) His sermon acknowledges the intense pain of childbirth.

This homily goes on to forge connections between the laity and the Virgin in a miracle story concerning a woman's insistence on Mary's help. A widow whose son was captured by enemies prays to Mary for his safe return. Because she feels that her prayers are ignored, she goes to the church to view a statue of Mary and the Christ child. The widow tells the Virgin's depiction that since her son has not been delivered, she will take the image of Christ sitting on Mary's knee until Mary sends her son home. She takes the Jesus statue away with her and locks it in her coffer. The next night, Mary appears to the widow's son and helps him escape from prison. Mary asks him to tell his mother to return the representation of Christ; she does so and thanks the image of the Virgin.

Mirk uses this story to illustrate one woman's faith. Although the widow steals the statue from the church, Mirk never condemns her assertiveness and bold actions; on the contrary, they are justified by the narrative. So important is the image that the Virgin insists on its safe return. In contrast to Lollard ideas about images, praying to the representations of Christ and Mary is also presented in a positive way in this story: the statue enables the miracle to occur.

In his homilies devoted to Mary's life and death, Mirk includes narratives of exemplary, risk-taking women. Like the sermon about the woman who boldly steals Christ's image, the Candlemass sermon stresses another woman's assertiveness. The exemplum in Mirk's homily for Mary's Purification is an alteration of a well-known miracle story of a woman celebrating Candlemass. Mirk states that because a woman devoted to Mary's service gives away her cloak to the poor, she is unable to go to church for Candlemass. Instead, she goes to a chapel nearby where she has a vision of a queen and her company of virgins offering candles in a church. One virgin gives a candle to her for the offering, but the determined woman refuses to relinquish it. The queen sends a messenger to take this candle, but the woman struggles with him to keep it. This wrestling, Mirk explains, wakes her from her sleep, and, miraculously, she finds half of the candle in her hand.

Throughout the story, Mirk fails to refer to this woman's high social status, unlike his source text. He stresses the woman's generosity but omits all references to her wealth or the richness displayed to her in her vision, enabling many more women to identify with the pious woman. Even though the sermon is devoted to the service for the Virgin's Purification and insists on the cleanliness of Mary, Mirk never names the woman in his exemplum as a virgin.

Mirk's Candlemass homily gives us specific details of the churching rite: "a woman cometh to pe chyche-dyrre tyll pe pryst come and cast holy watyr on hyr, and clansup hur, and so takyth hyr by pe hond, and bryngyth hur to pe chyche, 3euyng hur leue to come to pe chyrch, and to goo to hur husbandys bed" (59). (22) This model homily prompts parishioners to come to a more intimate and symbolic understanding of Candlemass: the laity, like the Virgin and her company, carry candles to the altar. The human and divine figures enact the rite in the same manner as those who listen to his story. Parishioners are encouraged to see themselves as the woman with the vision of the blessed candle. Mirk also invites his listeners to identify with Mary: "3e seen, good men, pay hyt ys comyn vse to all crysten men forto come to pe chyche pys day, and bere a candyll yn processyon, as pagh pay 3edyn bodyly wyth oure lady to chyrch, and aftyr offyr wyth hyr yn worchip and high reuerens of hur" (59). (23) Interpreting the symbolic requires the laity to draw the connection between an act and the symbol that stands for it.

In this homily, Mirk also includes a story of an evil woman saved from the fires of hell because she gazed on a holy candle placed before an image of the Virgin prior to her death. When the woman dies, fiends come to carry her soul away. At hell's gate, however, two angels rebuke the fiends for taking her soul away prematurely. Because this woman gazed at the burning candle, Mary intercedes and the demons relinquish her soul. Mirk's story invites lay people to imagine that they can, like this woman, look upon the symbol--a holy candle--and that Mary will intercede for them.

