Mary mother of God is fully divine woman in medieval literature

A young Jewish woman from provincial Nazareth, Mary the mother of Jesus came to be regarded in medieval Europe as the preeminent dispenser of justice. Mary from a Christian perspective is the mother of God. That of course means that God will do whatever Mary wishes. Despite her authority in relation to the maker of Heaven and earth, Mary didn’t stand apart from ordinary life. Medieval Christians understood Mary to be an ordinary, fully divine woman.

Consider Theophilus’s devilish problem in sixth-century Byzantium. A new bishop deprived Theophilus of his position as seneschal. He thus fell into despair and poverty. The devil, however, promised to restore Theophilus to his former status and to give him even greater wealth. Kneeling in homage, Theophilus signed with his own blood a contract to transfer his soul’s allegiance from God to the devil. Seven years later, Theophilus profoundly regretted his pact with the devil.

Theophilus making a pact with the devil and signing it with his own blood

What could Theophilus do to recover his soul? He needed help from the holy ones he had betrayed. But Theophilus lamented:

I dare not call on God by his signs or by his saints.
Alas! I have made with joined hands homage to the devil.
The demon has the documents sealed with my ring.
Wealth, you are wicked, from you I will have many pains!

I dare not by his signs or by his saints call on God,
nor on that very sweet Lady whom everyone should love.
But because she has no harshness or deceit,
if I cry to her for mercy, no one should blame me.

{ Je n’os Dieu réclamer ne ses sainz ne ses saintes,
Las! que j’ai fet hommage au déable mains jointes.
Li maufez en a lettres de mon anel empraintes.
Richesce, mar te vi: j’en aurai dolors maintes.

Je n’os Dieu ne ses saintes ne ses sainz réclamer,
Ne la tres douce dame que chascuns doit amer.
Mes por ce qu’en li n’a felonie n’amer,
Se je li cri merci nus ne m’en doit blasmer. }[1]

Not able to do anything else, Theophilus prayed fervently to Our Lady, Holy Mary, the Mother of God:

Holy, lovely Queen
glorious heavenly Virgin,
full of grace indeed,
in whom all virtues shine,
delivering from sin
those who call in need.
Those whose hearts shall turn
to your everlasting realm,
they shall have joy again.
O fountain, ever springing,
full of joy and healing,
call me to your Son.

{ Sainte roine bele,
Glorieuse pucele,
Dame de grâce plaine
Par qui toz biens revele,
Qu’au besoing vous apele
Delivrez est de paine,
Qu’à vous son cuer amaine
Ou pardurable raine
Aura joie novele;
Arosable fontaine
Et delitable et saine,
A ton Filz me rapele! }[2]

Theophilus continued to pray to Mary with another eight such stanzas. Then the mother of God peevishly interrupted him:

Who are you, you there, you who goes through here?

{ Qui es-tu, va, qui vas par ci? }[3]

Theophilus cried out in response:

Greetings, Lady! Have mercy on me!
It’s the miserable
Theophilus, the unhappy one
whom demons have bound and seized.
Now I’ve come to pray
to you, Lady, and to beg for mercy,
so that the devil won’t watch for the hour
that it will come to torment me,
it who has put me in such great misery.
Once you held me as your son,
lovely Queen!

{ Ha, Dame! aiez de moi merci!
C’est li chetis
Theophile, li entrepris
Que maufé ont loié et pris.
Or vieng proier
A vos, Dame, et merci crier
Que ne gart l’ore qu’asproier
Me viengne cil
Qui m’a mis a si grant escil.
Tu me tenis jà par ton fil,
Roine bele! }

The contrived fawning of courtly lovers annoys the Virgin Mary. She snapped at Theophilus:

I have no concern for your flattering babble.
Go away! Get out of my chapel!

