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The Making of Mary Magdalen in Medieval Legends ::: Katherine Ludwig Jansen

The following is a book review of Katherine L. Jansen’s renown scholarly contribution to medieval studies that focuses on how so many legends developed during the Medieval period about Mary Magdalen to the point that she became second only to Mary (the mother of Jesus) in veneration.  She doesn’t just tell us how these stories developed, but what they say about medieval notions of godliness/sanctity/piety.  She shows how the supply and demand principle can also be applied to preaching during the medieval period (and probably to preaching in every age).  That is, she shows how Mary Magdalen was shaped into all sorts of colorful legendary images to fit the needs of the day as perceived by the preachers of the day.  The friars couldn’t help but let their imaginations run wild with the Magdalen stories in order to use her as the “model” alternative to whatever they perceived as the corruption of society.  The legends developed because they were practical for preaching.  

Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in Later Middle Ages.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.  

Jansen’s Aims and Concerns 

Jansen’s overall concern is to give a complete picture of the cult of the Magdalen in medieval times, its symbolic meaning, and how it reflects changing views of sanctity at that time (14).  She interprets the process of gender reversal as an aid for the mendicants in opposing “the [masculine] institutional church” of Peter (15).  Emphasis on the invention of a Magdalen that went beyond historical accuracy is intended to underscore how the image of the Magdalen reflects medieval philosophical and social exigencies about women—the dignity of women, whether they are permitted to preach and have authority, the problem of prostitution, etc. (15).  The author is concerned to show just how the Magdalen of legend became so many different things to medieval laity—the penitential symbol, the exemplar of the active and contemplative life, the symbol of hope for all sinners, the apostle of the apostles, etc.  Finally, she is concerned to expose the audience response to the preaching of the Magdalen (16).             

The author believes that preachers were prone to bend the truth about Mary Magdalen and invent all sorts of fanciful things about her in order to have better fuel for their fiery preaching.  For example, she says wittingly: “The subject of the Magdalen’s vanities itself became a vanity, as it were, inasmuch as besotted medieval writers spent endless hours lingering on detailed descriptions of them” (156).  She also believes that men used the symbolism of the Magdalen to reinforce medieval gender ideology.  For example, she says: “Vanity, lust, prostitution: how did these things pertain to the sketchy facts of Mary Magdalen’s life as recorded in the gospels?  In a word: they did not.  … Preachers made them conform to the rather vague biographical facts of her life in order to address exigent questions about the nature of Woman, women’s place in society, the need for female protection, and the problem of prostitution” (146).    

She also has confidence that the laity’s voice can be discerned in the preaching when one listens carefully.  In fact, she believes that the preaching of the medieval period (and probably preaching in general) can easily mirror audience values and devotion.  For example, after giving an excerpt from a Franciscan preacher’s sermon in which he represents the Virgin Mary as “the more powerful light” in the heavens (the sun) and Mary Magdalen as “the less powerful light” (the moon) “leading sinners lest they despair,” Jansen says the lights correspond to two paths of salvation.  Then she says: “The friar’s audiences, often for very personal reasons, were eager to find the confluence of the two paths.  That is, it shows how members of the preachers’ audiences interpreted the symbol of the holy sinner in the light of his or her own desires” (286).

These assumptions shape Jansen’s historical account decisively.  She is constantly filling the reader in on how the assumptions of medieval preachers are based on legends that developed through imaginative embellishments as well as political events.  Her careful detail in tracing the “making” of the Magdalen from the sketchy biblical figure to the hagiographic sources show that the mendicant sermons (that drew heavily from them but added even more imaginative detail) were structured by the interests of their audiences (and therefore, medieval society as a whole).  The figure of the Magdalen that preachers and hagiographers were “making” was one that would fit the needs of medieval times and values.  Her chronological “tracing” of this “making” is intended to underscore this point.      

The Vita Mixta [the mixed life]

Through Gregory the Great’s sermons, he associated Mary Magdalen with the women “whom John calls Mary,” then interprets the Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet (while Martha became anxious with work) as mystically representing the contemplative life (34).  Mary had chosen the better life.  This was also furthered by the vita eremitica [life of a hermit] which “assimilates Mary Magdalen’s biography to the vita of Saint Mary of Egypt,” who fled to solitude in the Egyptian desert and lived as a hermit. 

