Mary merciful, unfailing advocate for medieval Christians

Lady, so great you are, such strength you bring,
who does not run to you, yet looks for grace,
his wish would seek to fly without a wing.

Not only does your kindness come to brace
our courage when we beg; often your free
favor arrives before our prayer’s race.

In you is mercy, in you is piety,
in you magnificence, in you the sum
of excellence in all things that come to be.

{ Donna, se’ tanto grande e tanto vali,
che qual vuol grazia e a te non ricorre,
sua disïanza vuol volar sanz’ ali.

La tua benignità non pur soccorre
a chi domanda, ma molte fïate
liberamente al dimandar precorre.

In te misericordia, in te pietate,
in te magnificenza, in te s’aduna
quantunque in creatura è di bontate. }[1]

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the most powerful person in medieval Europe. She wasn’t understood to be merely a fully divine mortal woman who loves her children, meaning all Christians. In medieval Christian understanding, Mary is also the greatest lawyer. She is a merciful, unfailing advocate for desperate petitioners and those facing dire judgment.

Virgin Mary commanding the Bishop of Chartres to bury cleric in honor

Héloïse of the Paraclete’s husband Peter wrote learned and eloquent hymns to Mary. Drawing upon the appeal to Mary as advocate in the eleventh-century Marian antiphon “Hail, Queen {Salve Regina},” Peter Abelard emphasized Mary’s importance:

The prayers of the faithful seek you,
the hearts of all sigh to you.
You, after God our unique hope,
have been appointed advocate for us.

To the mother of the Judge they flee for refuge,
those who from the wrath of the Judge run.
She is logically compelled to plead for them,
for she is formed to be mother for sinners.

{ Te requirunt vota fidelium,
Ad te corda suspirant omnium,
Tu spes nostra post Deum unica,
Advocata nobis es posita.

Ad judicis matrem confugiunt,
Qui judicis iram effugiunt,
Quae praecari pro eis cogitur,
Quae pro reis mater efficitur. }[2]

Abelard suffered the horror of castration, and also vicious verbal abuse. With his keen appreciation for injustices against men, Abelard went so far as to tell Mary that she owes the world her help:

Unique mother,
because ever virgin,
mother of God in that way,
the guilty cry to you.

To you we cry
and to you we sigh.
In strained cases
you aid us as an advocate.

Help in this specific way
you owe to the whole world
when as if by right
we plead to you.

This is your honor.
You were born for us,
so that you might be the gate of life
as Eve was the gate of death.

For this you were created,
for this, predestined.
Know the cause
and fulfill the effect.

You owe help to the world.
The world owes praise to you,
our hope after God.
You please God for us.

{ Singularis mater.
quia virgo semper.
mater et hac dei.
ad te clamant rei.

Ad te nos clamantes.
et te suspirantes
in districta causa
iuves aduocata.

Opem quodam modo
toti debes mundo.
quam velud ex iure
postulamus a te

Totum id honoris
nata es pro nobis.
ut sis vite porta
sicute mortis eva.

Ad hoc es creata.
ad hoc preelecta;
causam recognosce
et effectum comple.

Mundo debes opem.
mundus tibi laudem;
spes post deum nostra.
nobis deum placa. }[3]

Peter Abelard was a leading twelfth-century philosopher and logician. He didn’t understand imploring Mary for help as a folk practice or as pious comfort. According to Abelard, the logical structure of the cosmos and the Christian order of human salvation entailed Mary advocating for sinful humans. Of course, humans now without sin now believe otherwise.

