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Book reviews >


Boydell Press £45 (0-9546809-0-1)

A GOTHIC SERMON: Making a contract with the Mother of God, Saint Mary of Amiens by Stephen Murray

University of California Press £26.95 (0-520-23847-8)

THE publication of The Church and Mary, papers given at meetings of the Ecclesiastical History Society in 2001 and 2002, is both welcome and timely.

It is welcome because of the serious attention it pays to the often neglected place of Mary throughout the Christian tradition, and timely because it offers some important material for reflection ahead of the publication, later this year, of the ARCIC report on Mary.

This collection represents an inter-disciplinary interest — textual, theological, historical, gender-critical — that is broadly Euro- and Anglo-centric. These are hardly narrow limits: they allow contributions to range from the late fourth century in the Ancient East to the second half of the 20th century in Oxford, and contemporary Ethiopia.

There are no formal sub-divisions, but certain of the contributors offer essays of substance which inevitably form a staging-post between the more specialist interests. The first of these is from Averil Cameron on the cult of the Virgin in the fourth century, which introduces essays on the Nestorian controversy, gender and patronage issues attached to the term Theotokos , eighth- and 12th-century Marian typology, and a discussion of cultic realism.

Although some discussion in these essays is highly specialised, the range of interests — artistic, cultic, liturgical, and political — that they cover attains a standard that approaches the high-watermark of Marina Warner’s Alone of all her Sex.

Henry Mayr-Harting’s essay on the idea of the Assumption in the West from 800 to 1200 provides one of the most useful contributions in this collection.

Mapping out the transition in the West from the accepted understanding of Mary’s spiritual assumption to a bodily and material one, Mayr-Harting points to the wildfire spread of Elisabeth of Schönau’s vision of Mary’s bodily assumption, to the influence of the Cathars, and to the corporeality of devotion and devotional art in the late 12th century.

The essays that explore the later  Middle Ages also tell us something about the influences of culture and imagination in the formation of Christian tradition, and the extent to which those forces can renew or suffocate the articulation and witness of faith in any given generation.

Here history provides us with an object lesson in how to assess the inheritance of the past, and recognise the cultural and imaginative boundaries within which our present is equally circumscribed. 

The second half of this collection, in which the quality of material is less uniform, could well be read as a commentary on the immaculate conception as a process of reception.

 Essays that focus beyond Roman Catholicism outline the issues attached to the exercise of authority, and the ecumenical difficulty with the recent — in terms of tradition — definitions of the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption of Mary. This is history as allegory: for infallibility read autonomy, and we quickly realise what damage can be done by unilateral action.

Returning to an earlier era, Stephen Murray introduces us to an annotated and illustrated edition of a 13th-century sermon in which the energy of communication bubbles over with enthusiasm for fresh expressions of the veneration of motherhood — of Mary, of the Church, and of the Mother Church of the diocese of Amiens. 

The text indicates that clergy haven’t changed, though the good news is that sermons are now generally a great deal shorter. This one seems to have been from a visiting preacher who knew how to woo his congregation, addressing them throughout as “beloved”, sending up the clergy, and indulging in a banter reminiscent of Frankie Howerd — “And you, madam, yes, you!”

This is a book for the specialist. But it reminds us that the tradition we might regard as dead once lived, and perhaps more colourfully than we think we do now.

The Revd Martin Warner is Canon Pastor at St Paul’s Cathedral.

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