The Dormition of the Virgin Mary, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
On þone fifteogðan dæg þæs monðes bið seo tid þæt is sancta Marian tid. On þone dæg heo geleorde of middangearde to Criste, ond heo nu scineð on þam heofonlican mægene betwyh þa þreatas haligra fæmnena, swa swa sunne scineð on þisne middangeard. Englas þær blissiað, ond heahenglas wynsumiað, ond ealle þa halgan þær gefeoð in sancta Marian. Sancta Maria wæs on feower ond sixtegum geara þa þa heo ferde to Criste. Sancta Maria is godfæder snoru ond godes suna modur ond haligra sauwla sweger ond seo æðele cwen þara uplicra cesterwara; seo stondeð on þa swyðran healfe þæs heahfæder ond þæs heahcyninges.- Old English Martyrology (from here)
On the fifteenth day of the month is the feast which is St Mary's feast. On this day she departed from the world to Christ, and now she shines in the heavenly host among the crowd of holy virgins, as the sun shines upon this middle-earth. Angels rejoice there, and archangels exult, and all the saints are glad with St Mary. St Mary was sixty-four years old when she went to Christ. St Mary is daughter-in-law of God the Father and the mother of God’s son, and mother-in-law of the holy souls and the noble queen of the citizens of heaven; she stands upon the right side of the great Father and High King.
Today is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, the first of the two great Marian feasts of the harvest. In medieval England both the Assumption and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, on September 8th, were known as 'Our Lady Day in harvest', to distinguish them from 'Lady Day in Lent' (the Annunciation, March 25 - 'Lent' meaning 'spring' here) and 'Lady Day in December (the Feast of the Conception, December 8). The different seasons of the year had their different Lady Days, though today the term usually refers only to the springtime feast. The Assumption was also called 'Marymass', especially in Scotland. The September feast was sometimes referred to as 'the latter Lady Day' - a name which appears as early as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - to distinguish it from the Assumption, and this period of slightly less than a month between the harvest feasts was a season too, when something might be said to have happened 'between Our Lady's days'.
All these feasts grew out of a wealth of ancient traditions about the life of the Virgin, part scriptural, part apocryphal, part popular legend. Over the course of a thousand years or so a rich narrative developed which traced Mary's life from the very beginning to the very end, from the joy of her parents at her conception to the moment when, surrounded by apostles on earth and angels in heaven, she was tenderly taken out of her earthly body. In between the story of her life was mapped out in a pattern which would have been familiar to many medieval women, through domestic, everyday scenes: parents rejoicing in the birth of a longed-for baby; a little girl learning to read with her mother, or climbing the steps to the temple like a child on her first day at school; a teenage Mary with her female friends, singing to her baby, at her churching, or in the last days of her life. These were familiar rituals of childhood and motherhood which resonated with medieval audiences, and there's something profoundly beautiful about elevating such ordinary family relationships to the dignity of high art. Though Mary is unique and peerless, in these stories she is every medieval woman, not an unapproachably distant figure but a woman imagined in relationship to others: a daughter, wife, mother, friend.
An alabaster panel of the Assumption (England, 15th century)
In particular, the story of her Assumption is full of other people and their love for her - the apostles and her friends gathering around her bedside, Christ cradling her soul in his arms like a child. The Bible gives no information about the end of Mary's life, but numerous traditions and narratives on the subject had developed by the fifth and sixth centuries, telling how Christ received his mother's soul and/or body into heaven at the end of her life on earth. The details of these stories vary (see this book for details), but today I thought I'd post a few extracts from an anonymous Anglo-Saxon homily for the Assumption. This is a translation of a text known as the Transitus Mariae, a widely-known apocryphal account of Mary's life which circulated in several different versions and in multiple languages in the Middle Ages. The English translation comes from the tenth-century Blicking Homilies; it's too long to give in full, but the whole text can be found at part 1 and part 2. Here are three short extracts.
Men ða leofestan, gehyrað nu hwæt her segþ on þissum bocum, be þære halgan fæmnan Sancta Marian, hu be hire on þas tid geworden wæs. Heo wæs wæccende dæges & nihtes & hie gebiddende æfter Drihtnes upstige. Þa com hire to Drihtnes engel & he wæs cweþende, ‘Aris þu, Maria, & onfoh þissum palmtwige þe ic þe nu brohte, for þan þu bist soþlice ær þrim dagum genumen of þinum lichoman, & ealle Drihtnes apostolas beoþ sende þe to bebyrgenne.’ Þa cwaeð Maria to þæm engle, ‘Hwæt is þin nama?’ Þa cwæþ se engel to hire, ‘Hwæt secestu minne naman, forþon he is mycel & wundorlic?’