In medieval Europe, Mary successfully advocated for those devoted to her despite their wide-ranging behavioral failures. For example, a thief who prayed to Mary for protection whenever he went thieving was caught and hung for his crimes. Mary supported his body for three days so that he didn’t suffocate and die in the noose. Having observed this holy miracle, justice officials pardoned the thief. In another case, a nun left her convent for years of debauchery, yet she still prayed every day to the Virgin Mary. Mary acted in the nun’s place in her absence so that none of her sisters knew that she had left. In addition, Mary mended the hair-shirt that the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket secretly wore late in the twelfth century. She did that needlework to coerce the Archbishop into forgiving an irresponsible priest who nonetheless was devoted to her.[4]

Virgin Mary supporting thief being executed

Mary wasn’t afraid to confront authorities directly on behalf of desperate petitioners. For example, a corrupt priest praised Mary and sought to serve her. Since he did wrong, obviously he didn’t serve Mary rightly. Nonetheless, after the Bishop ejected the priest from his chaplaincy, Mary confronted the Bishop with an ultimatum:

Know this for certain —
if tomorrow morning very early
you don’t call my chaplain
back to his service and his honorable status,
your soul to shame
within thirty days will depart
and suffer in the flames of Hell!

{ Ce saches tu certainement
Se tu li matinet bien main
Ne rapeles mon chapelain
A son servise et a s’enor,
L’ame de toi a desenor
Ains trente jors departira
Et es dolors d’infer ira. }[5]

Fearing Mary’s ultimatum, the Bishop restored the chaplain to his former position.

Among the medieval clergy of the eminent Marian cathedral at Chartres, a vicious, proud, and irresponsible cleric died. In general agreement about the cleric’s lack of worth, the clergy threw his dead body into a ditch. But the cleric had been devoted to praising and honoring Mary. In defense of her dead beloved, Mary dared to assail the Bishop of Chartres:

So do you think that it doesn’t annoy me
when you have turned your back on him,
that you have thrown him into a ditch?
I command that you pull him out!
Say to the clergy that I order that!
It can never be made up to me
unless this morning without delay
in great honor my beloved is buried
in the most beautiful place near the church.

{ Cuidies vos donc qu’il ne m’enuit
Quant vos l’aves si adosse
Que mis l’aves en un fosse?
Metes l’en fors je le comant!
Di le clergie que je li mant!
Ne me puet mi repaier
Se le matin sans delayer
A grant heneur n’est mis amis
Ou plus beau leu de l’aitre mis. }[6]

The Bishop of Chartres knew who ruled. He thus obeyed Mary’s order. Medieval men well understood women’s power, and no woman was more powerful than Mary.

Not understanding the Christian way, devils delighted in Mary turning the world upside-down in providing mercy to lowly outcasts. One devil exulted:

To Heaven above God leads more
peasants with white capes,
widowed women, aged crones,
the sick, the crippled, the bent,
the maimed, and hunchbacks,
than ones who look like beautiful gentlemen.
The silly, the chivalrous, the beautiful gentlemen,
all the beautiful ladies of great worth
who walk trailing white and grey fur,
kings, queens, dukes, and countesses,
come to Hell in great crowds.
But to Heaven go nearly all
the crippled, hunchbacks, and maimed.
To Heaven goes all the riffraff.
We get the grain and God the chaff!

{ Plus maine Dex ou ciel lassus
Des vilains aus blanches chapètes,
De veuves fames, de viellètes,
De mesiaus, de tors, de croçus,
De contrefaiz et de boçuz,
Qu’il ne face de bele gent.
Li fol, li preu, li bel gent,
Les beles dames de grant pris
Qui traynant vont ver et gris,
Roys, roynes, dus et contesses,
En enfer viènent à granz presses;
Mais ou ciel vont près tout à fait
Tort et boçu et contrefait.
Ou ciel va toute la ringaille;
Le grain avons et Diex la paille. }[7]

Rich persons going to Hell benefits devils who get to share in the worldly riches they bring — the furs and the grain. Heaven, in contrast, frees persons from their bodily infirmities.

