Mother of Mercy, Bane of the Jews

Devotion to the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Norman England

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Kati Ihnat
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , November
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This rich and thoughtful book offers a fresh look at the role of Marian devotion in the English religious culture of the High Middle Ages. Using an impressive number of sources, much of them in manuscript, Kati Ihnat argues that during the hundred years following the Norman conquest of England, Mary was adopted as a powerful and universally appealing symbol of monastic values and virtues, a role model for men and women—monastics as well as laypeople—striving to achieve chastity, obedience, and the love of Christ. Stimulated by the cultural flourishing associated with monastic reform movement, the renewed interest in Mary’s role in the narrative of Christian salvation—her special relationship with Christ and hence superiority to other saints as intercessor and protector, as well as her glorious virtues mirroring the divinity of her son—fostered a set of commemorative practices that found their expression primarily in the realm of liturgy and private devotion.

Underlining liturgical life as the focal point of encounter with Mary, the practices described by Ihnat include the reintroduction of special feast days celebrating events in Mary’s life with updated liturgical texts, dissemination of votive offices recited regularly in Mary’s honor, and the composition of new prayer collections and devotional treatises used for private meditation on Mary’s virtues. Treatises written by monastic authors such as Anselm of Canterbury or Eadmer provided theological background for existing liturgical practices, and by reflecting on Mary’s immaculate physical and spiritual qualities they reinforced her image of “a column…on [whose] praiseworthy life the whole church is supported,” to use the formulation of Honorius Augustodunensis (87). Collections of miracle stories compiled in the early twelfth century by Dominic of Evesham, Anselm of Bury St. Edmunds, and William of Malmesbury underlined Mary’s role as the main intermediary between the faithful and God. By depicting liturgical action as a powerful means of attaining Mary’s supernatural assistance, miracle stories simultaneously promoted and taught Marian devotion. But they themselves became an integral part of various liturgical practices: as readings included in the monastic office (especially at matins), narratives read aloud at refectory or before compline, and exempla used in sermons.

However, and this brings us to the second thread of Ihnat’s argument, by focusing their attention on Mary’s sanctity, monastic authors also highlighted the evil of doubting or rejecting it. By emphasizing the importance of Mary’s veneration in liturgy, they also condemned those who failed to worship her. Negative depictions of Mary’s adversaries, the heretics and especially the Jews, were therefore incorporated into devotional texts and liturgical practice and used to promote Marian devotion and strengthen Christian faith. As Ihnat shows on numerous examples, the motif of Jewish disbelief was woven into the liturgical texture of Marian feasts, creating a contrast between the Christian faithful and those who refused to acknowledge Mary’s elevated status. Anti-Jewish polemic and Marian devotion further converged in theological works that sought to defend Mary’s purity and saintliness against real and imagined Jewish attacks. Finally, Jewish characters played an important role in the narratives describing Mary’s miraculous interventions on behalf of the faithful against social ills and vices represented by the Jews.

According to Ihnat, the omnipresence of anti-Jewish depictions in Marian devotion in Anglo-Norman England does not necessarily reflect the levels of social or intellectual interaction between English monastics and the local Jewish community. She maintains that while some re-adoptions of ancient anti-Jewish tropes may reflect contemporary concerns with growing Jewish influence in England and with Jewish anti-Christian polemic, their overall aim was not to construct specific discourses about the Jews, but rather to “create new ways of understanding Mary” (182) and to promote her veneration. “The intention was to glorify the Virgin, but it just so happened that Jews were part of her story” (188), conveniently encouraging devotional practice by the negative example of their disbelief, vice, and enmity.

Ihnat’s book reflects the growing interest of scholars in liturgical sources and the centrality of liturgical practice in the religious experience of medieval Christians. Her nuanced analysis fits well with interpretations that have been proposed by scholars such as Miri Rubin, Anthony Bale, and Sara Lipton, who have all explored the close connection between anti-Jewish imagery and medieval Christian religious practice: the ways in which (mostly negative) mental and visual images of the Jews were used to encourage devotion and enhance meditation on crucial aspects of Christian religion. However, peripheral as flesh and blood Jews might have been to the aims of the Anglo-Norman authors of Marian devotional texts, anti-Jewish motifs circulating in monastic milieus shaped their readers’ and listeners’ expectations of Jewish behavior. Ihnat addresses the agency of these texts and their role in medieval anti-Judaism when she suggests that the first ritual murder accusation in Norwich in the mid-twelfth century might have been inspired by Marian miracle stories. Hopefully this book will inspire further research on the potential of medieval liturgical texts and practices not only to stimulate devotion, but also to shape and control social interaction across religious boundaries in other periods and geographical areas.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Milan Žonca is a postdoctoral fellow at the department for the study of Ancient and Medieval Thought, Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kati Ihnat is lecturer in medieval history at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.


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