Lay people seem to have questioned the need for Mary's purification, particularly since the ritual makes a woman pure for her husband. The laity may have noted the inherent contradiction in the rites' purpose and their own knowledge of the Virgin's purity. Similarly, medieval Candlemass plays raise questions about Mary's purification: Joseph states that Mary has no need of it. (24) Festial suggests that Mary's ritual act provides an exemplum for lay women. She enacts the unnecessary rite in order to be their model, to enable their identification with her.

Mirk calls attention to the rite's origins, stating that Candlemass was a pagan holiday for the goddess Februa who was honored by Romans carrying torches in procession. This rite was Christianized by Pope Sergius, who turned the day into a celebration of Mary. The sermon shows lay people how the ritual's signification transformed; moreover, it presupposes that they comprehend their own Christian history and how symbols are endowed with meanings. Although in this sermon Mirk does not name his source, the details in the Februa story appear in the Golden Legend. Mirk cites this work repeatedly and follows the text, but he uses the tale to emphasize the point that parishioners enact the rite as though they were "bodyly with oure lady" (59).

The Candlemass homily encouraged lay people to focus on the symbolic: the burning candles signify in multiple ways in their present moment, standing for Christ, Mary, and humankind. Parishioners are brought into the circle of the holy through the symbolism and through their identification with the Virgin. The white wick and wax are Christ's white soul and his manhood; the burning light is his divinity. The candle's fire stands for Mary's maidenhood and humanity's charity. The first five prayers of the Candlemass rite attributed power to the wax of the candle and stressed the idea that wherever a candle is lighted or set up, the devil will flee in fear (Duffy, Stripping 16). Parishes held festive ritual processions for the Candlemass celebration in which both women and men carried lighted candles from their homes, through the streets, through the church aisles, and to the altar. These candles were then used for devotional and protective purposes, and they were placed near women in labor to aid them in their pain (Gibson 146).

Palms, like candles, were objects of devotion. Mirk relates an apocryphal story that lends meaning to parishioners' sacramental palms in "De Assumpcione Beate Marie Uirginis Matris Domini Nostri Ihesu Cristi." This sermon for the Feast for Mary's Assumption in heaven describes how an angel brings a palm from paradise to the Virgin. This symbol of devotion will be carried in her funeral procession. But disrespectful townsmen attack this procession. An irreverent man goes so far as to put his hands on the bier, and his hands are pulled from his arms. A date from the palm heals the man, and later this date enables the healed man to help others. The story of men attacking the bier is displayed at Pickering in North Yorkshire (Marshall).

The story of Mary's death, burial, and assumption also includes Doubting Thomas. Insisting on evidence of Mary's assumption, Thomas refuses to believe Mary was taken up into heaven. Just as he articulates his skepticism, Mary's girdle falls from heaven into Thomas's hands. She reminds him that he did not believe in the resurrection either. But just as Christ rose, she, too, ascended with him bodily to join him in heaven. Wall paintings devoted to the Death of Virgin exist at Broughton, Oxfordshire. One painting demonstrates Gabrielle venerating Christ's mother and handing her a yellow palm branch. Another image shows the Virgin ascending to heaven, dropping the girdle (Marshall).

Despite the multiple images that worked to produce the truth of nonscriptural accretions, Mirk's "In Die Assumpcionis Beate Marie" reveals that parishioners questioned why the Bible failed to describe Mary's Assumption. Giving voice to the laity's concerns, Mirk writes, "mony han meruayl qwhy pe gospel of pys day makyth no mencyon of hur, but only of too susturs, Martha and Mari [...]" (228). (25) After quickly summarizing the sisters' story, Mirk repeats that lay people question this omission in scripture, saying that Mary is not referred to in this gospel "bysemyng to mony mennys vnderstondyng" (228). (26) The homily thus gives us a glimpse of a laity willing to call into question nonscriptural stories. In Mirk's logic, though, it is not the faithful's careful attention to scripture that reveals them as knowledgeable people; rather, it is their ability to interpret the Virgin's symbolic presence that attests to their learnedness. While Mary is present everywhere, her ubiquitousness is figurative only. Mary is a moat surrounding the castle: she is both the water and the deep ditch of meekness. She is also the wall of maidenhood.