One day in the court of the ultimate judge Jesus, Satan attempted to claim all of humanity. From a medieval Christian perspective, all humans other than Mary inherit the sin of Eve and Adam. Satan thus claimed the right to hold in Hell all of sinful humanity. Mary rose to advocate vigorously on behalf of fallen humanity. She declared to the most august judge:

Ah, lovely sweet son, I am your mother
who carried you nine full months.
You should be willing to listen to me.
I gave you birth in poverty
and brought you up very sweetly.
Your mother I am, mother you call me.
Lovely son, look at the breasts
with which I used to feed you,
and these hands, with which I knew how
to handle you and gently rock you.
My heart was pierced because of you
when you suffered the agony of death.
My whole heart breaks and is torn apart
every time I remember it,
but I must endure it.

{ Ha, beau douz filz, je suy ta mère,
qui te portey .IX. mois entiers:
tu me dois oïr volentiers.
Je t’enffantey mout pouvrement
et te nourri mout doucement.
Ta mère suy, mère m’apèles.
Beau filz, regarde les mamèles
de quoy aleitier te souloie,
et ces mains, dont bien te savoie
souef remuer et berchier.
Tu me feis le cuer perchier
quant tu souffris de mort l’angoisse.
Tout le cuer me ront et défroisse
toutes les foiz qu’il m’en souvient;
mèz endurer le me convient. }[8]

What man wouldn’t pity the poor dear, his very own mother? To the final judge Jesus, Mary even invoked the mortal motherly ploy:

I request that justice be done,
you having heard his arguments and mine.
If you love Satan more than me,
that would be completely against nature!
I only request from you to do justice.
I have never wronged anyone.
If you listen more to the devil
than to your mother or to her client,
then take me out of the Book of Life!

{ je requier que droit soit rendu,
oÿ ses rèsons et les moies.
Se Sathan miex que moy amoies,
se se[r]oit bien contre nature!
Je ne te requier que droiture:
onques à nul tort ne feis.
S’au Déable plus obéis
qu’à ta mère, n’à sa partie,
oste moy du livre de vie! }

What son could endure causing the death of his mother? Satan knew that his case was hopeless. He bitterly castigated the Virgin Mary:

You quarrel and say your reproaches,
you weep and moan and sigh,
you sob, and you rip your clothes.
You show your son your belly,
and such pity enters his heart
that you by force soften him up!
He accepts willingly your follies
when you show him your breast.
You so put him on your leash
that he doesn’t have the power to contradict you.
When you laugh, it’s necessary for him to laugh.
When you cry, he wants to cry.
He wants too much to honor you!

{ tu tenches et dis ces reprouches;
tu pleures et plains et souspires,
tu sanglotes, tu te dessires;
tu montres à ton fiz ton ventre,
et tel pitié u cuer li entre
que tu par force l’amolies!
Il prent à bon gré tes folies;
quant tu li monstres ta mamèle,
tu le treiz si à ta cordèle
qu’il ne t’a pover d’escondire!
Quant tu ris, il le convient rire;
quant tu pleures, il veut pleurer;
il te par veut trop hennourer! }

The judge Jesus rendered the obviously correct judgment:

All those of the human lineage
who have in devotion
repented and confessed
and died in contrition
will remain with us forever.
Let no one make further arguments.
very well has pleaded the Advocate,
the Virgin Mary, my mother.

{ que touz ceulz de l’Umain Lignage
qui auront par dévocïon
repentance et confessïon
et en contrictïon mourront,
devers nous sans fin demouront.
Nul n’i ait qui plus s’en débate;
mout a [bien] plèdié l’Advocate,
la Virge Marie, ma mère. }

Satan thus lost her Hellish claim to all those souls. In this medieval French court of law, Mary the mother of God walked all over Satan.[9]

Whether Peter Abelard, Dante Alighieri, or a thief facing execution, many throughout history have believed in Mary’s pervasive skills as an advocate in the supreme court. Men’s hope that a woman will save them surely contributed to pervasive, ardent Marian devotion in medieval Europe. The worldly component of Marian devotion still hasn’t been adequately realized. This failing is especially damaging in regard to penal justice systems that vastly gender-disproporationately incarcerate persons with penises. Women must do more to fulfill men’s hope in them.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it heard that anyone who ran to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, to you I run, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother, to you I come. Before you as a groaning sinner I place myself. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my words, but in your mercy hear and answer me.