The identification of Mary Magdalen with Mary of Egypt in the vita eremitica was a crucial step toward the making of another Magdalen image, the vita apostolica [life of an apostle].  Once the Magdalen was associated with Mary of Egypt and Abbot Geoffrey’s inventio in Burgundy, the vita apostolica incorporated the popular explanation of how the relics of the Magdalen came to be in Burgendy through the “holy theft” of Badilus, who supposedly stole them from Provence.  The vita apostolica, building on this legend, goes further in explaining, then, how Mary Magdalen’s relics came to be in Provence before the “holy theft”—during the first wave of persecution, she and her family members fled from Egypt by sea, landing in southern Gaul and evangelizing the people there before retiring back to solitude (39).  Combined with the embellishments based on the biblical depiction of Mary Magdalen as having the privilege of announcing the resurrection of Christ to the rest of the apostles (Christ having appeared to her first and given her this directive), the title apostolorum apostola [apostle of the apostles] became a powerful symbol of the vita apostolica.  This inspired the laity and in turn raised questions about women’s ability or authority to preach.

With both the image of Mary as apostolorum apostola and as representing the contemplative life of a Hermit, the Magdalen came to be seen as representing the vita mixta—the mixed life of active works of mercy and mystical contemplation.

The Symbol of Vanity

Mary Magdalen was used by medieval preachers as a symbol of vanity to address what they thought of as female specific sins.  How did Mary come to be thought of as a symbol of vanity in the first place?  The first step was to identify the unnamed sinner in Luke’s gospel (Lk 7:36-50) as Mary Magdalene according to the “famous Gregorian conflation” (147).  Gregory also allegorized the Magdalen’s seven demons as the seven deadly sins, which transformed the pre-Christian Magdalen’s demonic possession into “a disease of the soul caused by sin” (147).  The second step was to use the medieval imagination to fill in the gaps in Luke’s story—namely, to answer this question: What was the sin of this unnamed sinner (i.e. Mary Magdalen)?  The medieval preachers—for pragmatic reasons—identified the sin as a sexual sin.  This identification was reinforced by association, since this was also the nature of sin attributed to the unnamed female sinner of John’s gospel (Jn 8:3-11).  Preachers could not help themselves in indulging their imaginations where scripture was silent in order to make good preaching material to condemn what they thought were gender specific sins of the Women of their day. 

The third step was to assume the need to explain how it was that the unnamed sinner (assumed to be Mary Magdalen) came to be caught in the snares of sinful vices.  Since it was thought that Mary had been named after a castle (the castellum of Magdala) preachers began to tell a very creative story about how she was stripe regia (royal stock) and therefore fell into the vices were thought to attend riches: luxuria [lust], idleness, sinful autonomy (i.e. not under the rule of a man).  Because it was already believed that Mary Magdalen was a beautiful women, preachers exploited the relationship between vigorous and youthful beauty with vanity and sexual sins.  Furthermore, these warnings of the medieval preachers were attended by all sorts of gender assumptions of the medieval period.  Since one’s physical appearance represents the constitution of their souls, women were weak and easily seduced.  Thus, by a combination of imaginative embellishment of a story in the Bible of an unnamed sinner combined with gender assumptions of the middle ages, medieval preachers depicted Mary as the perfect example of vanity—she was a young women easily deceived, susceptible to vanity for so many reasons—her beauty, her gender, her riches, her idle time, her autonomy, etc.  “Heaven help the fragile woman, her powers of ratiocination and moral scruple enfeebled by her sex, when cursed by the quadruple threat of wealth, freedom, beauty, and fooloshness”! (154).

By using Mary Magdalen—who was also the perfect example of penitence—the preachers gave themselves the opportunity to exhort the women in their audience to repent of their vanities according to typical medieval “anti-vanity discourse” (155) that condemned makeup, jewelry, dancing, costly clothes, superfluous hair, lack of subordination to men, etc.  Jansen claims that in spite of such imaginative vanity (pun intended) of medieval preachers, “they never wandered too far from the parameters that Gregory the Great had established for them” (158).             

