ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Devotional Literature: Humanizing God
[page numbers in NA refer to 9th ed., 2012; click HERE for study guide with pagination from 8th ed., 2006]

I. Medieval Lyrics

Read carefully through the headnote on Middle English Incarnation and Crucifixion Lyrics, NA 408-409, considering carefully what it has to say about religious-themed poetry (applicable both to the poetms printed NA 409-411 and the supplemental page of Marian lyrics, both assigned for this class).  Know which two poems (one in the NA, one in the Marian lyrics) were written by known authors (St. Godric, late 12th-century;  and William Herebert, died 1333) Note the different depictions of Christ (or a Christ-like figure) and of Mary in "What is he, this lordling"; "Ye That Pasen by the Weye"; "Sunset on Calvary"; "I Sing of a Maiden"; "Adam Lay Bound" and the "Corpus Christi Carol" (NA 408-411), as well as in the Marian lyrics (click on the link to access these online readings). Note the emphasis on the humanity of Christ and, especially, of Mary. Which of the two is depicted as more accessible? In what roles does Christ appear? Is he the central figure you might have expected him to be?

In the first two lyrics, Christ is depicted as a sort of warrior-hero analogous to the Christ of the Dream of the Rood.  "What is he, this Lordling" describes the Christ of the Crucifixion as a valiant if blood-spattered knight; note the imagery or diction (word choice) that depicts him in this light.  "Ye that Pasen by the Weye" is addressed not to the long dead witnesses of Christ's actual Crucifixion but to a contemporary audience contemplating a Crucifix or other artistic depiction of Christ's Crucifixion.  The emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ in this poem -- there is no other like him -- recalls the depiction of Beowulf as a larger-than-life savior figure whose feats of prowess are super-human compared to the more ordinary heroism of the warrior Wiglaf. 

Consider the importance of the Virgin Mary in the remainder of the poems. How is she portrayed? What can the sinner expect from her? For what qualities is she praised? In what roles does she appear? Consider the differences between these expressions of medieval piety and the treatment of religious themes in the first two lyrics and the Dream of the Rood. What is the effect of this differing emphasis and treatment? What societal changes (in e.g. values, message, target audience) are implied by this shift from God-as-Warrior to a more humanized, "feminine" side of religious experience? Do you see a connection to the importance of the Virgin Mary in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Note specific instances in the lyrics where Mary is depicted in her roles as mother or as mother-to-be, as intercessor, or as Queen of Heaven.  How are these roles interrelated?  Mary's privileged status as the mother of Christ makes her a particularly effective intercessor with her son, the Judge of mankind, for the souls of those who pray to her, and her status as the universal mother of mankind -- a sort of "Everymom" figure -- explains in part why she was held in such high veneration by medieval Christians.  Consider in this regard the various depictions of Mary and of Christ (e.g. as the presiding Judge at the Last Judgment) in the medieval artwork found linked to the class homepage or on the Getty Museum website.

Note the use of imagery or diction (word choice) associated with "courtly love" in some of the religious poems (see esp. "I Sing of a Maiden" and "The Corpus Christi Carol").  To modern readers, it seems odd that the Virgin Mary is described in terms that recall erotic love. Why might this be so? According to St. Bernard of Clairvaux and other Christian mystics, the Bridegroom and Bride of the Song of Songs can be seen as allegorical representations of (among other things) Christ and Mary, the King and Queen of Heaven, who together constitute a sort of "Salvation Couple" responsible for the redemption of fallen mankind.  This "coupling" of Christ and Mary as partners in mankind's salvation was understood symbolically rather than literally; it was not meant to suggest celestial incest, but to account for both the "masculine" and the "feminine" sides of God and to universalize the metaphor of human love as a symbol of the soul's ecstatic union with God. Christ and Mary are the "new Adam and Eve," the Salvation couple who replaces the Fallen couple; as such, they are God's response to Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden.

Note the presence of the felix culpa ("happy fault" or "fortunate fall") motif in the poem "Adam Lay Bound."  Traditionally, this motif refers to the notion that the fall of mankind (due to the wiles of the temptress Eve) was actually a good thing, since it afforded God the opportunity to demonstrate His great love by sending His Son to redeem fallen mankind.  In the poem "Adam Lay Bound," there is an interesting variation upon this theme:  Adam alone seems to be responsible for the Fall (Eve is not mentioned; see line 3).  Moreover, the happy result of that initial fall is not the existence of God's Son, but of Mary in her role as Queen of Heaven (see lines 5-8).

II. The Song of Songs in the Bible and in St. Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs

The biblical Song of Songs (on e-reserve in the Required Readings folder on PolyLearn) is a beautiful piece of erotic love poetry from the Old Testament. Also known as the Song of Solomon (because it was purportedly written by King Solomon) or as the Canticle of Canticles, it comprises eight chapters of erotic love poetry recounting the love between a Bride and her Bridegroom.

In the mid-twelfth century, the Cistercian monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (lived ca. 1090/1-1153) wrote a series of eighty-six sermons on the first two verses of the Song of Songs, the Sermones super Cantica canticorum ("sermons on the Song of Songs"). He began work on them in 1135 and left them unfinished at his death in 1153. These sermons (selections on e-reserve in the Required Readings folder on PolyLearn) offer allegorical readings of the love affair between Bride and Bridegroom (see translatio). 

In these sermons, Bernard of Clairvaux suggests that the ecstatic union of the human soul with God is analogous to the marital bliss of wife (soul) and husband (God).  Bernard realized that as creatures of the flesh, human beings are necessarily limited in their understanding of the Divine.  Due to the limitations of human experience, we cannot truly comprehend what it means to be purely spirit.  Erotic imagery helps us to grasp the ecstasy of union with the Divine by describing that connection in terms that human beings can comprehend.

Sermons 7, 21 and 86 deal principally with the allegorical symbolism of the Bride and the Bridegroom. Note the different allegorical interpretations of the Bride: she is sometimes the "soul thirsting for God" (ser. 7, p. 38); sometimes the personification of the Church (e.g. in ser. 21). In sermon 86, the privacy and intimacy of the bridal bed is compared to the situation of the soul in prayer.  Additionally, as mentioned above, the Bride is sometimes seen as analogous to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, just as Christ, Mary's celestial "partner" and consort, is King of Heaven (but without any erotic connection; Mary represents, the "feminine" side of the Divine, while Christ is the "masculine" side; together, these two complementary parts represent the perfection of God.)

St. Bernard played a key role in the expansion of the Cistercian order throughout twelfth-century Europe. He was known for his particular veneration of the Virgin Mary, to whom he dedicated another series of sermons. We will meet him again as Dante's final guide in Paradiso, the final book of Dante's Italian epic, the Divine Comedy (or Commedia). LOOKING AHEAD: Read sermon 19 carefully, and note the description of the divine hierarchy (including Angels, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Virtues, Cherubim and Seraphim). We will refer back to this sermon when reading Dante's Paradiso.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2019

Click here for the supplemental Marian Lyrics (Online Readings)

Click here for The Second Shepherds' Play Study Questions

Click here for an Introduction to Medieval Allegory

Click here for the Getty Museum Website Exercise

Return to ENGL 203 homepage
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's homepage
Send me mail!