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Hagiography: Medieval Fanfiction

By Ken Mondschein

Medieval people had their own form of fanfiction – and it retold the story of Mary Magdalene. 

So, I finally saw Joker. And, while Todd Phillips’ latest iteration of the Bat-universe played out like a late-night film school bull session brought to unfortunate fruition, it did get me thinking about “canon”—what it is, and which Joker (Joaquin Phoenix’s, Heath Ledger’s, Jared Leto’s, Mark Hamill’s, Jack Nicholson’s, or Cesar Romero’s) is the “real” version of the character.

The answer is, of course, they all are—because all of these were “official” Jokers, approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, which is to say, the copyright owners. But other versions of the character, like those depicted in fanfiction, are not. The genre of fanfiction—and I’ll dignify it with the appellation “genre”—started with Star Trek fanzines in the 1960s and has since snowballed on the Web with sites such as fanfiction.net and An Archive of Our Own. Sometimes fanfic even takes on a life separate from the work it is derived from: the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise started as a Twilight riff, and Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and Kirill Yeskov’s Last Ringbearer have both become legendary for their imaginative re-workings of their source material. And sometimes the two even cross over: the Star Trek franchise was famous for accepting “spec scripts” from fans.

All of this is as old as literature. People in the Middle Ages wrote fanfic, too, but their canon—the original canon—was the Bible, and the plot was the drama of salvation. New characters—saints—were constantly being added on to the extended universe, and much like Boba Fett, even existing characters were rewritten into more forms the audience found more satisfying than the originals. To use the term favored by historians of religion, the genre of writing about saints is called hagiography, which is Greek for… “writing about saints.”

Mary Magdalene depicted in Köln, Dombibliothek, Codex 1117 fol. 101r

Let’s take the perpetually popular Mary Magdalene for an example. Her latest incarnation, as a Christian symbol of the feminine and fertile, stems from Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln’s 1982 Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a sensationalistic, but extremely popular, pseudohistorical work that alleged the early medieval kings of France were descended from Christ and Mary Magdalene and that the “san graal” or “Holy Grail” was actually the “sang real,” or “Holy Blood” of Christ. This theory (if it can be called such) was picked up by Dan Brown in his unfortunate bestseller The Da Vinci Code, which became a Tom Hanks movie. However, including Brown’s fanfic of Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln’s conspiracy theory, there have been no less than four iterations of the character, each with a different history.

Mary Magdalene appears by name in the Christian Bible in five distinct places: As a woman beset by demons in Luke 8:1–2; at the Crucifixion in Mark 15:40; a brief mention as a follower of Jesus in Matthew 27:55–56; at the entombment in Matthew 27:61; finding the tomb empty in Matthew 28:1, Luke 24:1–10, and John 20:1; and, finally, announcing the Resurrection to the disciples in Mark 16:9–10.

Compare this with the extended biography she is given in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, written by the Dominican Jacobus de Voraigne (d. 1298), where she becomes a woman of noble lineage and an apostle in her own right who travels to the south of France to preach the Good News and perform miracles both while alive and post mortem—most interestingly, helping women in childbirth, preserving children, and leading her followers to an underwater temple revealed once a year by the sea. (These stories, particularly the submarine shrine, reminiscent of the story of Melusina, may be a cultural memory of a pagan fertility cult that was assimilated in the course of Christianizing the area and which features in A. S. Byatt’s Booker prize-winning novel Possession.) On the other hand, Jacobus de Voraigne doesn’t mention Jesus casting out the devils: From a potentially disruptive daemoniac, Mary Magdalene has been transformed into a “safe” confessor and penitent.

But different versions still persisted. For instance, two major medieval pilgrimage churches—Vézelay in Burgundy and Saint-Maximin near Aix-en-Provence—claimed to be the burial place of Mary Magdalene. Much like Disney taking over the Marvel Comic Universe (or Star Wars… or  The Incredibles), the Church liked to keep comprehensive control of the “extended universe” and amalgamate different versions into one comprehensive canon. But unofficial versions—“lay belief”—still persisted. In this way, hagiography was, much like modern fan fiction, a means of taking a shared narrative and turning it to serve different social needs.

A Timeline of the Magdalene

Early first century c.e.: The historical Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and Martha live in Palestine. According to Greek tradition, the Magdalene retired with the Virgin to Ephesus and there died. According to the Latin tradition, the Magdalene, with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus travel to Provençe, where they spread the gospel. Lazarus becomes a bishop; Mary Magdalene lives as a penitent for thirty years at a grotto at La Sainte-Baume. At the end of her life, angels physically transport her to the church of Saint-Maximin near Aix-en-Provence, where she dies.

c. early 200s: Hippolytus, bishop and martyr of Rome (d. 235), in his exegesis of the Song of Songs, writes that the Bride seeking her husband in the gardens typologically prefigures Mary and Martha. This not only first pairs Martha and Mary Magdalen, but identifies Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, and establishes Mary and Martha in their roles as witnesses.