Traditionally, such enclosure metaphors signify Mary's purity. That Mary's body is intact, impenetrable, and unaltered by sexual intercourse suits the idea of her assumption since she has been unchanged by death (Warner 94). In addition to conveying the idea of Mary's closed body, this homily encourages lay people to think about the virgin's body as a protective, defensive structure against evil. Our Lady is as strong as a double-walled castle that withstands the assault of fiends. She is a drawbridge of discrete obedience that can be lifted up against enemies. Throughout this collection, Mirk makes extensive use of warfare metaphors. He figures the eucharistic rite as the means by which lay people can arm themselves against the fiend. He encourages the laity to see themselves as knights showing battle wounds, and he insists that banners and bells in the Rogation procession are armaments against demons. In the context of a set of homilies that stresses such battle metaphors, the image of Mary's body emerges as more of a weapon against assault than it does a passive, unviolated space.

Only Christ enters the castle of Mary's body, and thus she is symbolically present even though she is textually absent. Her absence, moreover, is a model for women parishioners. That the gospels say little of Mary is appropriate, Mirk reasons, because "A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd." Because she was so silent, little is written about her. Not only does Mirk use Mary's silence to explain her absence, but he uses it also to admonish garrulous women, writing that a maiden who is a complainer, clatterer, jangler, curser, swearer, or scold is of little worth. Opening up--speaking--is like letting down the drawbridge to evil; it "defendyth not maydenhode, but rayper castyth hit downe" (229). An exemplum in the homily for the third Sunday in Lent concerns an abbess who loves to speak. When she dies, demons remove her body from the church and beat her from her navel upward. From her navel downward, she remains untouched as she was a virgin; only the lecherous part of her body is punished. A story of misbehaving female parishioners also valorizes women's silence and connects women's speech to the demonic. In his sermon for the dedication of the church, Mirk tells a story about two women who were attending a holy bishop's mass. Rather than listening to the bishop's words, the women sit whispering together. A fiend sits on one of the women's shoulders, busily noting all their gossip. After the mass, the bishop questions the women about their actions. They lie to him, stating that they had been praying. The bishop, however, commands the demon to announce their words, and the women fall to the ground, asking for mercy. An extant wall painting at Little Melton, Norfolk, illustrates a similar story. Painted around 1370, this depiction shows two gentlewomen holding rosaries. Instead of praying, however, the women's heads are bent together, and they are gossiping. Nearby, a devil stands on a bench. Both painting and homily associate the idea that when women speak, they open up the drawbridge to evil (Marshall).

Mirk's homilies for Mary's Assumption rely upon the traditional theological point that putrefaction results from the fall of humankind; therefore, the sinless Mary did not rot (Warner 92). Christ was sickened at the thought of Mary's body rotting, Mirk urges. And to reinforce this idea, Mirk uses stylistic repetition: he repeats the term "loathe" throughout a lengthy passage that details what might have happened if Christ did not take Mary's whole body into heaven. In addition, Mirk lists gory, concrete sensory details about rotting bodies: Christ was loathe to have the breasts that he had sucked gnawed by stinking worms; Christ was loathe to have Mary's sweet lips turn into stinking carrion; Christ was loathe to see her sweet, living hands turned to filth and corruption; and Christ was loathe to have her womb filled with grubs and worms. His lines juxtapose the ideas of the pure, whole sweet-smelling body of the virgin with horrific images of Mary as a set of decomposing body parts. Despite the lack of scriptural support for Mary's Assumption, Mirk produces it as a truth by inviting lay people to imagine the opposite: the Mother of God would rot.