{ Memorare, O piissima Virgo Maria, non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquam ad tua currentem praesidia, tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia, esse derelictum. Ego tali animatus confidentia, ad te, Virgo Virginum, Mater, curro, ad te venio, coram te gemens peccator assisto. Noli, Mater Verbi, verba mea despicere; sed audi propitia et exaudi. }[10]

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[1] Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy {Comedia}, Paradise {Paradiso} 33.13-21, medieval Italian text of Giorgio Petrocchi via Dartmouth’s Dante Lab, English translation (with minor modifications) from Esolen (2004). Robert Hollander has noted that vv. 19-20 echo Virgil’s Georgics IV.465-466. See the Princeton Dante Project. On this prayer in the context of ancient literature, Auerbach (1949).

Dante puts this Marian prayer in the mouth of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Ardently devoted to Mary, Saint Bernard declared: “God wills that we should have nothing that does not pass through Mary’s hands {Nihil nos Deus habere voluit, quod per Mariae manus non transiret}.” Bernard, Sermons for the Calendar {Sermones de tempore}, “For the vigil of the birth of the Lord {In vigilia nativitatis Domini}” III, 10, Latin text and English translation from Hollander’s commentary on Paradiso 33.14-5, via Dante Lab.

[2] Peter Abelard, Hymnal of the Paraclete {Hymnarius Paraclitensis}, Book 2, Festival Hymns {Hymni festorum}, “For the birth of the Lord {In Nativitate Domini}” 33 (For Lauds and Vespers {Ad laudes et ad vesperas}), stanzas 3-4, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Woods (1992) p. 59. Id., pp. 60-7, provides a detailed commentary on this hymn and explicates its sophisticated literary structure.

[3] Peter Abelard, Hymnal of the Paraclete {Hymnarius Paraclitensis}, Book 3, Sacred hymns {Hymni sanctorum}, “For the Festival of the Blessed Mary {In festis Beatae Mariae}” 80 (For Lauds {Ad Laudes}), Latin text and English translation (modified) from Domini res gestas narrare laudare est: Hymns of the Liturgica Horarum. On Abelard’s liturgical songs, Iversen (2003).

[4] The first two of these stories of miracles of the Virgin Mary exist in the collection of Gautier de Coinci, while the third is from Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend {Legenda aurea}. For a brief review of these stories, Adams (1904) pp. 258-60. The above stories aren’t unusual:

There is a whole class of miracles, known as the Rosary series, which were almost exclusively in favour of ignorant or immoral clerks.

Swinton Bland (1928) p. xxv. Id. and Underhill (1906) provide later collections of the miracles of the Virgin.

[5] Gautier de Coincy, The Miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, “About the priest whom the Blessed Virgin defended from injury {De presbitero quem beata Virgo defendit ab injuria}” / “About the priest that Our Lady defended from the injury that his bishop wanted to do him because he could only sing a mass of Our Lady {du prestre que nostre dame deffendi de l’injure que son evesque lui vouloit faire por ce que il ne savoit chanter que une messe de nostre dame},” Old French text from Bartsch & Horning (1887) cols. 365-6, English translation (modified) from Adams (1904) p. 263. Poquet (1889) cols. 323-6 is an inferior edition. Koenig (1961-66) is currently the best edition. Here’s a crosswalk for the miracles in Poquet and Koenig.

[6] Gautier de Coincy, The Miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame}, “About the cleric devoted to the Holy Virgin, in whose mouth when dead a flower was found {De Clerico Sancte Virgini devoto, in cuius iam mortui ore flos inuentus est},” Old French text from Bartsch & Horning (1887) col. 370, English translation (modified) from Adams (1904) pp. 264-5.

