A history of the Virgin Mary

The Economist this week reviewed an interesting new book about the history of the veneration of the Virgin Mary by historian Miri Rubin:

As Ms Rubin, a professor at London University, successfully shows, it is very nearly true to say that the story of Mary’s cult simply is the history of Christianity, and hence absolutely central to the narrative of European and Christian civilisation. By studying the different ways in which Mary was described, hymned and painted in medieval Italy, one can also describe Europe’s beginnings as a great political and commercial enterprise. Her absence was a defining feature of the colder, more rational world that emerged in the Protestant north. And in the colonial era, above all in Latin America, she metamorphosed seamlessly from conquerors’ champion to helper of the oppressed—long before any of the founders of modern literary theory had come up with fancy ideas about shifting metaphors and “floating signifiers”.

. . .

For all the differences between the first Christian millennium and the second, a common theme in discourse about Mary was polemic against the Jews, who especially in Byzantium were often regarded as the “other” in relation to which Christianity must define itself. In some contexts, the word “Jew” seems to have been used almost as a generic term for one who failed to give due honour to Jesus Christ and his mother. And as Ms Rubin notes, the early Christian era also saw plenty of Jewish counter-polemic, mocking the story of Mary’s virginity and suggesting that she was an adulteress.

Read it all here.

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