Mirk's attention to gory sensory details in these sermons is not unusual. Many of his homilies (for Adam and Eve and Ember Days, for instance) stress the stench of sin. Virtuousness, on the other hand, smells sweet. For Mary's nativity, the Virgin is "lyknet to a spycerys schoppe; for as a spycers schoppe smellepe swete of dyuerse spices, soo scho for pe presens of pe Holy Gost, pat was yn hur, and pe abundance of vertues pat scho smelleyth swettyr pen any wordly spycery" (246). (27)

In "De Miraculis of Beate Marie," Mirk illustrates how important Christian images are in worship and underscores the idea that the images themselves produce miracles. Mirk tells the story of a holy monk who was such a great writer and painter that Rome's Emperor commissioned him to teach his own cousin. The young cousin grows jealous of the monk's abilities and implicates him in a plot against the Emperor's life. Enraged, the Emperor orders the monk's writing and painting arm chopped off. Holding his rotting limb in his prison cell, the monk cries to Mary, "Ful soryly; for myn arme is roted awey pat was wont to peynte an ymage of pe whereuer I went." (28) Miraculously, Mary appears and heals the arm that painted her pictures everywhere. The monk is freed and continues to paint Mary's portrait on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He is able to convert a Jew by showing him how milk flows from his painting of the Virgin (302-03).

Mirk's homilies for Mary highlight the significance of holy images, make extensive use of the symbolic, and centrally concern representation itself. This collection devotes many more sermons to the Virgin than it does to other holy women, yet their stories also encourage parishioners to draw connections between themselves and the saintly. For Mary Magdelene's feast, Mirk encourages listeners to see themselves as overcoming sin as Magdelene did. Magdelene is the image of sin and redemption. Mirk foregrounds her value as a model, writing that she is "a spectakyll to a synfull to schow to all pat wyll leue hor synne, and do penawnce for her trespas, pay schuld rekeuyr a3eyne pe grace pat pay haue lost, and oft moch more" (203). (29) For both men and women, Mary Magdelene is the symbol of penance. (30) Although medieval preachers drew connections between Magdelene's sins and those of the laity, it is her saintliness that is the subject of medieval artwork. Few paintings represent her pre-conversion, sinful state (Jansen 160). The laity were urged to associate with her tears of repentance.

A wealthy lord's daughter, Mary Magdelene was given to the sin of lechery, Mirk asserts. She was in love with John the Evangelist and hoped to marry him. But John chose celibacy and followed Christ. Jilted and full of wrath, Mary Magdelene became so lecherous that she lost her name. (31) She was transformed into symbol of penance, however, when she washed Christ's feet with the tears falling from her eyes. Multiply symbolic are Magdelene's tears: they represent contrition, womanhood, baptism, and rebirth. She moves from the hardness of sin to the liquidity of penance (Jansen 209). Her tears of contrition are illustrated in the Wynken de Worde edition of Festial (1528). Beautifully adorned with a halo, Magdelene's tearful face begins Mirk's narrative.

Washing the savior's feet transforms Magdelene; she becomes a preacher for Christ. Mirk stresses her status as an apostle by detailing her preaching efforts and naming her twice as a preacher of Christ's words. The figuration of Mary Magdelene as a preacher can be traced to John 20:14-18. She announces Christ's resurrection to his disciples. A twelfth-century legend by pseudo-Rabanus Maurus and Jacobus de Voragine fashion Magdelene as a preacher (Waters 145). The early Church fathers, however, did not have a positive view of Magdelene. They were embarrassed by her prominence in scripture and felt that Christ should have appeared to his mother instead (Warner 230). It is significant that Mirk--a model homily writer and composer of Instructions for Parish Priests--would emphasize Magdelene's preacherly role.

A painting of Christ's appearance to Mary Magdelene exists at Great Tew, Oxfordshire. In this work, Magdelene and Christ are set within two large trees. Magdelene kneels before a robust Christ, wielding a banner like a medieval warrior knight. Another painting at Bardwell, Suffolk (St. Edmundsbury & Ipswich) shows Magdelene in a different role: she helps Joseph of Arimethea take Christ's body down from the cross. She is not depicted as the weeping penitent; rather, she is an active agent aiding Joseph (Marshall).

