The Medieval Mary | The Introduction to Mary
in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
The Medieval Mary | The Introduction to Mary
in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
In an earlier publication, dedicated to the patristic era , 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
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. 
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.
READING: MARY'S TRUE ROLE IN THE ECONOMY OF SALVATION
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.
 Luigi Gambero, Mary
and the Fathers of the Church: The
Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, trans. Thomas Buffer (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).
 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
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,
"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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