Þa Sancta Maria þis gehyrde þa astah heo on þone munt þe wæs nemned Oliuete. & þæt wæs soþlice swiþe scinende palmtwig, & hit wæs þa swa leoht swa se mergenlica steorra, þe heo þær onfeng of þæs engles handa. Þa wæs heo swiþe wynsumiende & mid mycle gefean gewuldrad. & ealle þa þe wæron hie gesawon þæt se engel þe ær com to hire astah on heofenas mid myclum leohte. Þa wæs Maria eft hweorfende to hire huse, & heo þa alegde þæt palmtwig mid ealre eaþmodnesse, þe heo ær onfeng of þæs engles handa; & heo eac alegde hire hrægl þe heo mid gegyred wæs, & þwoh hire lichoman & heo hie gegyrede mid þon selestan hrægle, & þa wæs swiþe gefeonde & swiþe blissigende, [& bletsode] God & wæs cweþende, ‘Benedico nomen tuum... et laudabile in secula seculorum. Ic bletsige þinne þone halgan naman, forþon þe he is mycel & hergendlic in worlda world. Ic þe bidde min Drihten þæt þu sende ofer me þine bletsunga.’ Þa wæs Maria cweþende, ‘Mid þy þe þu me hate of minum lichoman gewitan, þonne onfoh þu minre sawle.’ Þa wæs se engel cweþende, ‘Ne beo þu, Maria, geunreted.’ Mid þy þe heo þis gehyrde, þa wæs heo cleopigende & cegende ealle hire magas þa þe þær neah wæron, & wæs cweþende, ‘Gehyraþ me nu ealle, & gelyfaþ ge ealle on God Fæder Ælmihtigne, forþon þys morgenlican dæge ic beo gangende of minum lichoman & ic gange to minum Gode; & ic bidde eow ealle þæt ge anmodlice wacian mid me oþ þa tid on þæm dæge biþ mines gewinnes ende.’
Dearest men, listen now to what is related here in these books about the holy virgin St. Mary, what happened to her at this time. She was keeping watch by day and night and praying after our Lord’s ascension. Then an angel of the Lord came to her and said, ‘Arise, Mary, and receive this palm-branch which I have now brought you; for truly, before three days have passed you shall be taken from your body, and all the Lord's apostles shall be sent to bury you.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘What is your name?’ The angel said to her, ‘Why do you seek to know my name? For it is great and wondrous.’
When St. Mary heard this, she ascended the hill which was called Olivet. And truly, that was a very shining palm-branch - as bright as the morning-star - which she had received from the angel’s hand. She was rejoicing and was glorified with great joy. And all those who were there saw that the angel who had earlier come to her ascended into the heavens, with great light. Then Mary returned again to her house, and with all humility she laid aside the palm-branch which she had received from the angel’s hand, and she also laid aside her garment with which she was clothed, and washed her body and adorned herself with the finest garment. Then she greatly rejoiced and exulted and blessed God, saying, Benedico nomen tuum quoniam magnum et laudabile in secula seculorum, ‘I will bless your holy name, because it is great and worthy to be praised, world without end. I beseech you, my Lord, send your blessing upon me.’ Mary said, ‘When you command me to leave my body, receive my soul.’ The angel said, ‘Be not sorrowful, Mary.’ When she heard this, she invited and called all her relations who were nearby, and said to them, ‘Now listen to me, all of you, and believe in God the Father Almighty, for tomorrow I am going from my body and going to my God. I pray you all that you watch with me together until that time, the day which will be the end of my labours.’
Mary receives the palm from the angel (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 132v)
The text then tells how the apostles gather around Mary, having been told that the end of her life is near, and she gives them instructions for her burial.