Mirk's homily shows Magdelene converting an idolatrous lord and his people of Marseilles to Christianity. When the lord's wife dies in childbirth, Magdelene performs miracles: she keeps a baby alive by enabling him to nurse from his dead mother's breasts. Not only does Magdelene teach and enact miracles, but she is also a Christ figure who goes into the wilderness for thirty days before her death, living only on the melody of angels.

The preacher Mary Magdelene is a model woman for Mirk's parishioners, as is the holy virgin martyr St. Katherine. Mirk writes that the saint "was lernet at full" and could prove arguments through disputation, reworking a legend of Katherine that has no real historical basis (Savage and Watson 260). Katherine's reasoning and rhetorical abilities reveal her as a preacher, as Claire M. Waters suggests (112). Mirk's homily mentions her argumentative skills that convince fifty schoolmasters to follow Christ, but it excludes Katherine's persuasive speeches found in many of the versions of this legend. Mirk focuses on the miracles and the narrative's action. He describes how Emperor Maxentius burns the schoolmasters for converting and has Katherine stripped, beaten, and imprisoned. Maxentius commands that four wheels with sharp hooks be erected and Katherine is set within these wheels. The virgin martyr's prayers are answered when God breaks the wheels into pieces.

The story that Mirk reworks was an extremely popular subject for painting: sixty-two churches in England have paintings of Katherine. A mural in Winchester Cathedral also illustrates her story (Waters 260). At Castor Camb, three tiers of wall paintings illustrate her life. The lowest tier shows the saint partially naked, stripped to the waist, and bound alongside an executioner turning a large wheel. At St. Catherine's, Hardly, Norfolk, the image of Catherine differs dramatically; it suggests her having triumphed over the torture with God's help. She holds a small, spiked wheel and is fully and piously clothed. Similarly, at Old Weston, Northants, Catherine holds a small wheel. Mirk's sermon is similar to the three-tiered wall painting at Castor in that it emphasizes the torture whereas other extant paintings illustrate the saint's strength to overcome it (Marshall).

Like St. Katherine, St. Margaret was one of the most popular subjects for English wall paintings, and Mirk's homily for her feast day reinforces the same themes illustrated by extant works. In the homily and paintings, St. Margaret emerges as a medieval warrior knight slaying a dragon. In this legend, Margaret's father believes in "false goddys" and "mawmetry." Raised by a nurse who teaches her about Christ, Margaret vows to keep her virginity. Olybrius, the Justice of the country, wants to wed her, but she refuses him. Outraged that he cannot obtain her, he has her hung by her hair and beaten. According to Mirk's version, a giant dragon skulks out of his corner and tries to swallow her. But by making the sign of the cross, Margaret saves herself and the dragon bursts open. A fiend stands in his place with his hands bound. She pulls him down and thrusts her foot on him. Olybrius has the saint beheaded, but her soul leaves her body "as a mylke-whyte coluer" and angels bear her to heaven.

At Old Weston, Northants, a wall painting depicts St. Margaret leading a dragon by her girdle (Marshall). Mirk addresses paintings of Margaret and the dragon: "Herfor Margret ys payntyd opur coruen wher scho ys wyth a dragon vnder her fete and a cros yn her hond, schowyng how by uertu of pe cros scho gate pe victory of pe fende" (201). (32) By calling upon the aid of St. Margaret, Mirk asserts, pregnant women will be victorious: they will deliver their babies safely and the children will come to Christendom.

The Golden Legend discounts the dragon story that Mirk includes: Jacobus writes that "this legend is apocryphal, and all agree to consider it a groundless fable" (353). Clearly, Mirk chose to ignore his source's denunciation of the tale as fiction. For Mirk, the story's symbolic truth--Margaret's Christlike sacrifice overcomes evil in the form of a dragon--overshadowed Jacobus de Voragine's condemnation of it as a fable. For lay listeners the truth about St. Margaret was produced through the heroic narrative and the church's images of her victory. But more importantly, the truth of the non-scriptural tale was constructed through the laity's identification with the female saint and their lived experience of worship.