{ Je n’ai cure de ta favele;
Va-t’en, is fors de ma chapele. }

Theophilus, however, had complete confidence in Mary’s compassion and mercy. He continued to plead to her:

Lady, I don’t dare.
Flowering sweet briar and lily and rose,
in whom the Son of God rests,
what shall I do?
I feel myself cruelly pledged
to the furious demon.
I don’t know what to do!
I will never stop singing to you,
Virgin, Noble Young Woman,
Honored Lady.
I know well that my soul will be devoured
if I’m stuck in Hell
with Cain.

{ Dame, je n’ose.
Flors d’eglentier et lis et rose
En qui li fils Dieu se repose,
Que ferai gié?
Malement me sent engagié
Envers le maufé enragié.
Ne sai que fere!
James ne finirai de brere,
Virge, pucele debonere,
Dame honoree,
Bien sera m’ame devoree
Qu’en enfer sera demorree
Avoec Cahu. }

Although she can be prickly like a sweet briar, Mary never fails those who sincerely and urgently beg for her help. So it was for Theophilus. Mary said to him:

Theophilus, I knew you
in the past when you had served me.
Know for sure that
I shall act for you to regain your covenant
that you gave away by ignorance.
I’ll go search for it.

{ Theophile, je t’ai seu
Ca en arriere a moi eu.
Saches de voir,
Ta chartre te ferai r’avoir,
Que tu baillas par nonsavoir:
Je la vois querre. }

Mary then confronted the devil and demanded that it hand over its contract with Theophilus. The devil refused. Mary then raised her cross, struck the devil in the teeth and trod upon it, and then forcibly seized the contract. She gave it back to Theophilus.

Mary retrieving contract from devil and saving Theophilus

Even given Mary’s mercy and compassion, making a pact with the devil has consequences. Mary instructed Theophilus to have the bishop read Theophilus’s devilish contract before all the people to serve as a warning to them. That public reading would also serve as a public confession of Theophilus’s wrong. Confession is a step that all should be willing to take to save their souls. This medieval story of Theophilus’s pact with the devil ends with praise for the fully divine woman Mary and almighty God.

The fully divine woman Mary also helped a knight in love with a beautiful woman. He was in despair because that woman was spurning him. An abbot advised him to seek help from Mary the mother of God. So the knight did. Every day for a whole year he pleaded to Mary to warm the heart of his beloved and prompt her to love him. After a year of ardent prayer to Mary, she appeared to him:

The mother of God, who to many a wretch
has brought relief from wretchedness,
by her infinite goodness,
by her courteous courteousness,
she swiftly showed herself
to the one who had called and pleaded to her.
She was crowned with a crown
full of precious stones,
so sparkling, so precious,
that an eye nearly lost its sight.
She was bright and also luminous
and resplendent like a ray
of the summer morning sun.
So beautiful and bright was her face
that one who can look at her enough
is washed in a new birth by the fire of her face.
“She who has made you sigh
and has brought you to such a large error,”
said Our Lady, “Tell me, beautiful sweet friend,
is she more beautiful than I?”

{ La Mère Dieu qui maint chétif
A retrait de chétivité
Par sa grant débonnaireté
Par sa courtoise courtoisie,
Au las qui tant l’apèle et prie
Ignélement s’est demonstrée.
D’une coronne corronnée
Plaine de pierres précieuses,
Si flambolanz, si précieuses,
Pour pou li euil ne li esluisent.
Si nètement ainsi reluisent
Et resplendissent com la raie
Qui en esté au matin raie.
Tant par a bel et cler le vis,
Que buer fu nez, ce li est vis,
Qui s’i puest assez mirer.
“Cèle qui te fait soupirer
Et en si grant erreur t’a mis,”
Fait nostre dame, “biau douz amis,
Est ele plus bele que moi?” }[4]

What woman could be more beautiful than the mother of God? For a right-thinking medieval man, no woman could be. Mary was testing the knight like women test husbands and boyfriends by asking, “Do I look fat?” It’s a difficult situation:

The knight was so terrified
of her brilliance that he didn’t know what to do.
He clasped his hands in front of his face.
He had such shame and such fear
that he fell to the ground in fear.
But she in whom pity is abundant
said to him, “Beloved, now have no doubt.
I am she, without any doubt,
who you should have as your beloved.
Now, take care of what you will do.
She whom you love best
among us two will be your beloved.”