& þa æfter þysum wordum þa com þær ure Drihten & he hie gemette ealle anmodlice wæccende, & he hie onlyhte mid his þæs Halgan Gastes gife. & he wæs cweþende to him, ‘Broþor þa leofestan, ne sy eow nænigu cearo þæt ge geseon þæt þeos eadige Maria sy geceged to deaþe, & ne biþ heo no to þæm eorþlican deaþe ac heo bið gehered mid Gode, forþon þe hire bið mycel wuldor gegearwod.’ & mid þy þe he þis gecweden hæfde, þa ascean samninga mycel leoht on hire huse þæt ealle þa fynd wæron oferswiþde þa þe þær wæron, & þa þe þæt leoht gesawon þa ne meahton asecgan for þæs leohtes mycelnesse. & þa wæs geworden mycel stefn of heofenum to Petre & wæs cweþende, ‘Ic beo mid eow ealle dagas oþ þa gyfylnesse þisse worlde.’ & þa ahof Petrus his stefne & wæs cweþende, ‘We bletsiaþ þinne naman mid urum saulum & we biddaþ þæt þu fram us ne gewite; & we bletsiaþ þe & we biddaþ þæt þu onlyhte ure world, for þæm þe þu eallum miltsast þæm þe on þe gelyfaþ.’ & þis wæs cweþende se eadiga Petrus to eallum þæm apostolum & he trymede heora heortan mid Godes geleafan.
Æfter þyssum wordum gefylde, þa wæs Maria arisende & wæs ut gangende of hire huse, & hie gebæd to þæm gebede þe se engel hire tocwæþ þe þær com to hire; þa þis gebed wæs gefylled þa wæs heo eft gangende on hire hus & heo þa wæs hleonigende ofer hire ræste, & æt hire heafdan sæt se eadiga Petrus & emb þa ræste oþre Cristes þegnas. & þa ær þære syxtan tide þæs dæges þa wæs semninga geworden mycel þunorrad, & þær wæs swiþe swete stenc swa þætte ealle þa slepan þe þær wæron. & þa apostolas onfengon þære eadigan Marian & þa þre fæmnan þe him Crist ær bebead, þæt hie wacedon buton forlætnesse & þæt hie cyþdon Drihtnes wuldor be hire & ealle medemnesse be þære eadigan Marian. Þa slepan þa ealle þe þær wæron; þa com þær semninga ure Drihten Hælend Crist þurh wolcnum mid myccle mengeo engla & wæs ingangende on þære halgan Marian hus on þæt þe heo hie inne reste. Michahel se heahengel se wæs ealra engla ealderman, he wæs ymen singende mid eallum þæm englum, mid þy þe Hælend wæs ingongende. Þa gemette he ealle þa apostolas emb þære eadigan Marian ræste, and he bletsode þa halgan Marian & wæs cweþende, Benedico te quia quicumque promisisti — ‘Ic þe bletsige min Sancta Maria; & eal swa hwæt swa ic þe gehet eal ic hit gesette.’ Ond þa andswarode him seo halige Maria & wæs cweþende, ‘Ic do a þine gife, min Drihten, & ic þe bidde for þinum naman þæt þu gehwyrfe on me ealle eaþmodnesse þinra beboda, forþon þe ic mæg don þine gife. Þu eart gemedemod on ecnesse.’ & þa onfeng ure Drihten hire saule & he hie þa sealde Sancte Michahele þæm heahengle, & he onfeng hire saule mid ealra hisleoma eaþmodnesse. & næfde heo noht on hire buton þæt an þæt heo hæfde mennisce onlicnesse; & heo hæfde seofon siþum beorhtran saule þonne snaw...
þa cleopode semninga þære eadigan Marian lichoma beforan him eallum & wæs cweþende, ‘Wes þu gemyndig, þu gewuldroda Cyning, forþon ic beo þin hondgeweorc, & wes þu min gemyndig, forþon ic healde þinra beboda goldhord.’ & þa cwæþ ure Drihten to þære eadigan Marian lichoman, ‘Ne forlæte ic þe næfre min meregrot, ne ic þe næfre ne forlæte, min eorclanstan, forþon þe þu eart soþlice Godes templ.’
And then after these words our Lord came there, and found them all watching together, and he enlightened them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and said to them, ‘Dearest brethren, have no sorrow because you see that this blessed Mary is called unto death; for she is not called to earthly death, but she shall be favoured by God, for great glory is prepared for her.’ And when he had said this, there suddenly shone a great light upon her house, so that all the fiends who were there and those who saw the light were overpowered, and were unable to speak because of the greatness of the light. And then came a loud voice from heaven to Peter, saying, ‘I am with you always unto the end of this world.’ And Peter lifted up his voice, and said, ‘We bless your name with our souls, and we beseech you never to depart from us; and we bless you and beseech you to bring light to our world, for you have mercy upon all those who believe in you.’ And blessed Peter said this to all the apostles, and he strengthened their hearts with the faith of God.
