Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mary Magdalene and the Early Saints of Provence by Herbert Thurston 1899

St. Mary Magdalene and the Early Saints of Provence by Herbert Thurston 1899

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It was not altogether to be wondered at that the ruthless criticism to which the Abbe Duchesne has subjected the Provencal legends should arouse a certain amount of acrimonious controversy. The fervent, but not over-critical, children of the sunny south are naturally proud of their connection with primitive Christianity, and they are unwilling to be despoiled of their honours without a struggle. If rumour may be trusted, the Abbe Duchesne is only a shade less unpopular in Tarascon than M. Alphonse Daudet himself. Still facts are stubborn things. With the best will in the world to hear both sides and to respect the memories which cling round the names of St. Mary Magdalene, St. Martha, St. Lazarus, St. Martial, St. Trophimus, and the devotion which the sainte baume has inspired for at least six centuries, we are none the less convinced that the Abbe Duchesne is substantially in the right. Despite the efforts of Mgr. Bellet, M. l'Abbe Arbellot, and others, we fear that most of these Provencal legends must ultimately take their place with the story of the Holy Grail brought by St. Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, and with the multitude of other pseudo-historical Mahrchen, of which every country supplies its own examples.

While differing, however, from the conclusions arrived at by Mgr. Bellet in his reply entitled: Les Origines des Eglises de France, et les Fastes Episcopaux, which is now before us, we are very far from thinking it a book without value. There is no doubt that the Abbe Duchesne's love of destructive criticism often leads him to overstate his case. For him the transition is so easy from the proposition, "these things are not proved," to the proposition, "these things are untrue," that he sometimes seems to treat the two as identical. It does not follow that because in the eleventh century or later an apostolic origin was invented for certain of the Churches of France, and connected with names prominent in Gospel history, that the early existence of these Churches is any the less intrinsically probable. However, such a concession would be very far from satisfying Mgr. Bellet, for whom the mediaeval legends of St. Mary Magdalene, St. Lazarus, &c., are genuine traditions embodying historical facts. His proofs in this matter seem to us sadly inadequate. Here and there he is able to show that traces of the legends may be found earlier than the Abbe Duchesne was willing to allow. Indeed, the latter scholar, confident no doubt in the general soundness of his case, has been at times aggravatingly reckless in his chronological assertions. Also we think that Mgr. Bellet, by applying the test of the rhythmical cursus, has shown it to be not improbable that the primitive Vita St. Martialis may be as old as the sixth century. But granting all this, the point and substance of Duchesne's argumentation remains entirely untouched. The legends are all late. They are in contradiction to the statements of the one writer, Gregory of Tours, to whom, before all others, we should look for information. They do not hang together. We can watch the process of their development. There is, to recur to the illustration given above, not a scrap more evidence—indeed there is not so much—for the presence of the family of Bethany in Provence, than there is for the residence of St. Joseph of Arimathea in Glastonbury.

What is more, the controversy having now been continued for several years since the Abbe Duchesne redirected attention to the subject, a verdict has been pronounced in his favour by almost every competent scholar, with the exception of a few patriotic ecclesiastics who are obviously and naturally reluctant to surrender their cherished traditions. We may note particularly the very strong opinion which has been repeatedly expressed upon this subject by the Bollandist Fathers of Brussels in their Analecta Bollandiana, a periodical, alas, too little known in this country, and by so competent a critic as Dom Germain Morin, O.S.B., of Maredsous, in two important papers, of which he has had the kindness to send us a tirage a part. To the second of these, Le "Missorium " de Saint Exupere, which only saw the light a few weeks since, we propose to refer more particularly at the end of this short article. Of the other, entitled S. Lazare et S. Maximin, we may say here that Dom Morin seems to have hit upon a clue which explains the origin of the cult of St. Lazarus at Marseilles, and of the legends attaching to various other Saints honoured at St. Maximin. St. Lazarus, it appears, was a real personage, a Bishop of Aix in the fifth century, who probably ended his days and was buried at Saint Victor, and the identity of name alone was quite sufficient for the devout and patriotic Marseillais of a later age to lead them to claim connection with the Lazarus of the Gospels. At St. Maximin, similarly, there is good reason to suppose that cult was paid to the relics of holy men who had really died in repute of sanctity, but whose remains had been translated thither from Billom in Auvergne. It was easy in the course of ages for a legend to grow up connecting the names of these stranger Saints with the first beginnings of Christianity.

