Salve, mater Salvatoris: honoring the great woman in medieval Europe

In twelfth-century Europe, Christians were intensely devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Within “a prevailing climate of fevered Marianism,” the Christ of Christianity, like so many other men, became merely a nominal leading figure:

the cult of the Virgin had assumed such proportions and evoked so much fervour that the figure of the Mother Of Christ began to eclipse that of her Son {Jesus} and of all the apostles and saints. It might seem almost true to say that, in the later Middle Ages, the central object of the popular cult was in actual fact the Virgin Mary, exalted to the rank of Queen of Heaven, crowned with the twelve stars, and invested with all those human and tender attributes in which the early Church had first clothed the figure of the Saviour. [1]

Adam of Saint Victor’s early twelfth-century liturgical hymn (sequence) “Hail, O mother of our Savior {Salve, mater Salvatoris}” exemplifies intense devotion to Mary and its implications for men.

Mary, mother of Jesus, dominating little men

“Hail, O mother of our Savior” brings together many figures of Mary, including some that directly relate to men’s sexuality. The sequence begins in praise of Mary as an appropriate medium for bringing a savior to humanity:

Hail, mother of our Savior,
chosen vessel, honored vessel,
vessel of heavenly grace,
vessel foreseen from eternity,
noble vessel, vessel chiseled
by Wisdom’s hand!

{ Salve, mater Salvatoris,
vas electum, vas honoris,
vas caelestis gratiae,
ab aeterno vas provisum,
vas insigne, vas excisum
manu sapientiae! } [2]

The vessel in which Mary carried Christ to the world was literally her womb. Mary was a very special woman. But what about ordinary men? The next stanza separates Mary from disparaged masculine sexuality:

Hail, holy parent of the Word,
blossom from thorn, lacking thorn,
thorn tree’s glory and its flower:
we are the thorn tree, we suffer
bloodstains from our sins’ thorn-pricking;
you, however, know no thorn.

{ Salve, Verbi sacra parens,
flos de spina, spina carens,
flos, spineti gloria;
nos spinetum, nos peccati
spina sumus cruentati,
sed tu spinae nescia. }

The virgin Mary knowing no thorn identifies a thorn with a man’s penis.[3] The bloody sins of thorn-pricking are men’s sexual sins, especially in relation to virgin women. These sins are also women’s, since men get blamed for women’s sexual sins. Mary, like all women, had an ancestral thorn tree of fathers. But Mary, unlike any other mother before artificial insemination, thornlessly blossomed into pregnancy. Thorns typically evoke pain, yet ordinary women commonly delight in being subject to thorn-pricking. As this Latin Christian sequence and many other poetic texts make clear, men’s penises have an image problem.

The penis’s image problem is associated with devaluing men’s work. Historically, men have in net transferred a significant share of their laboriously earned resources to women. Moreover, men historically have done heavy work in agricultural fields — work such as plowing. “Hail, O mother of our Savior” devalues that men’s work:

You are a humble valley,
earth unsuited to the plow,
yet earth that brought forth fruit.
Blossom of the field,
singular lily of the valley,
Christ from you came forth.

{ Tu convallis humilis,
terra non arabilis
quae fructum parturiit,
flos campi, convallium
singulare lilium,
Christus ex te prodiit. } [4]

Men typically must labor to have an agricultural field produce fruit. Moreover, plowing is a common figure for men’s sexual work. Here, the virgin Mary produces the greatest fruit, Christ, without men’s agricultural or sexual work. Mary, as the sequence states explicitly, was a “singular lily of the valley.” In our age of ignorance and bigotry, many single women believe that they are most fruitful without men. Thought leaders have gone as far as to suggest that men aren’t necessary. Not surprisingly, the share of sexless marriages has risen as the share of agriculture in the economy has fallen.

Mary provides a model of women’s privilege that has extended far beyond her specific Christian life. Within the public life of today’s decaying democracies, Mary is Everywoman:

Singular is the palm you bear,
none on earth can be your equal,
none in heaven’s court above;
you, the praise of humankind,
are privileged with virtues
more than all the rest.

As the sun outshines the moon,
and the moon in turn the stars,
so is Mary worthier
than all creatures everywhere.
Light that knows no eclipse
is the virgin’s chastity.
Her immortal caring
is a never-failing ardor.