After he had finished these words, Mary arose and went out of her house, and she prayed the prayer that the angel who came to her had told her. When this prayer was finished, she returned to her house and rested on her bed, and at her head sat the blessed Peter, and about the bed Christ's other disciples. And before the sixth hour of the day there suddenly came a loud thunder, and there was a very sweet smell, so that all that who were there slept, and the apostles and the three women, whom Christ had commanded to watch without intermission, took charge of the holy Mary, so that they should make known the glory of the Lord in her and all his kindness to the blessed Mary. And while all who were there were sleeping, our Lord Christ suddenly appeared there in a cloud with a great company of angels, and entered the house of the holy Mary where she was at rest. The Archangel Michael, the leader of all angels, was singing hymns with all the angels, as the Lord entered. He found all the apostles round the blessed Mary’s bed, and he blessed the holy Mary, and said, ‘Benedico te quia quæcumque promisisti — ‘I bless you, my holy Mary, and all I have promised you, I will perform.’ And holy Mary answered him, and said, ‘My Lord, I give forth your grace always, and I beseech you for your name's sake that you grant me obdience to your commands, so that I may give forth your grace. You are honoured for ever.’ And then the Lord received her soul, and gave it to Saint Michael the archangel, and he received her soul with reverence in all his limbs. She had nothing upon her save only a human body, and she had a soul seven times brighter than snow...
Then suddenly the body of the blessed Mary cried out before them all, and said, ‘Remember, glorious King, that I am your handiwork; and be mindful of me, for I keep the gold-hoard of your commandments’. And then our Lord said to the blessed Mary’s body, ‘I will never leave you, my pearl; I will never leave you, my arkenstone, for truly you are the temple of God.’
Mary's death, with Christ holding her soul (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 133)
There's some lovely language here. Christ calls Mary min eorclanstan, my arkenstone - more properly translated as 'my precious jewel' - a word with a long and fascinating history. She calls herself the goldhord of his commandments, his 'treasure-house'. Such tender speeches between Mary and her son are the most appealing part of texts about the Assumption - I posted some later medieval English examples here.
The burial of Mary (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 134v)
After this Mary's body is buried, and there's a story around her funeral, too long to post, which involves the conversion of a Jewish leader who touches her funeral bier. When she is buried, Christ appears again with a host of angels, to lead her body out of the tomb:
& þa hraþe bead Drihten Gabriele þæm heahengle þæt he wylede þone stan fram þære byrgenne duru. Ond þa Michael se heahengel geong weardode þære eadigan Marian sawle beforan Drihtne. Ond þa wæs Drihten cweþende to Marian lichoman, ‘Aris þu, min seo nehste & min culufre & mines wuldres eardung, & forþon þe þu eart lifes fæt, & þu eart þæt heofenlice templ, & næron nænige leahtras gefylde on þinre heortan, ond þu ne þrowast nænige þrowunge on þinum lichoman.’ Ond þa cwæþ Drihten eft to þæm lichoman, ‘Aris þu nu of þinre byrgenne.’ & þa sona aras Maria of þære byrgenne, & ymbfeng Drihtnes fet, ond þa ongan wuldrian on God & wæs cweþende, ‘Min Drihten, ne mæg ic ealle þa gife forþbringan þe þu me forgeafe for þinum naman, & hweþre hi ne magon ealle þine bletsunge gefyllan. & þu eart Israhela God & þu eart ahafen mid þinum Fæder & mid þinum þy Halgan Gaste on worlda world.’ Ond þa ahof Drihten hie up & hie þa cyste, & hie þa sealde Michahele þæm heahengle & he hie þa ahof up on wolcnum beforan Drihtnes gesihþe. Ond cwæþ Drihten to þæm apostolum, ‘gangaþ nu to me on wolnum.’ & þa mid þy þe hie wæron gangende to him þa, wæs Drihten hie cyssende & wæs cweþende, ‘Pacem meam do uobis. Alleluia!’ Ic forlæte mine sibbe to eow þurh mines Fæder þone Halgan Gast. Ond ic eow sylle mine sibbe þurh min þæt hehste lof, ond ic beo mid eow ealle dagas oþ þa geendunga þisse worlde.’ & Drihten cwæþ to þæm englum, ‘ Singaþ nu & onfoþ minre meder on neorxna wonge.’