The Exemplar of Perfect Penance

When Pope Innocent III assembled patriarchs, bishops, priors and abbots for the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, among other things, they set out to reformulate penitential theology.  Medieval theologians had already paved the way with their distinctions between culpa (guilt) and pena (temporal consequences/punishment for sin)—the pena being something that could be remitted by the proper performance of satisfaction.  Canon twenty-one of the council, omnis utriusque sexus (“everyone of both sexes”), demanded that no one participate in holy communion unless they have an annual confession of his or her sins and made satisfaction according to their priest.  Although contrition, satisfaction, and absolution were already a part of official church teaching, confession itself was not (that is, it was never required by the authority of the church although it was widely practiced before the Fourth Lateran Council).  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 C.E.) would go on to defend this decree (along with Scotists) by maintaining that remission of the culpa was contigent on two things: 1) perfect contrition, and 2) the priests absolution. 

The combination of this decree with the fresh emergence of mendicant preaching created an irresistible diffusion of the new demands of penance by the usage of the symbol of Mary Magdalen—even thought she never actually makes a confession in the gospels!  Although preachers were quick to draw on other examples of contrition in the Bible—David, Peter, Matthew—the example of choice for such mendicants was, of course, Mary Magdalen.  As we have already seen, according to so many legends that developed in the Middle Ages, she was seen as having gone from being the perfect example of sinful vanity and sexual sin to becoming a woman who was one of Christ’s most faithful followers, having completely abandoned the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert after announcing Christ’s resurrection to the disciples, then by fleeing persecution evangelized Southern Gaul!  According to the Magdalen lore, she went from one extreme to the other.   Therefore, with the new demands of the Fourth Lateran Council, she became something else—the exemplum perfecte penitentie (the example of perfect penance) according to the fourfold obligation spelled out by omnis utriusque sexus.  Her seven vices were all transformed into seven virtues through penance.  Her tears became a powerful symbol of her perfect contrition—signifying an archetypal emblem gendered female, and simultaneously symbolizing baptism and rebirth because her tears (representing perfect contrition) washed away her sin.  In this case the gender associations of medieval times predisposed women to “more inclined to enter the salvific state of contrition” (210) because the physiology of the female body made women more disposed to cry. 

Since it was common for medieval preachers to teach that Magdalen’s tears of contrition “washed away her sins” (that is, removed her culpa and pena), once confession was demanded by the Fourth Lateran Council, preachers were in a sticky situation.  Where was a place for confession the Magdalen’s example?  Many continued to preach that perfect contrition alone was salvific, in spite of the demands of the Fourth Lateran Council.  Others argued that for Mary Magdalen it was salvific, but that after Christ ascended, sacramental confession was established (216).  For others, however, it was just the right occasion to embellish the story of the Magdalen once more by adding something not in the text of the gospels—her long and well articulated confession to Christ!  This was the solution of Innocent III.  In his sermons, he completely reconstructed a confession that ended up making its place in literary history, for “in both Cavalca’s vita,” “the Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ,’” and a text dating in 1474 that has a seventeen-verse confession written in first person, “Mary Magdalen makes long, lachrymose confessions” about everything under the “fifteenth-century sun”! (217-18).  Other aspects of penance were easily added to this: her whole life of service and contemplation was her works of satisfaction and her kisses (or her alabaster according to the culinary motif) signified her absolution (229-30).  By following her example—who was once the peccatrix—average Christians could have true hope of absolution—the speculum spei (“mirror of hope,” 232-33)!      

Examples of the Magdalen Cult’s Influence 

The Lollardy who followed Wycliffe’s teachings was in theory committed to the idea of lay preaching—both men and women.  Walter Brut—an educated lay Lollard even believed women could have the authority to grant absolution.  He defends his view of bi-gender preaching by recourse to Mary Magdalen when on trial in 1381.  He said: “It is confirmed, for we read that blessed Mary Magdalen preached publicly in Marcilia and in the area around about, which through her preaching she converted to Christ.  Because of this she is called the ‘Apostle of Apostles’” (273).  He was not alone in defending women’s right to preach by recourse to the Magdalen.  Other heretical groups such as the Waldensians and even “semi-orthodox” groups also used her in a like manner.     

Margaret of Cortona, when perplexed about her loss of virginity (based on the assumption that virgins had a better change at heavenly reward) found her conscience somewhat appeased when, supposedly, the Lord spoke to her in a vision and told her that Mary Magdalen was among the chorus of virgins in heaven (288).  Since by the late Middle Ages, the Magdalen was seen considered a virgin on account of her “vigilantly maintaining her chastity after her conversion,” she became a hope to people like Margaret that she too could still have the chance of achieving a similar status in heaven.

