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Queen - Virgin - Saint

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As Georges Duby remarked, we know very little of women from the Middle Ages, at least, through their own voice. What we all know is that their status changed dramatically some time in the 12th century between the new ban on priestly marriage, the appearance of courtly poetry and the cult of the Virgin Mary, and that these, more than the concomitant birth of towns, the universities and the mendicant orders, inspired some of the greatest medieval works.

If the origins of Courtly love, as well as its "real" nature, or not, are disputed, its link with Marian devotion is beyond doubt. It is already anchored in the very term Courtoisie. In many Annunciation scenes, the bearing of both Gabriel and Mary expresses the height of courtesy. If it was Christ's love that enables our salvation, it was His mother's courtesy, her immediate, unequivocal and total consent, which made this possible. Glorieuse vierge honoree, Benie soit et louee, de cette grande courtoisie. (Miracles de Notre Dame). When a woman, descendant of Eve who sinned through pride, the radix malorum, was tempted, she could turn to Mary whose humility was the radix virtutum.

Taking one of the many prayers addressed to Notre Dame which abound in Books of Hours and which are as powerful as poems, (overleaf), one can show that the Virgin could come to incarnate both the highest and the lowliest position assigned to women. Interestingly, there was nothing in between the Queen on the one hand and, on the other, the "ancilla domini", the "domestic" which she thereby valorised. Being immaculate, she was neither a penitent sinner, nor, seated on High, had she need to be a Saint.

The feminine Saint embodies something so unyielding as to be mostly beyond reach, pure as the virginity she invariably guards and terrible as a Queen arrayed for battle, a quality derived from the Lord of Hosts she has promised herself to.

Hence the penitent sinner called Mary Magdalene, which the late Daniel Arasse showed to be a brilliant solution, even if amalgamated from different Gospel figures, to the problem that no actual living woman can be the Virgin Mary, just as no man can be Christ, except in delusion, though women and men can aspire to imitate their qualities.

It was brilliant because it left a space for Venus (the Magdalene is Venus transformed, converted), that is, any woman, circumscribed and apprehended, and not only by men, above all as a body. Not only is Venus a body first and foremost which has no need of a head, she is also a naked body, in contrast to the Virgin whose face, modest, loving or tearful, as well as the attendant veil and draperies, are paramount in her presentation.

Venus never completely disappeared from a Middle Ages which allowed the depiction of a naked Eve or Bathsheba and the frank license of texts like the Carmina Burana and Roman de la Rose. Perhaps medieval men and women were aware of the fact that the Dom of Dominus and the Dame who was Notre, all of humanity's, are but a syllable away from Domna. And this latter, so eulogised and implored in fin amor that she might turn a believer into an idolater, a worshipper of One woman, (with all its echoes of the great goddess cult displaced in Rome by the early Christians), was but a syllable away from damnation.

No doubt, the differences between the joys provided by Venus Felix, the consolamentum bestowed by the domna and the joys attributed to the Virgin, are the key. In any case, it is precisely because Venus had gone underground, so to speak, that the new Marian devotion could reach such heights of beauty in numerous works of art, just as it is the latent presence of a classical Venus in medieval depictions of women, even Mary, which perhaps provokes their intriguing ambiguity, that is, the presence of the sacred in the secular and the secular in the sacred.

Glorieuse Virge reigne
En qui, par la vertu divine
Ihesucrist print humanite
Tu qui es fontaine et racine
De touz biens mon cuer enlumine
Doulce damme, par charite.

Damme de paiz et de concorde
De pitie et de misericorde
De doulceur et de bonne vie
A Ihesucrist to Filz accorde
M'ame qui tant est ville et orde
Que I'ai par mon pechie honie.

Pucelle necte, fine et pure
En toy doit l'en mettre sa cure
Toy doit l'en server et amer
En toy print Ihesu Crist figure
Damme, sans nulle bleceure
Et sans nulle paine endurer

Damme de pitie bouteilliere
Damme de pitie tresoriere
Damme plaine d'umilite
Fay a cellui pour moy priere
Que tu portas saine et entiere
Et sans perdre virginite.

Tu es la flour, tu es la rose
Tu es celle en qui se repose
La doulceur qui tout autre passé
Tu es celle en qui est enclose
La beaute qui pour nulle chose
Qui soit ne fausse ne ne casse.

Deffans moi d'orgueil, d'ire et d'envie
De avarice et de glotonnie
De conveitice et de luxure
Si que ie puisse par t'aie
Eschapper la grant pulantie
Qui est en enfer et l'ordure.

Doulce dame de noble atour
Qui portas nostre creatour
A toi me rens, a toi m'enfuy
Tu es noustre procuratour
Tu es le chasteau et la tour
Ou nous alons touz a refuy.

Doulce dame courtoise et sage
A qui nul se s'aparage
Si ie suys resuscite
Par toy, ie suys de l'eritage
De paradis, par mon oultrage
A touz iours mes desherite.

Parchemin ny aincte ne cyre
Ne pourroit dire ne souphire
A qui bien vouldroit ta bonte
Ton sens et ta loenge dire
Et seusent tous ceulx escripre
Qio sont, furent et seront ne.

B.N. Ms lat 1161

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