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The Medieval Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero

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In an earlier publication, dedicated to the patristic era [1], we attempted to gather together the essential elements of the most ancient Christian tradition about the Church's teaching on the Mother of the-Lord, We drew these elements from the writings of the Church Fathers and other Christian authors who lived in their time. That book was intended as a kind of immersion in the original sources of the Church's tradition. The present volume aims to continue the journey already begun, moving on into the next period of history. This period has been called "medieval"-a rather debatable term that still has negative and pejorative connotations. For our part, we consider this period to be a time full of cultural value, in every sense of the word "cultural". We will go through the writings of Christian authors from this period, gathering together the most weighty and significant moments In the development of Marian doctrine and devotion.

The historical period we are considering embraces a span of time reaching from the end of the patristic age (eighth century) to the end of the fifteenth century. The close of this long series of centuries may be fixed by two historical events critical to both East and West, events so significant as to determine the end of an era.

In the East, with the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453), the fall of the Byzantine Empire gave rise to particular difficulties within the life of the Byzantine Church. Many scholars of Greek origin and education decided to take refuge in the West, while those who stayed behind found the continuation of theological research and study an arduous and difficult undertaking.

In the West, the medieval era appeared to be in irreversible decline as early as the thirteenth century. Nevertheless, today it is customary to Prolong the medieval era by two centuries, right up to the close of the fifteenth century. In reality, the historical factors that were destined to open the door to the Renaissance were already well under way. The political rivalries of various kings and princes, as well as actual wars, the outbreaks of plagues, the incursions and invasions of the Muslims into European countries, along with a certain stagnation within European culture, such as an obsessive and sterile tendency toward speculation, and other, less important factors, heavily influenced Western learning and culture. On the level of religious learning, properly speaking, one may observe an exaggerated move toward an individualistic approach, which emphasized the desire to pursue the interior life at the expense of a religious commitment to live out the faith in practice. Finally, there occurred the catastrophic events that ensnared whole regions of Christendom, namely, the Protestant Reformation and the English schism. We think, then, that the end of the fifteenth century can be taken as the end of the Middle Ages, during which Marian doctrine and piety were seen as vital components of the Church's life, as much in the East as in the West, and the figure of Mary was considered an indisputable sign of sure faith in the mystery of the incarnate Word.

In the eighth century, the Christian West was still deeply under the influence of the impetus that the Council of Ephesus had given to Marian devotion. Shrines dedicated to the Theotókos sprang up in almost every place. Homiletic literature was notably enriched by Marian sermons, devised according to a more or less fixed Plan, in which the "Salient steps of the story of salvation were traced: the sin of our first parents, the Eve-Mary parallel, the angel's Annunciation to Mary and the Incarnation of the Son of God, the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, the adoration of the Magi. But it was especially the feast of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary into heaven that inspired the most enthusiastic homilies about the Virgin. The Nestorian controversy was ended by the Second Council of Nicaea (787), with the solemn legitimation of the cult of images of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. Additionally, the triumph of the orthodox faith opened a new epoch of newfound political and religious tranquillity. Consequently, strong pressure was exerted by renewed dogmatic demands, which promoted the exploration of new Marian expressions in art.

Marian liturgy and piety both benefitted from this climate. In the East, there was an increase in the number of liturgical texts, composed for the most part by poets and hymn-writers who were also profound theologians These texts resonated with the authentically Marian spirit of the people of God.

In the West, by contrast, the Church's life was badly shaken by historical events that radically altered the religious situation of Europe. Over a period of several centuries, successive barbarian invasions led to continuous political, social, and economic transformations, which finally coalesced in the formation of the Holy Roman Empire and the Carolingian renaissance. Also in contrast with the Christian East, where Marian devotion was clearly a popular phenomenon, devotion to Mary the West was expressed in limited circles, particularly in monastic environments. And in fact, the majority of Western Marian writers during these centuries belonged to the monastic tradition. They saw the Mother of God, not so much as a subject for doctrinal reflection, but as son, as someone with importance for the fives of the faithful. In particular the Benedictines considered her a marvelous model of the religious life, because Mary, in her purity and humility, showed them the to the heavenly homeland.

In the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire was enjoying a golden period under the reign of Basil II. In the Latin world, this was paralleled by an incipient reawakening of civilization and culture in all areas of life, in the various countries of Europe. This phenomenon, however, unfolded in continuity with a past whose treasures and positive values could not be forgotten. The ecclesiastical writers of that age, which today is called the Low Middle Ages, did not give up the task of carrying 'forward the tradition of the Church Fathers, even if they did not always refer to them with the most rigorous exactitude. Indeed, to us today, the connections they made sometimes appear to be invalidated by their excessive formalism. But even though this way of appealing to the Fathers was not totally correct and is considered critically questionable today, nevertheless it might merit a kind of certificate of authenticity if interpreted as the sincere and enduring expression of the traditional Christian life. [2]

At this important historical turning point, monasticism was able to carry out its role in an acceptable and effective way. The monks provided a connection to and continuity with the positive values of a past that was fading away. They revived it within a renewed and dynamic historical context in which the doctrinal tradition and example of the Fathers had clearly begun to regain the privileged place they deserved.

