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  • Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theatre, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England
  • Kevin Babbitt
Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theatre, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England. By Theresa Coletti. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004; pp. 360. $59.95 cloth.

The vita of Mary Magdalene has historically been a site of contention. Although existing evidence suggests otherwise, she has been identified as both the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and the unnamed woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair. It comes as little surprise, then, that her portrayal in the medieval saint play preserved in Bodleian Library MS Digby 133, commonly referred to as the Digby Mary Magdalene, should be characterized by author Theresa Coletti as the locus of several key theological debates in fifteenth-century East Anglia. Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theatre, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England, a critical reading of medieval representations of the saint's life and the cultural context in which they were created, provides a compelling portrait of the woman and her impact on the cultural landscape of the Middle Ages. Using emblematic and interpretive processes to define the role of this sinner-turned-saint's social and numinous identity, Coletti propounds the argument that "dramatic discourses, gender ideologies, and vernacular religion converge in late medieval English constructions of Mary Magdalene" (1). Although this argument centers on the Digby manuscript, the author engages a mélange of quite diverse sources—textual and visual—in her exegesis of the subject.

In recent years there has been a great deal written about the life of Magdalene. Following closely on the heels of such works as Ann Graham Brock's Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority and Katherine Ludwig Jansen's The Making of Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages,Coletti has created a work that goes beyond the strictly historical approach of these texts by embedding her subject firmly in a literary and theatrical context. The work is divided into six chapters, each of which examines a distinctly different facet of the play as it relates to other contemporary depictions of Mary Magdalene, vernacular trends in theology, and the history and iconography of the surrounding feminine religious culture.

Looking toward early English traditions of the saint, Coletti explores the religious communities and literature of East Anglia as a means of explicating the connection between the contemplative and penitential ideals sanctioned by the canonization of Mary Magdalene and their presence in contemporary texts and society. Beginning her inquiry into this relationship with the social history and iconography of female religious communities near the location of the Digby text's assumed origin, Magdalene emerges as a site of mediation between laity and religion. This affiliation is perhaps most effectively authenticated, however, through her engagement with the literature of the period: the hagiographic and mystical texts of The Book of [End Page 331] Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Love, and Bokenham's Legends of Holy Women; and the dramatic texts of the N-Town Plays and Wisdom. Blurring the boundaries of traditional medieval genres, Coletti articulates the popular icon as an expression of simultaneous dichotomies: purity and pollution, masculine and feminine, and material and spiritual.

Invoking the text of Walter Hinton's Scale of Perfection, Coletti assays the subject of spiritual authority and its relationship to gender and contemplative ideals. The accretion of vernacular theologic work as typified by Scale was indicative of a growing concern for lay interests. It is this transmogrification of power away from established religious discourse and toward the vernacular which aided in the establishment of "gendered systems of representation that figured the dominant, orthodox position as Latinate, allegorical, rational, intellectual and masculine, and the subordinate position as vernacular, literal, affective, experiential, and feminine" (127-28). By relating dramatic representations of Mary Magdalene with Lollard practices concerning the use of the vernacular by women in teaching situations, the author clearly elucidates the role played by the saint in the growing discourse surrounding the sources and interpretation of both feminine and...