Stories about Mary, Mary Magdelene, St. Katherine, and St. Margaret may have emerged as very real to lay listeners--particularly female parishioners--because they reflect their hopes, fears, and everyday problems. Lollard ideas on images may not have been readily embraced, especially by women parishioners because such challenging notions undercut the laity's reality of their lived experience in their acts of identification. Festial encourages the laity to make strong connections between their own lives and the female saints. The holy women in Mirk's homilies are physically and emotionally strong; they are courageous and risk-taking; they are assertive and learned. Mirk's narratives foster the hope that parishioners, like these holy women, can also experience miracles. Further, unlike Lollard claims that fashion lay people as foolishly worshipping images as God, Festial depicts the laity as knowledgeable listeners seeking to know more about figurative meanings. The homilies' extensive use of figurative language urges parishioners to interpret that which is figurative itself, story and image, and the heavy reliance on the symbolic demonstrates the laity's linguistic sophistication. The laity appear quite learned, not "lewde," in Mirk's definition of the term. Festial suggests the late medieval laity not only would have been engaged spiritually by both stories and images but also would have very strong intellectual and emotional investments in them.


(1) Susan Powell notes that forty manuscripts include some form of Festial. She maintains that the purpose of this sermon collection was that it should function as the preaching component of a larger program to educate the laity (85). Powell also points out that ecclesiastical records show Festial was used as late as the 1580s by an unlicensed preacher who was charged with promoting "fals and erronius doctrine" (93).

(2) In England's Iconoclasts, Margaret Aston shows that in both academic circles and beyond, image use was under scrutiny in the 1390s (146).

(3) Even though Wycliff called for direct speech, his style is flamboyant, argues Gloria Cigman in "Lucreat Lux Vestra: The Lollard Preacher as Truth and Light" (Review of English Studies 40 [1989]: 479-496). In addition, in contrast to Wycliffite sermons, the Lollard Sermons employ figures of speech such as metaphor and allegory, though they do not include digressive, narrative exempla, as Mirk does. Similarly, Shannon Gayk argues that the Lollard Sermons employ the traditional literary devices such as concrete sensory details and descriptions. In her view, these homilies enable listeners to form "a memorable set of mental images."

(4) Judy Ann Ford argues that Mirk tried to "erode interest" in scripture by using narratives drawn from the Golden Legend. Moreover, she argues that Festial challenged a "Bible-centric understanding" promulgated by the Lollards heretics. Similarly, Gayk maintains that Mirk and Lollard writers "staked out territories" and that Mirk replaced Biblical exposition with narratives. She goes on to argue that both Mirk and the Lollards tried to "control and contain medieval religiosity."

(5) Peggy Knapp demonstrates how Wycliff reshaped the meaning of the term and created controversy. Knapp also shows that Nicolas Love used "lewde" as an insult against Lollard learning. Mirk's use of "lewde" to mock Lollard knowledge is similar to Love's (Knapp 98).

(6) He writes that the four evangelists are "likened [compared] to four diverse beasts, and so [have] been painted in four parts of Christ, that is: for Mark a lyon, for Matthew a man, for Luke a calf, and for John a heron" (author's translation). All textual references are drawn from this edition.

(7) As a result of these paintings, Mirk contends, "many lewd men believe that they were such beasts and not men."

(8) Fletcher maintains that Lollard sermons were "dangerously heterodox" and that preachers would not have wanted to use them as model sermons, as they did Mirk's collection. Mirk, he argues, "had no serious competition" (515).

(9) In De Epiphania Domini, Mirk tells the story of the three kings who visited the infant Christ:

(10) Forcing an offender to ride backwards was a popular form of public ridicule, as Malcolm Jones illustrates in "Folklore Motifs in Late Medieval Art II: Sexist Satire and Popular Punishments" (Folklore 101 [1990]: 69-87). Usually, this penalty was used for adultery. It was also used for incest, witchcraft, and political and religious crimes. This form of English popular justice was illustrated in carvings and misericords.

