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The Marian Lyrics of Jacopone da Todi and Friar William Herebert: The Life and the Letter

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 55, 1998
pp. 221-238 | 10.1353/frc.1998.0050

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THE MARIAN LYRICS OF JACOPONE DA TODI AND FRIAR WILLIAM HEREBERT: THE LIFE AND THE LETTER It is not until the thirteenth century, largely under the influence of Franciscan spirituality, that the Middle Ages first saw the development of a rich tradition of Marian poetry. Indirectly, this tradition marks the culmination of centuries of patristic writing on Mary, beginning with the early Christian controversy over the exact nature of the Virgin Birth. During the early days of the Church's development, this controversy assumed crucial importance in the affirmation of Christ's divine paternity. In response to attacks against the Virgin Birth, the third-century writer Origen developed an original and effective defense. According to Marina Warner, "[b]y mining the multi-layered meaning of the word Logos, he [Origen] suggested that Mary had conceived Jesus at the words of the angel," a suggestion which "quickly acquired a literal stamp."1 Other Christian writers, including St. Ambrose and St. Thomas Aquinas, expanded the notion of Christ as Logos in their accounts of the Incarnation. St. Ambrose asserted explicitly that the Word was made flesh not through human seed but through the mystical breath of the Spirit, an assertion which St. Thomas affirmed through a rigorous series of deductive arguments, effectively proving that through the Incarnation the Virgin was the Mother of the Word of God.2 St. Thomas, moreover, envisioned Mary as having been specially instructed by Gabriel before the Incarnation on the mystery of the Word and the significance of the task she was about to accomplish. As a result of these various interpretations, Mary came to occupy a unique position in Biblical tradition. Of all the characters figured in the Bible, only she could be actually said to read the Logos. No one bears witness to the Bible's original incarnation of the Logos, where God says "'Let there be light'; and there was light." •Marina Warner, Alone ofAll Her Sex (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 37. 2See St. Ambrose's De Officiis 1.18.68-69, and St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles, 4.34. 221 Francisan Studies, 55 (1998) 222KATHRYN J. READY (Genesis 1:3) In this way, the Incarnation represents an unprecedented event—the single instance where a human being witnesses the enfleshment or the manifested meaning of the Logos. While God speaks to numerous figures throughout the Old Testament, none of them experience the creative power of His words. Mary alone fully comprehends the Logos, since she alone directly experiences its effects. On this subject, St. Thomas states: But one never reads the "Word of the Lord was made" Moses, or Jeremías, or one of the others. Yet thus uniquely was the union of God's Word to the flesh of Christ marked by the Evangelist: "The Word was made flesh," as was explained before.")3 Through the Incarnation Mary becomes, then, the quintessential Reader. For this reason, St. Ambrose casts Mary as the patron saint of readers, in which guise she often appears in medieval and Renaissance iconography, particularly in paintings of the Annunciation, where she is typically depicted bowing her head piously over a book.4 Mary's unique position as Reader indirectly explains her popularity as a subject for medieval devotional verse. Through the act of conceiving Christ Mary establishes a precedence for human interpretation of the Logos, literally endowing it with human meaning. In this sense, she is central to the Christian reader's understanding of the divine, and also the natural choice as Mediatrix.5 Origen's ingenious theory of the Virgin Birth thus '"Numquam autem legitur quod verbum Domini factum sit vel Moyses, vel Ieremias, vel aliquis aliorem. Hoc autem modo singulariter unionem Dei- Verbi ad carnem Christi désignât Evangelista, dicens [loan. I, 14], Verbum caro factum est, ut supra [cap. praec] expositum est." The Latin text is taken from the Leonine edition, as reproduced Hi St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. R. Bernier and F. Kerouanton (France: P. Lethielleux, 1957), 194, and the English translation from St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles: Book Four: Salvation, trans. Charles J. O'Neil (Garden City, New York: Image...