{ Palmam praefers singularem,
nec in terris habes parem,
nec in caeli curia;
laus humani generis
virtutum prae ceteris
habes privilegia.

Sol luna lucidior,
et luna sideribus;
sic Maria dignior
creaturis omnibus.
Lux eclipsim nesciens,
virginis est castitas;
ardor indeficiens
immortalis caritas. }

Education and media institutions have for decades sought to promote women’s self-esteem. Forty is the new thirty. Chastity is the burning ardor of the single woman who sleeps with man after man because she cares for them, or doesn’t. In any case, it’s the men’s fault. She still regards herself as a virgin. You must address her as she says. Everywoman is now like a non-Christian Virgin Mary.

Intense devotion to the Virgin Mary, like intense devotion to Everywoman today, tends to position men as women-servers. The medieval Latin sequence takes care not to endorse female supremacism:

O Mary, star of the sea,
singular in dignity,
above all ranks
are you ranked in heaven above.

Set at the highest pole,
commend us to your son,
so neither the terrors nor deceits
of our enemies cause us to stumble.

Standing ready for battle,
let us be safe under your protection.
May the perverse and crafty
force yield to your power, and
guile yield to your providence.

Jesus, Word of the highest Father,
watch over your mother’s servants,
absolve sinners, save them freely,
and shape us to the glory
of your splendor.

{ O Maria stella maris,
dignitate singularis,
super omnes ordinaris
ordines caelestium.

In supremo sita poli,
nos commenda tuae proli,
ne terrores sive doli
nos supplantent hostium.

In procinctu constituti
te tuente simus tuti,
pervicacis et versuti
tuae cedat vis virtuti,
dolus providentiae.

Iesu, Verbum summi Patris,
serva servos tuae matris,
solve reos, salva gratis,
et nos tuae claritatis
configura gloriae. } [5]

These men are mother’s servants. However, they at least recognize a true father and pray to Jesus, a fully masculine man.[6] Medieval Latin literature didn’t suppress the sighs of oppressed men. It stimulated men’s hearts in a heartless world of violence against men. It prevented gynocentrism from becoming wholly soulless.

Girls and boys in schools today are taught that “the future is female.” Modern science supports that dogma with empirical evidence of the women-are-wonderful effect and studies establishing that women are superior to men in social communication. Yet women dominated social communication in the past, women have long been regarded as wonderful, and human societies have long been resolutely gynocentric. While “the future is female” is merely current unquestionable dogma, that the past and present have been female are widely suppressed facts. To find enlightenment today, students must study medieval Latin songs such as “Hail, O mother of our Savior.”

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[1] Raby (1953) p. 365. The immediately preceding quote is from Ziolkowski (2018) vol. 1, p. 128 (section “Cistercians and the Virgin”).  Ziolkowski declared:

Veneration of the Mother of God belonged among the paramount manifestations of Christian practice. To go further, it reigned supreme in that same class.

Id. p. 129. For more extensive discussion of the importance of the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe, Adams (1904), Chapters 6, 10, 13.

[2] Adam of Saint Victor {Adamus Sancti Victoris}, “Hail, O mother of our Savior {Salve, mater Salvatoris},” st. 1, Latin text from Grosfillier (2008), my English translation drawing on that of Mousseau (2013) and Walsh (2012). The Latin text is freely available online in Blume & Bannister (1915) pp. 383-6 (no. 245). Mousseau reports no different between that Latin text and the Latin text of Grosfillier (2008). Mousseau (2008) pp. vii-i, 221-3. Mousseau’s English translation adheres to the literal meaning of the Latin words. Id. p. vii. Walsh’s English translation (with the help of Christopher Husch) faithfully imitates the Latin rhythmic meter, but not the Latin rhyme. Walsh (2012) pp. xxi-ii. My approach has favored accuracy over meter, while attempting to preserve more of the song of the sequence in following Walsh. Subsequent quotes above are from this sequence and have the same sources.

Scholarly work has identified Adam of Saint Victor as Adam Precentor. He wrote religious songs in Paris early in the twelfth century and was associated with the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris. On Adam’s biography, Fassler (1984) and Fassler (2011) pp. 207-10. I use the more common name Adam of Saint Victor to refer to Adam Precentor.

The title (first line) of the sequence, “Salve, mater salvatoris,” is literally translated as “Hail, mother of the Savior.” The sequence is commonly known according to a looser translation of that line, “Hail, O mother of our Savior.” I’ve used the latter form in referring to the sequence.

