VAGANTES: Between Tradition and Change: Monastic Reform in Three fifteenth-century German Redactions of the Life of Saint Mary of Egypt

Between Tradition and Change: Monastic Reform in Three fifteenth-century German Redactions of the Life of Saint Mary of Egypt

Panel 3: Saints as Texts

Megan Barrett, Department of Germanic Studies (Indiana University)

Summary by

The text discussed was a 15th c. German redaction of Mary of Egypt’s life. The paper begins with the early Greek Vita, a history from the 6th c. by desert fathers. Mary repents for her sins in a cave in the desert. A fuller Vita by Sophronius provides the source material for the medieval vernacular versions in the West.  “These works were intimately bound up with the cult of the saints they were celebrating”. Remembering someone after death would engender the Christian to bring them back to God. Evangelism, devotion, ascetism and liturgy were the focus of hagiography. These four ideas/categories are present throughout Mary’s vita. Mary reacts to her sinfulness by promising ascetism. When Mary first crosses the Jordan in a boat, after she makes the sign of the cross, she recrosses the Jordan on foot (walks on water). The audience was familiar with the symbolic features in which the vita was written. Later on, when Dominicans took on the task of transmitting saints lives, they attempted to make these lives more widely accessible to the masses. Legendaries – provided hagiograpical material for every day of the year as well as sermons for evangelising, the “Lengenda Aurea”. In the Aurea, they omitted Mary receiving communion in the narrative and descriptive words were also omitted. Emotions were also cut out. Three of the categories – liturgy, devotion and asceticism were removed from the texts. The narrative simplifications are a shift in evangelical interpretation. “The text was subordianted to the larger aims of medicancy” to be easily available and understandable to the masses.

In the 15th c. MHG Redaction, Regula Von Lichtenthal’s version, was written by Sister Regula and promoted the three objectives of the Reform: enclosure, abolishing private property and the restoration of vita communis. Mary’s ascetism is placed at the forefront for the sisters to understand with repentance significant to the narrative. Her conversion account is moved to the beginning of the vita and moves to highlight the importance of repentance. Sister Regula also restores some portions of the story back into the narrative that had been removed in the Aurea version – the receiving of the Eucharist and the translation of Mary’s relics a the end of the legend.


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