- From Wench to Wonder Woman: Lenten Discipline and Miraculous Powers in the South English Legendary’s Life of Saint Mary of Egypt1
Due to a production error, volume 29 of Essays in Medieval Studies was released with the incorrect publication date of 2013 on the article title pages. The correct publication date is 2014.
Lent, or Quadrigissima, was not fun. When describing dietary customs of the Middle Ages, Bridget Ann Henisch points out that “Inevitably, the season of Lent, which stretched over such a long period and brought with it such a change in atmosphere and eating habit, was entered with some sinking of heart.”2 Over the course of forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, medieval Christians abstained from meat, ate one meal per day, and focused upon their sins and their need for penance.3 In one of his sermons on the beginning of the fasting season, St. Augustine offered this advice for understanding Lent:
Today we enter upon the keeping of Lent, coming round again as it does every year; and every year too I owe you a solemn exhortation, so that the word of God, set before you by my service, may feed your minds as you set about fasting in the body; and in this way the inner self, nourished by its proper food, may undertake the chastisement of the outer, and sustain it all the more stoutly. It goes well with our devotion, after all, that as we are very soon going to celebrate the passion of the crucified Lord, we should also make a cross for ourselves out of the curbing of the pleasures of the flesh.4
As Augustine explains, Lent was a time of chastising the body, a time to embrace hardship so that the soul could be purified and could contemplate more devoutly Christ’s sacrifice. The general emphasis is on suffering, sorrow, and on the failure of humanity, particularly the body, to meet God’s standards. Augustine’s attitude toward Lent appears fairly representative of the general attitude toward the period of fasting throughout the medieval period. In the Lambeth Homilies, a series of [End Page 27] texts in Middle English dating from the early thirteenth century, Lent was directly linked to penance. The sermon writer declares: “we maȝen on þisse gastliche daȝen ibeten ure sunne þet we abbet idon erþisse þurh þe licome lust þas daȝes beođ iset us to muchele hlepe, and to frefre al moncun” [we may in these spiritual days repent of our sins that we have previously done through the lust of the body. These days are appointed us and all mankind for great help and comfort].5 The writer further explains this comfort in the same sermon, directly addressing those who sin: “þu scalt gan to scrifte and pinian þine licome þe hit þe makeđ don” [thou shalt go to shrift and punish thy body that causeth thee to do so].6 Lent and penance were linked activities that invited all participants to maintain or regain spiritual grace. In that regard, penance and Lent were reductive, taking away sins and the pleasures that might lead to sin. In contrast to the depictions of Lent and Penance in Augustine’s sermon and in the Lambeth Homilies, at least one Middle English text, the version of the life of St. Mary of Egypt found in the South English Legendary, offered an alternative image of these religious performances. The Middle English presentation of Mary’s own penance and her subsequent miraculous activities suggest how the ordinary Christian rituals of penance and Lenten fasting could be empowering and productive for those who sought to emulate Mary’s example.
The Middle English life of Saint Mary of Egypt is found in the fascinating hagiography compilation known as the South English Legendary (SEL). The SEL was produced in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, probably around Worcester, by an unknown compiler or compilers.7 The text brings together a wide variety of saints’ legends from diverse sources—local English traditions, liturgical exemplar, and Latin lives—into a rich, flexible collection that proved quite popular, with representation in over sixty...