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Scribit Mater: Mary and the Language Arts in the Literature of Medieval England (review)
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In the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary’s importance as theotokos extended beyond her symbolic figurations as chastity and obedience in the Church. In her new book Scribit Mater: Mary and the Language Arts in the Literature of Medieval England, Georgiana Donavin surveys a range of late medieval English texts that construct Mary as a figure of intellectual power and as an emblem of language studies and rhetoric. Building upon the ground-shifting feminist historical studies of Caroline Walker Bynum, which identify the empowering features of the medieval iconography of the Virgin, Donavin’s book cultivates a new image of Mary as a magistra whose impressive level of achievement in the areas of language, poetry, and song made her a divine model for imitation at every stage of learning.

Chapter 1 examines representations of the Virgin Mary as the abstract figure of Wisdom in a range of works, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to Lydgate’s fifteenth-century Life of Our Lady, in order to provide a context for the book’s focus on Mary’s linguistic roles. John Gower’s Mirour de l’omme, which advocates the pious practice of imitatio Mariae, recalls thirteenth-century continental works like St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs that present Mary as wise woman. This chapter shows that the Virgin was not connected to the figure of Wisdom solely through scripture; it was in the literature, poetic and pedagogical, that Mary also became figured as “a powerful linguistic intermediary” and sometimes even as “a force for a radical literature that realigns spiritual and social roles” (26).

Having established a methodology that combines medieval rhetorical theory and history, in chapter 2, Donavin begins to explore the phenomenon of Mariology as it developed within the university context of Paris and Oxford in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For instance, Donavin discusses Mary’s importance to two textbooks boys might have used in their university careers. John of Garland, the English schoolmaster who permanently moved to France, composed the Epithalamium Beate Virginis Marie and the Parisiana Poetria, which represent the Virgin as the purest and highest teacher of the liberal arts and language studies. While the focus on medieval English practices is limited in this chapter because so many of John of Garland’s developments occurred on the continent, it succeeds by drawing attention to popular educational manuals that reinforced biblical assertions that Mary bore the Word. Developing the association between the Virgin mother and the birth of language into a method of pedagogical practice, John of Garland wrote Mary into the trivium arts of grammar and rhetoric, insisting on “the continued guidance of the Mother, or feminine divine, in language learning” (16–17). Students learned to venerate Mary as the Lady Rhetorica, whose intellectual powers, if properly emulated, could lead to a more perfected speech, a knowledge of holy grammar, and a heightened sense of piety.

Given Donavin’s belief that “medieval academic preparation, including theory and practice in the trivium, teaching texts, and contemporaneous linguistic debates, informs the writings of medieval English authors on the Virgin Mary” (19), it is appropriate that the next chapter begins an exploration of a variety of Anglo-Latin poetry that expressed both the pedagogical power and musical lyric associated with Mary. The work of Walter of Wimborne, John of Howden, and Richard Rolle demonstrates the way in which Marian musical verse was thought to inspire pious meditation. Marian texts composed of verse that were used to teach in the classroom were also helpful in the development of devotional poetic verse, proving the important connection between medieval pedagogical practice and lay religious expression.

Chapter 4 suggests the implications of Marian instruction upon Chaucer’s work, specifically his poetic prayer to the Virgin An ABC, The Prioress’s Tale and The Second Nun’s Tale. Donavin finds an effective framework through which to understand these works in the pedagogical practices of the fourteenth-century dame schools, which incorporated songs of Marian praise into instruction of basic language skills. In An ABC, basic English phrases are taught to adult language learners through devotional prayers to “dame” Mary; in The Prioress’s Tale, the narrator reconstructs biblical associations...

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