With regard to St. Mary Magdalene and St. Martha, Dom Morin, while cordially agreeing with the destructive criticism of Abbe Duchesne, professes his inability to offer any plausible explanation of the introduction of their names into Provencal tradition. And it is here that we venture to pick up a suggestion thrown out by the Bollandists in their notice of Dom Morin's brochure and to make it the excuse for the few remarks which follow. "Is it not possible," says the Bollandist reviewer, "that it was the confusion of Lazarus of Aix with the Lazarus of the Gospel which formed the starting-point for a whole cycle of legends, in which Mary and Martha, the two sisters of the friend whom Christ restored to life, must naturally have had their place?" The remark seems to us a suggestive one, and we venture to direct attention to another fragment of evidence, which Mgr. Bellet will probably regard as a confirmation of his thesis, that the Provencal legends are of early date, but which we quote here as throwing possible light on the origin of the cult of the sainte baume.

In two or three different MSS. of pre-Norman times there exists a copy of a Martyrology, in Anglo-Saxon, which many years ago was printed by the late Mr. Cockayne in his publication called The Shrine, under the fanciful title of "King Alfred's Martyr Book." This Martyrology seems to us, for many reasons, to be specially deserving of attention, and we are glad to believe that an edition of it is in preparation under the auspices of the Early English Text Society. In connection, however, with the present subject, we only wish to refer to one short passage in it, the notice of St. Mary Magdalene, which appears in its proper place on July 22nd.

Translating pretty closely, the original may thus be rendered in modern English:

"On the two and twentieth day of this month is St. Mary's tide, the woman of Magdala. She was first a sinner, and she was filled with seven devils, that is, with all vices. But she came to our Lord, when He was man on earth, while He was at table at some Jewish teacher's house, and she brought her alabastrum, that is, her glass vessel, with precious ointments. Then quoth the Saviour to her: "Thy sins are forgiven thee," and "go in peace." And she was afterwards so chosen by Christ that He, after His Resurrection, showed Himself to her first of all mankind, and she announces His Resurrection to His Apostles. And after Christ's Ascension, she was in such longing after Him that she would never from that time look upon the face of a man. And she departed into the desert, and there dwelt thirty years, of all men unknown. Neither did she ever eat mortal food, nor drank, but at each hour of prayer God's angels came from Heaven and raised her into the air, and there she heard part of their heavenly jubilation, and then they brought her back to her CAVE IN THE ROCK (Stanscrafe), and that was the reason why she never felt hunger or thirst. And it happened that after thirty years a holy mass-priest met her in the desert, and he led her to his church, and gave her housel (Holy Communion), and she delivered up her spirit to God. And the mass-priest buried her, and many wonders often took place at her tomb."

This passage is of some little interest as throwing back the development of one phase in the evolution of the legend to a notably earlier date than the Abbe Duchesne has assigned to it. The Anglo-Saxon MS., from which the extract has been made, belongs to the first part of the eleventh century, but fragments of the same Martyr Book are preserved which, both from the handwriting, and from certain grammatical peculiarities, have been pronounced by experts to be certainly as old as the time of King Alfred, i.e., the end of the ninth century. On the other hand, the Abbe Duchesne has committed himself in one of his articles on the subject to the following statement: "At a tolerably early date, that is to say in the course of the twelfth century, a long episode, borrowed almost word for word from the life of St. Mary of Egypt, had become attached to the story of St. Mary Magdalene. This was the description of the long and terrible penance performed by the friend of Christ in a desert of Provence." In the summary account just quoted from the Martyr Book there is no mention of Provence, nor indeed of any definite locality, but we have a well-known incident from the life of St. Mary of Egypt, namely, the story of the absolute solitude in which she lived many years in the desert, until found by the priest from whom she received Holy Communion just before her death; and we have also another thing which, as far as we are aware, does not occur in the life of St. Mary of Egypt, namely, the mention of the cave in the rock, the Stanscrafe, in which the penitent lived. Granted, then, that there was to be found anywhere in Provence a rocky cave in a desert place which perhaps had actually been inhabited by some holy anchoret, and was in popular veneration; granted, also, that a legend had begun to grow up in these localities concerning a migration of St. Lazarus to the south of France, suggested, as we have seen, by a confusion with Lazarus, Bishop of Aix, it seems supremely natural that if some story of a cave found a place in the life then current of St. Mary Magdalene, her name might easily come to be connected with such a grotto in the desert as was later on honoured under the name of the sainte baume. Further, looking at the words in the Anglo-Saxon Martyrology, in which it is stated that Mary Magdalene, after the Ascension of our Lord, gewat on westenne, departed to the desert, is it quite absurd to conjecture that in Saxon, or some Teutonic language, the word for desert (westen, wuste = our waste) may have got confused with the word meaning west, and may thus possibly have originated the Occidental legend? But this, of course, is a mere guess, and possibly a somewhat wild one.

