What’s the problem with medieval mysticism?

The Annunciation (c 1485-92), by Botticelli

Rebekah Lamb looks back to the days when the Virgin Mary would chastise bishops

Mary and the Art of Prayer
By Rachel Fulton Brown, Columbia, 656pp, £55

Steeped in scriptural, liturgical and mystical accounts of the life of the Virgin Mary, medieval devotions and writings particularly meditated on the role of Mary as persuasive intercessor, as advocate and consoler. In The Divine Comedy, for instance, Dante attributes the grace of his journey through hell, purgatory and heaven to the intercessory powers of a “gentle lady” who “weeps” over human “distress”.

Medieval affection for the Virgin Mary was rooted in a living, active belief that formed and informed various kinds of aesthetic and spiritual practices and developments. This vibrant belief, which often appears strange to postmodern sensibilities, is understandably a stumbling block for scholars working on pre-modern Christianity – especially for those who view faith as only a matter of personal experience or as imagined fiction.

For many scholars, there are several obstacles to finding fair ways to historically discuss the rich and strange medieval accounts of the devotional life. For instance, what should be made of the chronicles of the lives of the saints as found in sources like Jacobus Voragine’s The Golden Legend of 1275? How do we respond to St Francis of Assisi silencing a multitude of birds when they interrupted his community’s recitation of lauds?

The Virgin Mary reportedly liked to appear in visions to directly chastise bishops or pay visits to her devotees, rewarding those saying private prayers in her honour. (For example, she visited Marie d’Oignies to endorse her habit of making Marian salutations 1,100 times a day, in a 40-day set.) How do we interpret the numerous accounts of personal mystical experiences and apparitions?

Noting that medieval understandings of belief, and what to make of them, are a “problem” for scholars of pre-modern Christianity, the medieval literature scholar Steve Justice has recently argued that academics nevertheless must be up to the task of historically discussing belief without rendering it as “unhistorically cartooned”, as mere elaborate allegory. That is to say, at the very least, to take medieval devotional practice and writing seriously, a certain “willing suspension of disbelief” is required.

Otherwise, irresponsible reduction of the complexity and contexts of these sources occurs and, very often, an almost wholesale discrediting of their significance. Such a suspension is difficult to achieve, but there are instances when it is managed and managed well. Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary and the Art of Prayer is such a scholarly achievement.

Fulton Brown provides an extensive, expansive account of the complex of psalms, chants and prayers comprising the Hours of the Virgin, also known as the Little Office of the Virgin. Tracing the ways that lay people and religious communities, sometimes closely clustered together, followed (but also adapted) the recitation of the Hours of the Virgin, she shows how practices of prayer stemmed from both Christian thought and everyday living (from the needs and desires of the lay people and Religious who sought out Mary’s intercessory powers). Fulton Brown explains that medieval devotional sources function as not only indexes of individual historical contexts (ie how specific religious communities operated). They are also, she explains, indications of the profound role that liturgy and Scripture played in the daily lives of believers.

Most particularly, she recounts how Mary’s status as Mediatrix of all graces, as intercessor, is one of the key devotional inspirations within medieval routines of prayer – precisely because belief in Mary as advocate had concrete consequences for the ways believers viewed their relationship to God. Discussing the status of Mary as special intercessor, Fulton Brown appeals to the teachings of Richard of Saint-Laurent, among others, noting how medieval people understood Mary as the advocate who, in union with her Son, “beseeches for her servants every good”.


Fulton Brown’s opening lines in her acknowledgements encapsulate the vision underpinning her work. She thanks “Mary, for choosing [me] to write this book on her behalf”. This is an uncommon acknowledgement for a scholar and is indicative of her overall method. She takes faith as a valid, vital category of knowledge that extends what can be thought and understood about everyday life and living in medieval, Christian culture.

Given both its size and unique methodology, Mary and the Art of Prayer will challenge its readers to reconsider how they interpret the categories of “medieval”, “imagination” and “devotion.” Fulton Brown’s work stands at the crossroads between intellectual history and an empathetic engagement with the personal accounts of Marian encounter which animate medieval devotional writings.