Charles II spent thirty years of his life erecting physical signs of his devotion to the Magdalen (308).  Charles believed she would protect his kingdom so long as she was honored properly (309).  He founded churches in her name and “desired that the Magdalen’s praises be sung” (312).  Charles also commissioned many works of art that depicted her and founded convents in her name (312).  The Dominican Order was the primary beneficiary of his devotion, so in return, the Dominicans became “the principal publicists of [Charles’] singular relationship with the saint” (313).  Charles even had the supposed skull of the Magdalen “transferred to a golden head fitted with a crystal face through which the faithful could view the rather macabre relic” (313).  The house of Anjou would continue this sort of devotion long after Charles was gone.  The Magdalen cult indeed became a royal cult, to the point that “there was no better way to show loyalty to the king than to show reverence for his heavenly protector” (315).



  1. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    In the east perhaps the second most venerated Mary is not Magdalene, but one who was truly a prostitute–one who even refused money for her vile deeds. This is of course Mary of Egypt who is even remembered on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent (a great reminder of the extent of the prostitution in each of us).

    Her story is worth the read, or listen if you can find a good copy. Her story touched my heart when I first listened to it.



  2. theophilogue says:

    Thanks Occidental!

    Did you realize that Mary Magdalen was conflated with Mary of Egypt? (I talk about it some in this post)

    Do you have any links to sermon’s about Mary of Egypt? (i don’t have much time to read anything but school books these days)

    Also … could you give me a number of links to good Orthodox blogs?

    I would really appreciate it!

    Thanks again!


  3. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    Thank you for all the interesting posts!

    I’m sorry to say I did not read your whole post and see the conflation of the two Marys.

    There are numerous sermons available. The easiest thing is to go to Ancient Faith Radio and search. I did that for you and found one by Fr. Thomas Hopko–everything he does is worth the listen. And it should be up your alley since he is a former seminary dean.


    Arguably the best Christian blog on the internet is Fr. Stephen Freeman’s “Glory to God for all Things.”

    Some other interesting ones include:

    My fav podcasts are:

    Endless hours of fascinating stuff in all of these.


  4. theophilogue says:

    Sweet! Thanks so much for the links! A book that I order just came in the mail today: The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware. My Bible professor (who is Orthodox) told me it was the best short treatment. I will listen to some of these podcasts to go along with it!

    Thanks again!


  5. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    Oh yes, I have that book too. I’ve heard it said that the companion book, The Orthodox Way, is the better book. Probably because it does not cover so much organizational history.

    Bishop Ware is always interesting. Ware’s 3 lectures on the Atonement are thought provoking, perhaps thought changing, especially his criteria for assessing an atonement theory.

    Best podcast that systematically goes through doctrines is Our Life in Christ. http://www.ourlifeinchrist.com/

    Southern alumnist, and one of my two fav preachers, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon always touches topics that fascinate me. He has two podcasts. I also find his Daily Reflections great for biblical exegesis.

    The more philosophical approach, you’d like, comes from Gallatin’s Pilgrims from Paradise. Watch out for him. He’ll convict you. See his series on Christian Pluralism.

    IMHO, Orthodox writers blow everyone else away. The only Protestant author I have read that got to the depths of the “good” Orthodox writers was Vos. I have not read too many Catholic writers.


  6. Jason Ramage says:

    Just happened by here… I’m never sure whether to comment here or on facebook 🙂

    Fr. Seraphim Beshoner, a Third Order Franciscan and professor at Franciscan Univ’s Austrian campus, hosts a very educational podcast on Church history. He covered St. Mary of Egypt here: http://catholicunderthehood.com/2009/04/02/the-life-of-saint-mary-of-egypt/

    I believe he’s a dual-rite priest, both Latin and one of the Eastern rites… I like his perspective since he gives Eastern and Western perspectives.

    Another favorite of mine is the SaintCast. He hasn’t featured St. Mary of Egypt, but he does have a few episodes where Fr. Seraphim has talked about Orthodox saints:

    Hope you’re having a blessed Advent!

  7. theophilogue says:


    THANK YOU! I am now listening to some of the podcasts you have directed me to. I especially enjoy “Faith and Philosophy.”


    Thanks! I’ll check into it!

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