With regard however to the story of St. Mary Magdalene, we have not yet before us Mgr. Bellet's final answer to the Abbe Duchesne. He proposes, as we understand, to publish a separate volume on this subject, as well as on the early history of the Church of Vienne. Judging, however, from the line of argument adopted by him in the first edition of Les Origines, we do not expect to find anything in this forthcoming work which can essentially modify the judgment already pronounced.

We have already said that we consider the essay of Mgr. Bellet as in many respects valuable, but we must add that it contains much special pleading, pleading which would produce but little impression upon scholars really familiar with the evidence, although it is likely to impose upon the general reader. No one who is conversant with the facts of the Abercius controversy will think that Mgr. Bellet strengthens his case by the reference he makes to it on page xvii., neither will the statement of the text of page 323 weigh much with those who read carefully the criticism of the Bollandists quoted at the foot of it. It astonishes us that Mgr. Bellet does not seem to recognize the weakness of his own reply.

Further, we may remark that the general soundness of the Abbti Duchcsne's position in all this controversy is strongly brought out by sundry scraps of evidence, to which attention has been directed by other scholars since the publication of his articles. We may note, in the first place, a Martyrologium written for the Church of Arles about the year 1120, and now preserved in the Vatican Library. Now, although Arles from its geographical position close to the very centre of the Provencal legends concerning St. Mary Magdalene, St. Martha, and the rest, ought to have been permeated with these traditions, on any supposition of their genuineness, we find in the Martyrologium in question, as Dom Morin and M. Georges de Monteyer have shown, complete silence on the subject.

Again, Dom Morin has very recently published a little essay, already referred to, in which he discusses a curious relic of antiquity found at Risley Park, in Derbyshire, in 1729. How it came there there is no evidence to show, and the fragments of the silver plate in question have now seemingly disappeared; still, we have a description by a contemporary antiquary, and an engraving which may presumably be trusted to represent the object itself and the inscription engraved upon it with reasonable accuracy. This inscription shows that the plate was a "Missorium" a piece of church plate which it was the custom for Bishops to give for the service of the altar, and there is every probability, as Dom Morin proves, that this particular missorium is one presented to the Church of Bayeux by its first Bishop, Exsuperius, whose name is engraved upon it. Now the occurrence of a particular form of the "chiro" monogram shows conclusively that the plate is of the fourth century and posterior to the age of Constantine, and that consequently the legend which describes St. Exsuperius as sent to Bayeux by St. Clement in the first century is, like so many of the legends exploded by Duchesne, a fabrication of mediaeval times.

Finally, we may remark that amongst the relics given by King Athelstan, about the year 940, to the Church of Exeter, was one purporting to be a finger of St. Mary Magdalene. The inventory of this donation is still preserved in an Anglo-Saxon document printed by Dugdale, in which it will be seen that the relic of St. Mary Magdalene occupies a position of special prominence. A few words of explanation are added about the life of the Saint. This account is based exclusively upon the Gospel narrative, and no hint is given of any subsequent developments, such as the life of penance in the desert, or the migration to the south of France. It seemed worth while to call attention to this inventory, as we are not aware that it has been noticed by Faillon, or by the other writers who have dealt with the documentary evidence for the early cultus of St. Mary Magdalene.

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