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Essays in Medieval Studies 18 (2001) 67-82

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Devotional Ambivalence:
The Virgin Mary as "Empresse of Helle"

Kate Koppelman
University of California, Santa Barbara

This essay takes as its object of study a Middle English miracle of the Virgin in which Mary's intercessory powers prove to be both merciful and aggressive. The tale of Theophilus, a clerk who makes a pact with the devil and then prays to the Virgin for aid, introduces a Mother of God who descends into Hell. She is "a quene of vengeaunce," according to one form of the text, not the familiar Marian image of intercessory grace. 1 Through an investigation of Mary's capacity for anger and violence, I am proposing a re-reading of the complex relationship between the medieval Marian devotee and this sublime woman. My argument assumes that any devotional relationship is based on a certain symbolic and emotional intimacy. It further suggests that such an intimacy is fraught with sentiment and its concomitant passional vagaries. In proposing such a re-reading, I am relying upon Lacanian theories of emotional attachment which emphasize ambivalence and aggressivity in such intimate relationships.

Lacan's interest in an object's potential aggressivity--or a subject's aggressivity towards her objects--is a reformulation of Freud who argues that ambivalence "is dominant in the majority of our intimate relations with other[s] . . . [and includes] hostile feelings . . . as much an indication of an emotional tie as the affectionate ones." 2 My reading of the intimacy of Marian piety suggests that the attitude of Mary towards her devotees, as well as the attitudes of those devotees towards the Mother of God might be inflected with and productive of what I will call "devotional ambivalence." I understand devotional ambivalence to mean that contradictory emotions and expectations trouble both the focus of devotion (in this case, the Virgin), and those who look to her for solace. I do not mean to suggest that Mary is indecisive, but instead that she is unpredictable in her affections [End Page 67] and actions. I here hope to call attention to the precise nature of the devotional intimacy engendered by Mary in the later centuries of the Middle Ages in England.

Attention to Mary's ambiguity and ambivalence can help to correct what I see as a modern mistaken view that, for a late medieval devotional audience, the Mother of God was always a passive font of mercy and grace and that she acted only as a direct suppliant to a higher divine order figured in her son or God. 3 My reading of these miraculous texts suggests a fuller view of this sublime woman, a view with which late medieval English audiences were most certainly familiar. Representations of Mary which reflect a devotional ambivalence should be understood as a product of a culture which was itself troubled by various threats to its stability. Such threats came not only from brigands, thieves, and revolutionaries, but from positions of assumed constancy as well (through the threat of tyranny, schism, and heresy). Michael Goodich claims that, instead of reflecting the prevailing uncertainty of the times, miracle stories served to correct the problems of such a troubled society:

Nevertheless, on the deepest level of faith in the transcendent, late medieval culture does appear to posses some semblance of unity, which finds expression in times of great fear and distress, when the innocent suppliant appeals for divine aid against the exigencies of a violent and unjust world. 4

This essay does not accept such a view of late medieval devotion or the role miracle stories played in it. In fact, the representations of Mary to which I will here call attention should be read alongside other representations of the divine throughout late medieval England which were themselves characterized by complexities and potential confusions of devotion and faith. 5 Such relationships have been the focus of scholars such as Sarah Beckwith, Miri Rubin, Caroline Walker-Bynum and others. But the relevant "object of devotion" with which the devotee could be expected to have an ambivalent (or...