Mary, an ultimate authority in equity, was above normal authorities:

Mary’s wish was absolute law, on earth as in heaven. For her, other laws were not made. Intensely human, but always Queen, she upset, at her pleasure, the decisions of every court and the orders of every authority, human or divine

Adams (1904) p. 265.

[7] Gautier de Coincy, The Miracles of Our Lady {Les miracles de Nostre Dame},”About the peasant who with great effort learned half of his Hail Mary prayer {Du vilain qui à grant poine savoit la moitié de son Ave Maria},” vv. 206-19, Old French text from Poquet (1889) col. 622, English translation (modified) from Wood (1917) p. 173, n. 14, and Adams (1904) p. 276.

[8] The Advocacy of Our Lady {L’Advocacie Nostre Dame} vv. 1458-72, Middle French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Davis, Akehurst & Gérard (2011). For a freely available Middle French text, Montaiglon & Raynaud (1896).

L’Advocacie Nostre Dame is an Anglo-Norman poem of 2498 octosyllabic verses written between 1321 and 1324. Its anonymous author was probably a canon lawyer attached to the episcopal court of Bayeux. It survives in four manuscripts, the earliest of which was written in the first half of the fourteenth century. The author of L’Advocacie Nostre Dame apparently also wrote the similarly dated lawsuit poem, The Benefice of Our Lady’s Chapel in Bayeux {La Chapelerie Nostre-Dame de Baiex}. L’Advocacie Nostre Dame concludes with a version of the “Salve Regina” prayer. Davis, Akehurst & Gérard (2011) pp. xiii-xviii. For additional study of this text, Gros (1979) and Rao (2022).

L’Advocacie Nostre Dame is grouped with texts loosely called Satan’s Lawsuit {Processus Sathanae} or the Devil’s Lawsuit {Processus Belial}. The earliest known text of that broad type is the mid-twelfth-century legal case between Christ and the Devil, The Dispute between God and the Devil {Conflictus inter Deum et Diabolum}. A Dutch Processus Belial incuded in Jacob van Maerlant’s thirteenth-century Merlijn has similar plot elements to L’Advocacie Nostre Dame. Mary acts as advocate in Guido de Colmedio (Gui de Colle di Mezzo)’s The Advocacy of the Blessed Virgin Mary against the Devil on behalf of the Human Race {Advocacia beate Marie virginis contra demonem pro genere humano}. Davis, Akehurst & Gérard (2011) pp. xxviii-xxx. For more on the Processus Sathanae, Shoemaker (2011) and Hansen (2016) pp. 22-5.

Subsequent quotes above from L’Advocacie Nostre Dame are sourced as previously. Those quotes are vv. 1496-1504 (I request that justice be done…), 2256-68 (You quarrel and say your reproaches…), 2416-23 (All those of the human lineage…).

[9] Cf. Genesis 3:15, Romans 16:19-20. Recent decades of legal scholarship have engaged deceitfully with legal performance:

Most of all, these entertaining performances reminded audiences, as they remind us, that law was an artificial and ever-changing construct.

Skoda (2012) p. 306 (concluding sentence of the this article). Skoda isn’t referring to the performances of contemporary legal scholars. Those performances typically aren’t at all entertaining. She’s describing legal performance in medieval France such as those represented in miracles of the Virgin Mary and instances of Processus Sathanae.

Medieval European law was anchored in Roman law, God’s law, and the Virgin Mary acting in equity. Medieval law was less artificial and readily changeable than law in high-income western countries today. While legal scholars today regard law as “an artificial and ever-changing construct,” they show no concern about penal justices systems that vastly disproportionately incarcerate persons with penises. The legal academy today is arguably more disfunctional and less amusing than the basoche (guild of law clerks) in medieval France.