{ Li chevaliers a tel effroi
De la clarté, ne sai que face.
Ses mains giète devant sa face.
Tel hide a et tel fréeur
Chaoir se laisse de fréeur;
Mais cèle en cui pitiez est toute
Li dist: “Amis, or n’aies doute;
Je suis cèle, n’en doute mie,
Qui te doi faire avoir t’amie.
Or, pren garde que tu feras.
Cèle que tu miex ameras
De nous ii auras à amie.” }

The knight chose the only reasonable course of action given the circumstances. He gave up his former worldly love for a worldly woman, withdrew from the world, and spent the rest of his days loving the lovely Mary and praying in devotion to her. When he died a year later, Mary carried his soul to Heaven.

As the knight surely understood, Mary could be a jealous mother of God. Consider another case in which a man was preparing to be a priest. Like many holy men do, every day he prayed to Mary, the Queen of Heaven. This man’s relatives urged him to marry so as to have an heir for family property. He reluctantly agreed. On his wedding day, despite his friends and relatives’ objections, he left the wedding feast to pray to Mary according to his usual practice. While he was in prayer, Mary appeared to him:

Angrily the Mother of the King of Paradise
took him and said:
“Tell me, tell me, you who long ago
loved me so with all your heart,
why have you thrown me in filth?
Tell, tell me, where then is she
who is better and more beautiful than me?

Why, why, oh harsh-burning,
oh betraying, oh deceiving one,
why have you left me for a tiresome woman,
I who am the Queen and Lady of Heaven?
Could you make such a very bad exchange,
you who would take a strange woman,
and leave me, who with true love loves you
and who already has in Heaven prepared for you
in my chambers a lavish bed
for your soul to rest in great delight?
What a great wonder for you to make such a mistake!
Unless you quickly take other advice,
in Heaven your bed will be unmade,
and in the flames of Hell it will be remade.

{ Iréement li prent à dire
La Mère au Roy de paradis:
“Di moi, di moi, tu que jadis
M’amoies tant de tout ton coeur,
Pourquoi m’as tu jeté puer?
Di moi, di moi, où est dont cèle
Qui plus de moi bone est et bèle?

Pourquoi, pourquoi, las durfeus,
Las engignez, las déceuz,
Me lais pour une lasse fame,
Qui suis du ciel Royne et Dame?
Enne fais-tu trop mauvais change,
Qui tu por une fame estrange
Me laisses, qui par amors t’amoie
Et jà ou ciel t’apareilloie
En mes chambres un riche lit
Por couchier t’ame à grand delit?
Trop par as faites grant merveilles.
S’autrement tost ne te conseilles,
Ou ciel serra tes lits deffaiz,
Et en la flamme d’enfer faiz. }[5]

The right course of action was obvious. The man returned to the wedding feast and announced that he was leaving his new bride to dedicate himself in holy life to Mary the mother of God. That’s not as shocking and cruel as Valerian’s wedding night experience with Cecilia and her threatening angel lover. But surely the bride was distraught that she wouldn’t enjoy her husband’s wonderful, life-generating love.[6] No woman, however, could realistically hope to be more beloved of medieval Christian men than Mary.

Clerk of Pisa: clerk forced to marry, but Mary intervenes and insists that he should marry her

Despite assertions to the contrary in modern myths, women controlled medieval European society, and Mary the mother of God above all. Medieval devils complained bitterly about Mary’s absolute rule:

In Heaven and earth the Lady is more
by far than God himself.
He loves her and believes her so
that there’s nothing she can do or say
that he’ll refuse to do or contradict.
What she wants is believed to be right,
though she say that black is white
and that muddy water is fully clear.
God’s command: “My mother says, so it shall be!”