(11) Wycliffite writers charged that images and pilgrimages were the devil's traps. For example, The Lanterne of Li3t configures the clergy as demons deluding people with images that are supposed to precipitate miracles (84-85).

(12) See Eamon Duffy's "The Parish, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval East Anglia: The Evidence of Rood Screens," page133. By studying the purchases of rood screens, Duffy demonstrates how the laity eagerly contributed to art in their churches.

(13) Richard Rex argues that the impact of Lollardy has been overestimated because its literature has survived and it anticipated the Reformation. Most lay people, he maintains, were not influenced by Lollards. In his view, late medieval Catholic devotional practices were not impacted by Lollard challenges to them (147).

(14) All of the following references are from this edition.

(15) "For there was that time in the country a man that could [do]much of witchcraft, and so, by help of the fiend, he made him like an angel, and come to diverse maidens, and said he was sent from God to them on [with] this message; and so lay by them, and did them great vilany."

(16) [She] is "a precious stone that is called onyx, and is clear as crystal." This simile of dew as grace can be traced to Judges 6: 37-40 and the story of Gideon's fleece that God impregnated. See "I Sing of a Maiden" in Medieval English Literature (Ed. J. B. Trapp, Douglas Gray, and Julia Boffey. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. 565).

(17) "Thus, good men, ye have now heard of this annunciation. Then been there some [there are some] that ask why there stands a wine-pot and a lily between our lady and Gabriel and her salutation."

(18) A large section of a fourteenth-century window that shows Mary's reaction to Gabrielle is displayed at the Ely Cathedral stained glass museum. The image of the surprised Mary is enclosed within a border of small, snarling demons.

(19) An edition of Festial produced by Wynken de Worde in 1528, for instance, displays the Annunciation scene as the paintings do.

(20) Jansen's recent study analyzes early Christian, late antique, and medieval Italian devotional writings and sermons on Mary Magdelene. Sermons, she maintains, should be considered dialogical, in Bahktin's formulation. She writes, "if we listen carefully, the voice of the audience can also be discerned" (7).

(21) But "it is [a] wonder that she is not all broken and crushed piecemeal [limb by limb] in her birthtime ..."

(22) "[A] woman comes to the church door until the priest comes and casts holy water on her, and cleanses her, and so takes her by the hand, and brings her to the church, giving her leave to come to the church, and to go to her husband's bed."

(23) "Ye see, good men, that it is common use to all Christian men for to come to the church this day, and bear a candle in procession, as though they went bodily with our lady to church, and after offer with her in worship and high reverence of her."

(24) Gail Gibson argues that medieval Candlemass plays reveal the significance of Mary's female body in the divine plan of salvation and redemption. She also shows the importance of the purification rite for women and demonstrates that even after the Reformation, women continued to insist on it (146-147).

(25) Mirk writes, "many have marveled why the gospel of this day makes no mention of her, but only of two sisters, Martha and Mary. ..."

(26) Mary is not referred to in this gospel "in like appearance to [fitting] many men's understanding."

(27) For Mary's nativity, the Virgin is "likened [compared] to a spicer's shop; for as a spicer's shop smells sweet of diverse spices, so she for the presence of the Holy Ghost, that was in her, and the abundance of virtues that she smells sweeter than any worldly spice."

(28) "Full sorrily [Full of sorrow]; for my arm is rotted away that was wont to [would] paint an image of thee where ever I went."

(29) Mirk foregrounds her value as a model, writing that she is"a spectacle to a [the] sinful to show to all that will leave their sin, and do penance for their trespass, they should recover again the grace that they have lost, and often much more."

(30) In Jansen's words, men and women "made Magdelens of themselves" metaphorically and threw themselves at Christ's feet. Jansen argues that an analysis of devotional material demonstrates that lay people imitated Mary Magdelene but did not strictly follow what had been preached about her. Rather, audiences "actively and creatively constructed their own responses to the preached Magdelen" (264).