Marian theology and piety, while not giving up their strong bonds with past centuries, reached new objectives. This marked a turning point in the doctrinal and spiritual history of the Latin Middle Ages, demonstrating a vitality and depth that belie the negative judgments made against that era.

By the end of the Middle Ages, Marian feasts were firmly and definitively established in the calendar of the liturgical year. At that time, the feasts of the Purification, the Annunciation, the Assumption, and Birth of Mary were being celebrated everywhere in the West. Other feasts, such as the Conception of Mary and the Sorrows of Mary, still awaited more solid and universal acceptance. Thus, devotion to the Mother of the Lord appeared fully legitimated by its entry into the Church's liturgical worship, and the faithful could turn to her without fear of going beyond the limits demanded by an authentic understanding of the Faith.

In this religious climate, prayers addressed to Mary, publicly or privately, greatly increased in number. These texts, in Latin and the languages of the people, form a rich patrimony of prayer, handed down as a precious inheritance to later generations. Marian hymn-writing also developed to an amazing degree, which favored the flowering of compositions that, in some cases, reached the highest peaks of poetry and lyricism.

Unfortunately, the limits within which our work must be confined do not allow us fully to demonstrate the impressive growth of the Marian religious phenomenon during the Middle Ages. We will present the thought of a rather limited number of authors. Our selection is determined by each author's reputation, the importance of his contribution, and the influence he exercised during his life and in later ages. In any case, we trust that the great figures whose Marian thought we have chosen to present can still act as wise guides for the reader who wishes to pursue the study of Mariology. They were the powerful protagonists of the extraordinary flowering of Marian thought during the Middle Ages; they breathed an atmosphere of intense Christian faith and piety; they placed their own genius at the service of a Lady and Queen who, in her turn, has never ceased to offer her maternal assistance to the people of God, in total humility. Moreover, we are firmly convinced that their human and religious genius are truly unsurpassed and, consequently, able of influencing our own thinking and our lives.


But surely when [God] became man, He brought home to us His incommunicable attributes with a distinctiveness, which precludes the possibility of our lowering Him merely by our exalting a creature. He 'alone has an entrance into our soul, reads our secret thoughts, speaks to ,:.our heart, applies to us spiritual pardon and strength. On Him we solely depend. He alone is our inward life; He not only regenerates us, but (to use the words appropriated to a higher mystery) semper gignit; He is ever renewing our new birth and our heavenly sonship. In this sense He may be called, as in nature, so in grace, our real Father.

Mary is only our mother by divine appointment, given us from the Cross; her presence is above, not on earth; her office is external, not within us. Her name is not heard in the administration of the Sacraments. Her work is not one of ministration towards us; her power is indirect. It is her prayers that avail, and her prayers are effectual by the fiat of Him who is our all in all. Nor need she hear us by any innate power, or any personal gift; but by His manifestation to her of the prayers which we make to her. When Moses was on the Mount, the Almighty told him of the idolatry of the people at the foot of it, in order that he might intercede for them; and thus it is the Divine Presence which is the intermediating Power by which we reach her and she reaches us.

Woe is me, if even by a breath I sully these ineffable truths! but still, without prejudice to them, there is, I say, another range of thought quite distinct from them, incommensurate with them, of which the Blessed Virgin is the centre. If we placed our Lord in that centre, we should only be dragging Him from His throne, and making Him an Arian kind of God; that is, no God at all. He who charges us with making Mary a divinity, is thereby denying the divinity of Jesus. Such a man does not know what divinity is. Our Lord cannot pray for us, as a creature prays, as Mary prays; He cannot inspire those feelings which a creature inspires. To her belongs, as being a creature, a natural claim on our sympathy and familiarity, in that she is nothing else than our fellow. She is our pride,–in the poet's words, "Our tainted nature's solitary boast".

– Ven. John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered (London and New York: Longmanns, Green, and Co., 1900-1901), pp. 83-85.


[1] Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, trans. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).

[2] See H. Barré, Prières anciennes de l'Occident à la Mère du Sauveur (Paris 1963), P. 7.

In his book Mary and the Fathers of the Church, Fr. Luigi Gambero presented a comprehensive survey of Marian doctrine and devotion during the first eight Christian centuries. Mary in the Middle Ages continues this journey up to the end of the fifteenth century, surveying the growth of Marian doctrine and devotion during one of the most important eras of Christian history: the Middle Ages.

Fr. Gambero presents the thoughts, words, and prayers of great theologians, bishops, monks, and mystics who witnessed to and promoted the dedication of the Christian people to the Mother of God. Each chapter concludes with readings from the works of these important authors. Many of these texts have never before been translated into English. More than thirty great figures each receive an entire chapter, including such giants as the St. Anselm, St. Bernard, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Brigid of Sweden, and Raymond Lull.

"A fascinating picture of one of the foundational elements of modern Catholic theology, namely, devotion. All in all, a worthwhile and informative study of devotion to the Blessed Virgin." – Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.

"This book is indispensable for current students of Mariology." – Kenneth Baker, S.J.

Fr. Luigi Gambero, S.M.
is an internationally respected expert on Marian issues and early Church history.

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