01 June 2009

The Magdalen Legend

David Mycoff has an analysis of the legend of the Magdalene in the introduction to his translation of the Pseudo-Rabanus Life of St. Mary Magdalene and her sister St. Martha. I've divided the material into smaller paragraphs in the following quotation:

There are, then, five parts to this fully-developed Magdalen legend: the pre-ascension life; the story of the voyage to Marseilles; the account of the thirty-year solitude, death, and burial; and the post-burial miracles and translation of relics.

The pre-ascension life is the product of the patristic harmonizing of scattered scriptural passages which, in the view of the medieval Western Church, all pertained to Mary Magdalene. The earliest extant text that assembles these patristic motifs into a single, concise, coherent narrative appears to be a tenth-century sermon on the Magdalen attributed to Saint Odo of Cluny (BHL 5439).[7]

Close in date is a legend, titled by the prominent scholar of the Magdalen legend and cult, Victor Saxer, Vita apostolica Mariae Magdalenae, [8] which tells of the Magdalen's voyage to Marseilles and her career in Gaul, omitting the stories of the prince of Marseilles and the thirty year seclusion.

The remote source of the account of Mary's solitude is the legend of Mary of Egypt, first told in the Life of Cyriacus by Cyril of Scythopolis. [9] By the ninth century, the Egyptian's story had been adapted for Mary Magdalene in a piece titled by Saxer, Vita eremitica Mariae Magdalenae (BHL 5453-5456). [10]

The Vita apostolica and Vita eremetica were conflated into a single piece to form Vita apostolico-eremitica (BHL 5443-5448), [11] apparently in the eleventh century during the resurgence of Western eremiticism that began in northern Italy.

Another composite piece, Vita evangelico-apostolica (BHL 5450) [12] assembles the pre-ascension material of Odo's sermon with the post-ascension material of Vita apostolico-eremitica, abbreviating the account of the contemplative retreat.


[7]. Printed in Acta Sanctorum, July V: 218-221; also in PL 133: 713-721 with variants in accidentals.

[8]. Étienne-Michel Faillon, Monuments inédits sur l'apostolat de sainte Marie-Madeleine en Provence . . . , 2 vols. (Paris, 1848), calls this the 'Ancienne Vie' of Mary Magdalene and prints it in vol. II, pp. 433-436.

[9]. J. Misrahi, 'A vita Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae . . . ,' Speculum 18 (1943) 335-337 and Sr Benedicta Ward, Miracles and the Medieval Mind (Philadelphia: Univ. Penna. Press, 1982) p. 260, n. 65.

[10]. Edited by Misrahi, ibid., pp. 335-339.

[11]. Faillon considers the part drawn from Vita eremitica an addition and prints it in Mon. inéd., II; 445-451

[12]. Printed by Faillon, Mon. inéd., II; 437-445, with the title 'Vie Anonyme Sainte Marie-Madeleine'.

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