{ En ciel et en terre est plus Dame
Par un petit que Diex ne soit.
Il l’aimme tant et tant la croit,
N’est riens qu’elle face ne die,
Qu’il desveile ne contredie.
Quant qu’elle veut li fait acroire,
S’elle disoit la pie est noire
Et l’eue trouble est toute clere.
“Si diroit il voir, dit ma Mère!” }[7]

As the mother of God, Mary was special. Medieval literature, however, depicted Mary as an ordinary, fully divine woman. Both women and men could thus easily relate to Mary. Anyone who seriously studies the medieval cult of Mary will learn more about gender from that cult than from studying all the ridiculous, cultic articles that modern gender scholars publish. Given the fanaticism of modern gender dogmatists and the oppressive powers of their propaganda and penal apparatuses, it’s a miracle that we are still permitted to read the medieval miracles of “Our Lady {Nostre Dame}.”

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Rutebeuf, The Miracle of Theophilus {Le Miracle de Theophile} vv. 424-31, Old French text from Kressner (1885) p. 206ff, my English translation, benefiting from that of Axton & Stevens (1971). The edition of Jubinal (1839) is available in electronic form. The Old French text of Zink (1989) is available from the Rutebeuf website.

Rutebeuf was a Paris-based poet-singer who flourished in the middle of the thirteenth century. He produced a large corpus of various genres of poetry.

Le Miracle de Theophile is a version among many accounts of the sixth-century Theophilus of Adana’s legendary pact with devil. Theophilus is rooted in ancient Greek words for “lover of God.” On the Theophilus legend in medieval manuscripts and images, Root (2017) and Cothren (1984).

In a legend arising between the seventh and ninth centuries and associated with the life of Saint Basel, Proterius gave his soul to the devil in exchange for a woman’s love. See my post on Hellish bureaucracy. On pacts with the devil from the early fourteenth century to the present, Hansen (2016).

[2] Rutebeuf, Le Miracle de Theophile vv. 432-43, Old French text from Kressner (1885), English translation from the nice verse rendition of Axton & Stevens (1971).

[3] Rutebeuf, Le Miracle de Theophile v. 540, Old French text from Kressner (1885), my English translation, benefiting from that Axton & Stevens (1971) and notes and translation of Bauer & Slocum (undated).

Subsequent quotes from Le Miracle de Theophile are similarly sourced. They are vv. 541-51 (Greetings, Lady!…), 552-3 (I have no concern for your flattering babble…), 554-66 (Lady, I don’t dare…), 567-72 (Theophilus, I knew you…).

[4] Gautier de Coincy, The miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, About a knight to whom Our Lady appeared when he was praying {D’un chevalier a qui Nostre Dame s’aparut quant il oroit} vv. 184-203, Old French text from Poquet (1889) column 537, my English translation, benefitting from that of Adams (1904) p. 270. Poquet’s edition is “incomplete and very faulty {incomplète et très fautive}” Kjellman (1921) p. 588, n. 1. Unfortunately, it’s the best edition readily available to me. The current best edition apparently is Koenig (1961-66). The subsequent quote above is similarly from this miracle, vv. 204-15.

Gautier de Coincy wrote early in the thirteenth century and drew upon a developed tradition of miracles of the Virgin Mary. Most of his miracles are translated from Latin sources. David (2009) p. 154. Guatier’s D’un chevalier a qui Nostre Dame s’aparut quant il oroit drew upon the Latin Sermon on the conception of blessed Mary {Sermo de conceptione beatae Mariae}. Kjellman (1921) pp. 592-4. “The predominant images of Mary in Gautier’s oeuvre are beauty, power, and compassion.” David (2009) p. 158. For a later medieval miracle collection in English translation, Swinton Bland (1928).

