Joanna Witkowska – PhD Department of English
The few women saints that the Festial concentrates on are the Virgin Mary, her mother St. Anne, St. Margaret, Mary Magdalene, St. Catherine, St. Elizabeth and St. Winifred. Due to the details of those saints’ lives and their lifestyles, the sermons that refer to them in this collection of sermons revolve around the topics of virginity, chastity, motherhood and marriage.
In the Festial, virginity is presented as superior to marriage. Mirk writes that Christ “louid specialy alle þat woldon leven in chastite...” (Powell 2009, p. 181, l. 20-1). Thus, though both vocations are presented by Mirk as blessed by God, virginity is preferred. A good example is the calling of St. John, who, according to the sermon on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, was engaged to Mary, but chose to follow Christ, leading her to moral ruin. God is also presented as favouring chastity because marriage is inseparably connected with procreation, and therefore sex. The Festial states that “fleschly cowpul of mon and womon ys vnclene in hymself, þerfore leue wel þat oure Lady [the Virgin Mary] (…) conseyved not of coupul of mon, but only of þe Holy Gost, so þat heo [was] clene of al maner fulþe touchyng conseyt of mon” (Powell 2009, p. 56, l. 32-5). It is the “fulþe touchyng” of men that makes the act unclean. There is no similar mention of women, perhaps because this sermon is addressed to women, and they have to be warned against sin, which may come from male influence. In sermons about male saints, where male virginity or chastity are strongly advocated and praised, women are the temptresses, in either human or demonic form, and men are warned against them.
This subsection on virginity and chastity has not yet been fully developed, as my focus so far has been on marriage and motherhood; overall, marriage and motherhood are inseparable in John Mirk's Festial, and the main division is between actual and spiritual marriage and motherhood. As the previous subsection stated, chastity is considered superior to matrimony in the Festial, and consequently spiritual marriage and motherhood are considered superior to ordinary marriage and motherhood. The most basic definition of a spiritual marriage is that it is a transcendent relationship between a nun or saintly woman and God, similar to the relationships male saints or clerics could have with the Virgin Mary. Spiritual motherhood is the relationship between, for example, a mother superior and the other nuns in a convent, or a female saint and the people she converts to Christianity, or her female followers in a convent-like environment. Almost all female saints that are mentioned in the Festial are spiritual mothers and wives. In entering a spiritual marriage, they choose God over mortal men, which is praised, because in this way they distance themselves from Eve, who chose Adam over God. Mirk mentions this in the marriage sermon, when he describes the rite of marriage (Powell 2011, p. 254, l. 68-71).
The main physical wives and mothers of the Festial are the Virgin Mary, her mother Anne, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The principal conclusion I have drawn from their lives is that they seem to possess more agency than their husbands; the Virgin Mary is the prime example of this. Mary's marriage is not a typical one, and she can even be seen to have two spouses, God the Father and St. Joseph (Parsons 1996, p. 77). In the sermon on the Nativity of Christ, Joseph decides to take Mary to Bethlehem for protection during her pregnancy, and goes to look for midwives when Mary asks him to. In the sermon on Epiphany, he takes care of Mary when she is resting after her labour, using a large part of the Three Kings' gold to ensure her health and comfort. Showing Joseph in this light provides an example for the husbands of the parish, highlighting how they should treat their pregnant wives.
However, the Annunciation sermon presents Joseph as a holy 'old' man, who “knew þat scheo [Mary] hadde made a vowe (…) þat scheo wolde neurer haue parte of mannus body” (Powell 2009, p. 94, l. 64-5), but who still decided to marry her, even after he learned of her pregnancy, though only because of a miraculous angelic intervention. He appears to be a useful tool in God's plan, and is supposed to take care of the Virgin, but lacks other characteristics of a real husband; he cannot consummate his marriage and he must help with Mary's birth, which makes him almost a midwife and gives him feminine characteristics. Pamela Sheingorn writes that church art of the time, which presents both Joseph and God the Father as old men, reinforces the idea of fatherly protection as extended by a husband. This church art also stresses both paternal and maternal characteristics of a husband, as it includes images of God cradling souls in his lap, following the Jewish notion of the souls of the dead resting on Abraham's Bosom (Parsons 1996, p. 81). However, the difference between the Virgin Mary's earthly and heavenly spouses is that while the Father-God does not lose His masculinity when He gains the feminine features of a mother, Joseph’s depiction as a tender, caring and passive father, combined with his old age, renders him a feminine figure, less respected as a man, almost a housewife. Thus, he is mocked in some medieval writings (Parsons 1996, p. 84, 106) and refused a halo in paintings (p. 84).
My research still requires more context from other sermon collections of the time, and more development of all of its subsections, especially the section on virginity and chastity; childbearing and breastfeeding are also important. Additionally, I have yet to focus on the women sinners in the text. What I have discovered, however, suggests Mirk's awareness of his female parishioners' pastoral needs, which might have influenced the popularity of the Festial.
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---. A Critical Edition of John Mirk's ‘Festial’, edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II: Volume 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.