A list of manuscripts containing the sequence is available via Cantus. For an older Latin text and English translation, Wrangham (1881) vol. 2, pp. 218-25 (no. 73). Also readily available online is reasonably good Latin text and a poor-quality English translation. Another online English translation attempts to preserve the Latin rhyme and thus produces miserable English poetry. The best way to appreciate the poetry of the Latin original is simply to read it as best you can, even if you understand no Latin. Here’s a sung performance of the Latin sequence.

The liturgical hymn “Hail, O mother of our Savior” is more precisely called a sequence. A sequence is music traditionally song before the Gospel in the Christian Mass. For more information on sequences as liturgical music, see the Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia. Those who refer to a sequence as a hymn risk incurring the ire of learned specialists in medieval music. Within the liturgical calendar, “Hail, O mother of our Savior” occurs in the Mass of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on September 8.

[3] The thorn as a figure for the penis is attested elsewhere in medieval Latin literature. For example:

The thorny bushes bloom
with dancing flowers
that signify Venus, because the thorn pricks
and the flower offers blandishments.

{ vernant spinae floribus
Venerem, quia spina pungit, flos blanditur. }

Carmina Burana 68, “The pale star of Saturn, as Mercury sparkles {Saturni sidus lividum Mercurio micante},” 2.8-8, Latin text and English trans. from Traill (2018).

[4] Wrangham evocatively translated “terra non arabilis” as “soil that never felt the plow.” Wrangham (1881) v. 2, p. 221. Soil that has been plowed has been vitally important for the perpetuation and development of human civilization.

[5] Here I’ve split each stanza into two stanzas to make the poetry more accessible to ordinary readers today.

[6] Avoiding totalitarian gynocentrism, Adam of Saint Victor’s sequences centered on Mary commonly end with a plea to Jesus or God the Father. See “O Mary, star of the sea {O Maria, stella maris},” “Let us give solemn thanks of this day {Gratulemur in hac die},” “Hail, singular virgin, mother of our salvation {Ave, virgo singularis / mater nostri salutaris},” and “Hail, singular virgin, / portal of life, star of the sea {Ave, virgo singularis, / porta vitae, stella maris}.” Cf. “Let us adorn the temple of the heart {Templum cordis adornemus}” (for the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feb. 2). All these sequences are in Mousseau (2013).

Adam even went as far as to balance single motherhood with single fatherhood:

Made mother without a father,
she bore in time
the Word of the Father without mother.

{ Verbum patris sine matrre
facta mater sine patre
genuit in tempore. }

“Hail, singular virgin, / portal of life, star of the sea {Ave, virgo singularis, / porta vitae, stella maris}” st. 10, Latin text and English translation Mousseau (2013) pp. 156-7. Today, single fatherhood is much less recognized, and acute anti-men sex discrimination prevails in child custody rulings.

[image] The Virgin of Mercy (Mary the mother of Jesus dominating little men). Painting (tempera on oak panel), made about 1480. Preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest, Hungary). Image via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Adams, Henry. 1904. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

Blume, Clemens, and Henry Bannister. 1915. Liturgische prosen des überrgangsatiles und der zweiten epoche insbesondere di dem Adam von Sankt Victor zugeschrieben. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi 54. Leipzig: Reisland.

Fassler, Margot E. 1984. “Who Was Adam of St. Victor? The Evidence of the Sequence Manuscripts.” Journal of the American Musicological Society. 37 (2): 233-269.

Fassler, Margot. 2011. Gothic song: Victorine sequences and Augustinian reform in twelfth-century Paris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grosfillier, Jean. 2008. Les séquences d’Adam de Saint-Victor: étude littéraire (poétique et rhétorique), textes et traductions, commentaires. Turnhout: Brepols.

Mousseau, Juliet, trans. 2013. Adam of Saint-Victor. Sequences. Leuven: Peeters.

Raby, Frederic James Edward. 1953. A History of Christian-Latin Poetry: from the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages. 2nd Ed. (1st ed, 1927). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Walsh, Peter G., ed. and trans., with Christopher Husch. 2012. One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wrangham, Digby S., ed. and trans. 1881. The Liturgical Poetry of Adam of St. Victor: From the Text of Gautier. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co. Vols. 1, 2, 3.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2018. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Volume 1: The Middle Ages. Worldwide: OpenBook Publishers.

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