407: Lazarus, Bishop of Aix, is invested in Marseilles. His tomb at the church of St. Victor later leads to confusion between the fifth-century bishop and the Biblical Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus.

c. early 400s: Augustine (in Sermo 232) explains Mary Magdalene as a type for Eve who, by bearing news of the Resurrection, restored the order of creation and requited original sin: per feminam mors, per feminam vita. (The Virgin also acts typologically as a new Eve, bringing Christ into the world.)

c. 513–14: In a step away from the unification of the Marys, Ambrose, overdosing on the “muddle of Marys” in the Gospels, suggests in his Exposito evangelii secundam Lucam that there might be two Mary Magdalenes

c. 580: The great Merovingian historian Gregory of Tours writes (in his De Miraculis) that Mary Magdalene retired to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary

591: Pope Gregory the Great preaches a sermon on Luke 7:36–50, proclaiming Luke’s female sinner, John’s Mary (sister of Lazarus and Martha), and the woman in Mark from whom seven demons were cast out are one and the same. This is a great step towards the identification of the Biblical Marys as the same woman.

720: Bede notes July 22 as St. Mary Magdalene’s feast-day

745: According to the chronicler Sigebert (12th century), the Latin Magdalene’s remains are transferred from Saint-Maximin to Vézelay in order to save them from the Saracens. (The date is alternatively given as 749; the story probably originated in the eleventh century.)

c. early 800s: The first vita of Mary Magdalene, the vita eremitica, is written in southern Italy, perhaps by a Cassianite monk. This vita ties Mary Magdalene in with St. Mary of Egypt, a penitent saint and former prostitute. This vita circulates rapidly, reaching England by the mid-ninth century.

886: The Greek Mary Magdalene’s relics are transferred from Ephesus to Constantinople

c. late 800s–early 900s: The vita evangelica, an assembly of all the Biblical passages pertaining to Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and Luke’s “sinner,” is written. It likely originates from Cluny, and is significant for tying together all of these figures together as the same person.

c. 900s–1000s Signs of the cult of Mary Magdalene begin to appear—a relic in Exeter, an altar in Halberstadt, Germany—in the tenth century, and in greater numbers in the eleventh century.

1040: Pope Benedict IX mentions the relics of St. Lazarus in connection with the consecration of the church of St. Victor in Provençe

1050: The ninth-century Romansesque church at Vézelay in Burgundy, which had come to be associated with Cluny, is re-dedicated from the Virgin to Mary Magdalene. The church becomes a major pilgrimage center; it is here, for instance, that St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade.

Early 1100s: Sigebert writes his Chronicon sive Chronographia; he, along with other chroniclers, dates the transfer of Mary Magdalene’s relics to Vézelay to the eighth century

Mary Magdalene (holding an unguent pot), Mary of Egypt, Margaret piercing a dragon, and a martyr holding a palm, from the Queen Mary Psalter, British Library Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 308v

1200s: The cults of St. Lazarus and St. Mary Magdalene begin to spread in Provençe

1209: The Albigensian Crusade begins

1212: Gervase of Tillbury mentions Lazarus as having been a Provençal bishop in his Otia imperialia

1229: The Albigensian Crusade ends

1267: St. Louis visits Vézelay and obtains some of Mary Magdalene’s relics for his private collection. Of course, Saint-Maximin also claims to have her relics.

1279: The crypt of the Magdalene at Saint-Maximin is opened by the Angevin prince Charles of Salerno and her remains examined. According to Bernard Gui’s chronicle (ca. 1311–31), a sweet smell is observed and a palm frond was found growing from her tongue.

1270s: Jacobus de Voragine writes the Legenda Aurea, which includes the translation of the relics to Vézelay

1311–31: Bernard Gui writes his chronicle

1315: The Dominicans at Saint-Maximin produce the Book of Miracles of St. Mary Magdalene, demonstrating the efficacy of their relics and the powerlessness of those at Vézelay.

After 1458: The Dominican Legend ties together the Angevin dynasty, the Dominicans, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus Christ.

1600: Clement VIII sends a sarcophagus to Saint-Maximin for the saint’s remains. Her head is kept in a separate vessel.

1793: The grotto at La Sainte-Baume is trashed by the Revolution

1814: La Sainte-Baume rebuilt

1822: The grotto is re-consecrated

1859: La Sainte-Baume is reestablished as a pilgrimage site.

Late 19th c.–21st century: Occultists such as Bérenger Saunière begin to equate Mary Magdalene, the Merovingians, Cathars, the Knights Templar, pre-Christian fertility cults, Rosslyn Chapel, UFOs, Area 51, and anything else their fevered little minds can think up

1969: The Church officially separates Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the “sinful woman”

1982: Holy Blood, Holy Grail is published, alleging Jesus and Mary Magdalene were the ancestors of the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish Gaul

2003: Dan Brown publishes The Da Vinci Code

2003: Monica Bellucci plays Persephone, the wife/girlfriend/life partner of The Merovingian, in The Matrix: Revolutions.

2004: Monica Bellucci plays Mary Magdalene/of Bethany/the sinful woman in Mel Gibson’s pre-Vatican II gorefest The Passion of the Christ. Coincidence?

Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Boston University, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.

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