[10] This is the Marian prayer known as the “Memorore.” It was originally part of a late-fifteenth-century prayer, “At your feet of holiness, most sweet Virgin Mary {Ad sanctitatis tuae pedes, dulcissima Virgo Maria}.” The specific words of the “Memorore” stabilized only in the nineteenth century. So as to follow the Latin text more closely, I’ve slightly changed the most common English translation of this prayer.

[images] (1) The Virgin Mary commanding the Bishop of Chartres to bury in honor an irresponsible cleric devoted to her. Illumination from folio 209v of the Queen Mary Psalter. Made in England between 1310 and 1320. Preserved as British Library Royal MS 2 B VII. (2) The Virgin Mary supporting a thief being executed. Illumination from folio 206r of the Queen Mary Psalter. (3) Wilfridus dialogue between the Soul, Death, the Devil, an Angel, Mary, Christ, and God the Father. Illumination on folio 19r of British Library MS Additional 37049, a Carthusian miscellany made in England between 1460 and 1500. For modernized English for the middle English dialogue scolls in this painting, Hansen (2016) p. 18. The Wilfridus dialogue is an instance of the iconographic type that Ilko identified as the Ladder of Salvation {Scala Salutis}. The earliest known instance of the Scala Salutis iconography is a wall painting in the Saint James Church in Želiezovce, Slovakia. For thorough analysis, Ilko (2015).


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

Auerbach, Erich. 1949. “Dante’s Prayer to the Virgin (Paradiso XXXIII) and Earlier Eulogies.” Romance Philology. 3 (1): 1–26.

Bartsch, Karl and Adolf Horning. 1887. La Langue et la Littérature Françaises depuis le 9ème Siècle Jusqu’au 14ème Siècle: Textes et Glossaire. Précédés d’une Grammaire de L’ancien Français. Paris: Maisonneuve & C. Leclerc.

Davis, Judith M. and F. R. P Akehurst, trans. and Gérard Gros, 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).

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 2004. Dante Alighieri. Paradise. New York: Modern Library.

Gros, Gérard. 1979. “Le diable et son adversaire dans L’Advocacie Nostre Dame (poème du XIVe siècle).” In Le diable au Moyen Âge: Doctrine, problèmes moraux, représentations. Aix-en-Provence, France: Presses universitaires de Provence.

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.

Ilko, Krisztina. 2015. Salvation in Angevin Hungary: The Iconography of the Scala Salutis on the Fourteenth Century Wall Painting of Želiezovce. Master Thesis in Medieval Studies, Central European University, Budapest.

Iversen, Gunilla. 2003. “Pierre Abélard et la poésie liturgique.” In Jolivet, Jean, and Habrias, Henri, eds. Pierre Abélard: Colloque international de Nantes. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.

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

Montaiglon, Anatole de and Gaston Raynaud. 1896. L’Advocacie Nostre-Dame et La Chapelerie Nostre-Dame de Baiex, poème normand du XIVe siècle, imprimé en entier pour la première fois, d’après le manuscrit unique de la Bibliothèque d’Évreux. Paris: Académie des Bibliophiles.

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.

Rao, Sumant. 2022. “L’Advocacie Nostre Dame and the Professionalization of Canon Law Practice and Education in Fourteenth Century Anglo-Norman France.” Penn History Review. 28 (2): 9-34.

Shoemaker, Karl. 2011. “The Devil at Law in the Middle Ages.” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions. 4: 567-586.

Skoda, Hannah. 2012. “Legal Performances in Late Medieval France.” Ch. 9 (pp. 279-306) in Paul Dresch and Hannah Skoda, eds. Legalism: Anthropology and History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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.

Underhill, Evelyn. 1906. The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary; brought out of divers tongues and newly set forth in English. New York, USA: E. P. Dutton & Co. Alternate presentation.

Wood, Mary Morton. 1917. The Spirit of Protest in Old French Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Woods, Patricia Hilary. 1992. The Festival Hymns of Peter Abelard: A Translation and Commentary of the Hymnarius Paraclitensis Libellus II. Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Classics, University of Glasgow.

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