(31) The story Mirk tells explains the connection between the nameless female sinner and Magdelene. Moments of biblical stories were conflated to produce Magdelene as transformed sinner and model of penance. In 591, Pope Gregory the Great merged the story of Magdelene washing Christ's feet with Luke's nameless sinful woman and Mark's story of Christ relieving a woman by casting out the seven demons within her. See Jansen, page 32. See also Warner and Ann Graham Brock's Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003) 168-169.

(32) "Herefore [For this reason] Margaret is painted or carved where she is with a dragon under her feet and a cross in her hand, showing how by the virtue of the cross she got the victory of [over] the fiend."


Aston, Margaret. England's Iconoclasts. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988.

--. Lollards and Reformers. London: Hambleton P, 1984.

--. "Lollards and the Cross." Lollards and their Influence in Late Medieval England. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 2003.

Barr, Helen. "Wycliffite Representations of the Third Estate." Lollards and their Influence in Late Medieval England. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell P, 2003. 197-216

Duffy, Eamon. "The Parish, Piety, and Patronage in Late Medieval East Anglia: The Evidence of Rood Screens." The Parish in English Life: 1400-1600. Ed. Katherine French, Gary Gibbs, and Beat Kumin. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. 133-162

--. The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Fletcher, Alan. "Unnoticed Sermons from John Mirk's Festial." Speculum 55 (1980): 514-22.

Ford, Judy Ann. "Scripture, Revelation, and Tradition in Fourteenth-Century England." Fortieth International Congress on Medieval Studies. Western Michigan U. Kalamazoo, MI. 6 May 2005.

Gayk, Shannon. "Preaching the Libri laicorum: Lollard Sermons and Image Debates." Fortieth International Congress on Medieval Studies. Western Michigan U. Kalamazoo, MI. 5 May 2005.

Gibson, Gail. "Blessing for Sun and Moon." Bodies and Disciplines. Ed. Barbara Hanawalt and David Wallace. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 139-154

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. The Making of Magdelen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Knapp, Peggy. Time-Bound Words: Semantic and Social Economies from Chaucer's England to Shakespeare's. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

The Lanterne of Li3t. Ed. Lillian M. Swinburn. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1917.

Marshall, Anne. "Medieval Painting in the English Parish Church." 6 Apr. 2003 <>.

McSheffrey, Shannon. Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1995.

Mirk, John. Festial. Ed. Theodor Erbe. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1905.

Powell, Susan. "John Mirk's Festial and the Pastoral Programme." Leeds Studies in English 22 (1991): 85-102.

Rex, Richard. The Lollards. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Savage, Anne, and Nicolas Watson, trans. Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

Spencer, H. Leith. English Preaching in the Late Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Tristram. E. W. English Wall Painting of the Fourteenth Century. Ed. Eileen Tristram. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955.

Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend. Trans. George Ryan and Helmut Ripperger. New York: Arno, 1969.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Waters, Claire M. Angels and Earthly Creatures: Preachers, Performance, and Gender in the Later Middle Ages. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2004.

DR. NANCY E. ATKINSON is an Associate Professor of English at the University of North Alabama. She has published articles on the sermons of the eleventh-century preacher Wulfstan and on the sixteenth-century Chester mystery play "The Harrowing of Hell." Currently she is working on a study of the intersection of religion and politics in contemporary sermons delivered in Alabama in the twenty-first century.
  Then, when the kings passed the town toward Bethlehem, at once the
  star appeared again to them; and when they saw the star coming
  again, they were greatly joyed [joyous] in their hearts. Then, as it
  in many places is painted and carved, that king that is in the
  middle, for great joy that he had, riddeth [rode] backward to his
  fellow behind, and put his hand up, showing him the star; lewd men
  have an opinion and say, that he had slain a man, wherefore [which
  is why] he turned backward. But God forbade that this opinion were
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