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?

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