Then staightaway the Lord told Gabriel the archangel to roll away the stone from the door of the tomb. And then Michael went forward and took the soul of the blessed Mary to the Lord. And the Lord said to Mary's body, ‘Arise, my kinswoman, my dove, and the dwelling of my glory, for you are the vessel of life, and you are the heavenly temple; no sins were committed in your heart, and you will suffer no pain in your body.’ And the Lord said again to the body, ‘Arise now from your tomb.’ And immediately Mary arose from the tomb, and she embraced the Lord’s feet and began to glorify God, saying, ‘My Lord, I cannot produce all the gifts that you gave me for your name's sake, nor can they exhaust all your blessings. You are the God of Israel, and you are exalted with your Father and with your Holy Spirit for ever.’ And then the Lord raised her up and kissed her and gave her to the archangel Michael, and he lifted her up in the clouds before the Lord's presence. And the Lord said to the apostles, ‘Come now to me into the clouds.’ And when they went to Him, the Lord kissed them and said, Pacem meam do vobis. Alleluia. ‘My peace I leave with you through my Father’s Holy Spirit, and my peace I give you through my highest praise, and I will be with you always unto the end of this world.’ And the Lord said to the angels, ‘Now sing, and receive my mother into Paradise.’
Mary is lifted up to heaven (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 135)
The above series of images comes from an illustration of the story in a 14th-century Book of Hours, BL Yates Thompson 13. It's four centuries later than the Old English text, but you can see that many of the details of the Transitus Mariae story are also present here - it continued to be popular throughout Europe during the medieval period, though is hardly known today. There are several versions in Middle English, including a lovely verse homily, as well as depictions in art. One of the most memororable of those depictions is found in the church of St Mary's, Chalgrove, Oxfordshire. This beautiful village church has an exquisite painted chancel, decorated in the first half of the fourteenth century, which shows scenes from the life of Mary and Christ, together with saints and angels, against a background of flowers.
The north side of the chancel depicts the life of Christ, from a blossoming Jesse tree at one end to the Crucifixion and Resurrection at the other. On the south side is the narrative of Mary's passing. The paintings were covered in limewash at the Reformation and so one or two later monuments have intruded into the series, but it's still remarkably complete. The first glimpse of it is breathtaking - no picture can do it justice.
The sequence begins with Mary receiving the palm from the angel, and praying on her knees:
We see her surrounded by the apostles and her friends, with the women in some beautiful fourteenth-century clothes:
Then comes the scene (now obscured by a monument) when her soul leaves her body, and Christ receives it:
Christ is the central figure, with angels behind him, and Mary's little soul is visible just next to him, being raised up from her body by angels.
Then comes her funeral procession, with the conversion of the Jewish leader, who touches her bier and then goes to preach to his friends:
Most of the burial scene is now lost, except for the tenderness with which this figure is cradling Mary's head:
Below are two almost lost scenes, then on the adjacent wall, beside the east window, are the Assumption and Coronation.
They parallel the upward movement on the other side of the window, of Christ's Resurrection and Ascension.
Chalgrove is a treasure of a church, and the chancel has the kind of air about it that Lady Chapels often have - a feeling of lightness and delicacy in the decoration, as of sunlight caught in spiderwebs. It sounds silly to say it, but it feels ladylike. For this reason I'm always particularly moved by the destruction of these scenes, such as you can see in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, where a whole carved sequence of scenes from Mary's life was systematically vandalised - exquisite scenes like this, of a little girl and her tenderly watchful parents, with their heads cut away.
All the apocryphal stories about Mary's life, because of their uncertain authority, have long attracted criticism, and - like all but one of the 'Lady Days' - their place in British culture did not survive the Reformation. Almost all the stories they tell about Mary's life are unfamiliar now, even to many Christians. (I clearly remember my own surprise when I learned, on an August visit to Germany as a teenager, why the shops were closed for a public holiday; I don't think I had ever heard of the Feast of the Assumption, or knew what it celebrated.) But it's not difficult to see why these stories were so popular in the Middle Ages, and our understanding of medieval Christianity is impoverished unless we recognise just how prevalent and how popular they were - how much imaginative and artistic space the medieval church dedicated to Mary's story. Though these legends contain plenty of miracles and marvels and angels, they're also very human and ordinary; they are the medieval church at its most 'homely' (to use Julian of Norwich's word), where the everyday, the domestic, the familiar is sanctified and honoured. Full of mothers and daughters and Mary's friends, these stories celebrate a sacred version of female community and female relationships; they are completely relatable, not only for mothers like Margery Kempe but for anyone who has ever had a mother, ever been a child. (And perhaps this is, in fact, one reason why they have historically attracted such virulent objections.) When these stories were forgotten, when the paintings were whitewashed and the statues were broken, something important and beautiful was lost.