Showing sensitivity to men’s disadvantaged position under Christianity, Gautier de Coincy repeatedly present the idea of being married to Mary in one’s heart. For example, he wrote:

Let us marry the Virgin Mary.
No one can mis-marry with her.
Know for truth
that one who marries her
can never marry higher.

{ Marions nous a la virge Marie.
Nus ne se puet en li mesmarïer.
Sachiez de voir,
a li que se marie
Plus hautement ne se puet marïer. }

Gautier de Coincy, Book 1, Song 4, stanza 4, Old French text from Koenig (1966) vol. 1, p. 30, English translation (modified) from Davis, Akehurst & Gérard (2011) p. 121. Medieval nuns and other holy women commonly understood themselves to be brides of Christ. Being married to the Virgin Mary provided for clerics and other holy men a gender-counterpart to being a bride of Christ.

[5] Gautier de Coincy, The miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, About a clerk who married a woman and then left her {Du clerc qui fame espousa et puis la lessa} vv. 282-98, 297-310, Old French text from Poquet (1889) column 637, my English translation, benefiting from that of Adams (1904) p. 271.

This miracle, known as The Clerk of Pisa {Le clerc de Pise} or The Clerk of Rome, occurs in a variety of versions. Kraemer (1950) includes a study of Gautier’s sources. For an early Latin version, Ristucca (2018). For an early review of The Clerk of Pisa miracle type, Baum (1919) pp. 552-4.

Women’s competitiveness toward women love rivals has long been recognized. An ancient Aesop fable told of two woman who tried to make their beloved man look more suitable for each of them:

A woman, no rustic, hiding her old age with elegance,
kept hold on a certain middle-aged man.
A beautiful young woman had also captured his soul.
Both women, desiring to appear the same age as him,
began in turn to pluck out his hair.
While he thought the women’s care was grooming him,
he was quickly made bald, for by the roots
the young woman pulled out his white hair and the old woman his black hair.

{ Aetatis mediae quendam mulier non rudis
tenebat, annos celans elegantia,
animosque eiusdem pulchra iuvenis ceperat.
ambae, videri dum volunt illi pares,
capillos homini legere coepere invicem.
qui se putaret fingi cura mulierum,
calvus repente factus est; nam funditus
canos puella, nigros anus evellerat. }

Phaedrus, fable 2.2, “An old woman in love with a younger man, and a young woman in love with him, too {Anus diligens iuvenem, item puella}, Latin text from Perry (1965), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The fable is identified as Perry 31. Laura Gibb’s excellent Aesop fables sites provides a variety of alternate versions.

[6] The extent of ideological obfuscation around medieval gender can scarcely be exaggerated. For example, in discussing medieval women’s wide range of choices for a husband, a British Library blog post began:

Career options for medieval women were limited. If they were lucky they could choose between getting married or entering a convent. For some, the latter was preferable to becoming a wife, who was often treated as little more than one of her husband’s possessions.

Westwell (2014). In historical reality, medieval women and men didn’t think in terms of “career options.” They thought about how they could acquire resources to take care of their family and themselves and have their own children. Medieval women had better opportunities to marry than did medieval men. A young medieval woman who had useful skills in making food, clothing, and utensils and who wasn’t a shrew or a whore typically didn’t need luck to get married. A woman was much more likely to become a domestic servant or even a farm laborer than to enter a convent. Medieval husbands typically didn’t treat their wives as merely one of their possessions. Medieval men themselves found belief in husbands ruling over their wives to be laughable.

[7] Gautier de Coincy, The miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, About a monk who had perished because of his sin and that Our Lady resuscitated {Du moine que Nostre-Dame resuscita qui estoit péris par son péchié} vv. 178-86, Old French text from Poquet (1889) column 463, my English translation, benefiting from that of Adams (1904) p. 274.

