The Mary Magdalen of medieval legend was a composite figure who had her origins in the Biblical passages about three different women - not just the woman explicitly called Mary Magdalen in the Gospels, but also Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the unnamed female sinner who washed Christ's feet with her tears. Biblical exegetes in the Latin West tended to equate the three from the time of Gregory the Great on, but the various New Testament passages about these women were first woven into a single narrative vita in a tenth-century sermon attributed to Odo of Cluny. Odo's sermon, which was subsequently used as a source of lessons in the liturgy for Mary Magdalen's feast day (July 22), relates her life up to the time of Christ's Ascension. The post-Ascension portion of the legend developed in a great variety of ways, but
the dominant version in the West was clearly the one that claimed that she journeyed to Provence in a rudderless boat, had a successful career as an apostle in Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, and then spent thirty years alone in the wilderness nearby as a contemplative hermit.
Victor Saxer, who did most of the pioneering work on both the cult and the legend, found that the legend of Mary Magdalen in Provence has four major components, which originated separately. (1) The vita eremitica, recounting her years of solitude in the wilderness and her death, was probably borrowed in the ninth century from the Greek legend of a reformed prostitute, Mary of Egypt. As Katherine Ludwig Jansen has pointed out, the Bible never actually specifies the nature of Mary Magdalen's sins, but medieval exegetes and preachers found it natural to connect female sinfulness with prostitution (The Making of the Magdalen, pp. 146 ff.). (2) The vita apostolica, recounting Mary Magdalen's apostolic work in Provence but not the story of the prince of Marseilles, dates from around the same time in the tenth century as Odo's sermon. (3) A translation story was added in the eleventh century to explain how her body had been rediscovered in Provence some 200 years earlier and brought north - with her consent - to the abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy. (4) The story of the prince of Marseilles, which bears close resemblances to secular romance and would become a favorite part of the vernacular legends of Mary Magdalen, was added even later - probably in the twelfth century. In addition to these major components, the Provençal legend in its fully developed form often includes two other kinds of relatively late additions: brief accounts of Martha, Lazarus, and other saints who supposedly accompanied Mary to Marseilles and participated in the evangelization of France, and stories about her miraculous intercessions for believers who have prayed to her or honored her memory in other ways. [More]
SOURCE: Sherry L. Reames, ed., "The Legend of Mary Magdalen, Penitent and Apostle," TEAMS Middle English Texts. Retrieved 17 June 2009. Originally published in Middle English Legends of Women Saints (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003).
Early South English Legendary Life of Mary Magdalen
John Mirk, Sermon on St. Mary Magdalen
Mary Magdalen, from Speculum Sacerdotale