[images] (1) Theophilus {Theophile} making a pact with the devil and signing it with his own blood. Excerpt (color enhanced) from folio 255v of Book of Hours, Use of Maastricht (The Maastricht Hours) made in the first quarter of the fourteenth century. Preserved as British Library, Stowe MS 17 (alternate version). (2) Mary retrieving contract from devil and saving Theophilus. Illumination from instance of Gautier de Coinci, Miracles of Our Lady {Miracles de Nostre Dame}, made in Paris in 1327 by Jean de Senlis (scribe), Fauvel Master (illuminator). Excerpt of folio 6v from The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek National {Library of the Netherlands}, MS 71 A 24. (3) Clerk shows Mary a wedding ring indicating that he is being forced to marry a worldly woman. Mary, however, insists that the clerk must marry her (clerk of Pisa miracle). Similarly from Gautier de Coinci, Miracles de Nostre Dame, excerpt of folio 20v of KB, MS 71 A 24.


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

Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Baum, Paull Franklin. 1919. “The Young Man Betrothed to a Statue.” PMLA. 34 (4): 523-579.

Bauer, Brigitte L.M. and Jonathan Slocum. Undated. “Old French Online: Lesson 9.” Linguistics Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Cothren, Michael W. 1984. “The Iconography of Theophilus Windows in the First Half of the Thirteenth Century.” Speculum. 59 (2): 308-341.

David, Judith M. 2009. ‘The “Imaginative Theology” of Mary in Medieval French Literature.’ Marian Studies. 60 (9): 150-172.

Davis, Judith M. and F. R. P Akehurst, trans. and Gros Gérard, ed. 2011. Our Lady’s Lawsuits in L’advocacie Nostre Dame (Our Lady’s Advocacy); and La Chapelerie Nostre Dame De Baiex (the Benefice of Our Lady’s Chapel in Bayeux). Tempe, AZ: ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

Hansen, Janice. 2016. Redeeming Faustus: Tracing the Pacts of Mariken and Faust from the 1500s to the Present. Ph.D. Thesis, Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School.

Kjellman, Hilding. 1921. “Sur deux épisodes de Gautier de Coincy.” Romania. 47 (188): 588-594.

Koenig, Frederic V., ed. 1961-66. Gautier de Coincy. Les miracles de Notre Dame. Geneve: Droz.

Kraemer, Erik von. 1950. Du clerc qui fame espousa et puis la lessa, miracle de Gautier de Coinci, publié d’après quinze manuscrits. Helsinki: Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae.

Kressner, Adolf, ed. 1885. Rustebuef’s Gedichte: nach den Handschriften der Pariser National-Bibliothek. Wolfenbüttel: Zwissler.

Perry, Ben Edwin, ed. and trans. 1965. Babrius and Phaedrus Fables. Loeb Classical Library 436. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Poquet, Alexandre, ed. 1889. Les miniatures des miracles de la Sainte Vierge, d’après le manuscrit de Gautier de Coincy (fin du XIIIe siècle). Reims: Impr. de Matot-Braine.

Ristuccia, Nathan J. 2018. “The Clerk of Rome: A Miracle of the Virgin before the Twelfth-Century Reforms.” Revue Bénédictine. 128 (2): 327-346.

Root, Jerry. 2017. The Theophilus Legend in Medieval Text and Image. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. Review by Marie Charbonnel and by Richard K. Emmerson.

Swinton Bland, C. C., trans. 1928. Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Johannes Herolt, called Discipulus (1435-1440); translated from the Latin, with a preface and notes by C.C. Swinton Bland and an introduction by Eileen Power. London: Routledge.

Westwell, Chantry. 2014. “Choosing a Husband: Brains or Brawn, Money or Looks?” British Library, Medieval manuscripts blog, post on July 24, 2014.

Zink, Michel, ed. and trans. (French). 1989. Rutebeuf. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Éd. Classiques Garnier.

4 thoughts on “Mary mother of God is fully divine woman in medieval literature”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *