BOOK REVIEW: The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Literature and Popular Culture (Gary Waller)-Review by Joseph Morgan

GARY WALLER, The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Literature and Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 237. $90. ISBN: 9780521762960.


In the summer or autumn of 1538, several statues of the Virgin Mary, removed from pilgrimage shrines such as the famous Walsingham, were publically burned in London.  Taking this event as a kind of hinge or “fulcrum,” Gary Waller bridges the divide between the Medieval and Early Modern and examines  “the Virgin’s fades and traces” in England’s ideological history and social practices through what he repeatedly calls a “lightly worn presentism,” using psychoanalytic criticism, the sociology of popular religion, and Catholic feminist theology. Waller demonstrates ways the Virgin continued to “haunt” early modern England through continuities and transformations of her figure (vii-viii).

Beginning with the burning of the shrine images, intriguingly termed “sisters” by Hugh Latimer (1), the first chapter contextualizes the devaluation of the Virgin by examining motives of iconoclasm. Waller seeks to explore not only the empirical facts of the anti-Marian campaign of the reformers, such as Latimer and Cromwell, but more importantly, what happened to the feelings about and desire for the Virgin. For Waller, the iconoclastic hostility of the reformers seems motivated as much at Mary as embodied woman and her sexuality as any concerns about images. Thus Marian piety, as centered on a material body, became a target for the reformers.

After Chapter One, the book divides into two parts. Part One, chapters 2 through 4, looks back on the centrality of the Virgin in late medieval England. Chapter 2 explores how what Waller terms the late medieval “sexualization” of the Virgin contributed to the reformers’ zeal for her eradication. Waller employs contemporary theory, such as the feminist theology of Tina Beattie, to develop what he terms a “gynotheology” of Marian devotion in the Middle Ages (34). Employing psychoanalytic formulations such as the fetish and Kristeva’s ideas on abjection to explore the psychology of Marian devotion, this chapter focuses on the ways Mary’s female body–in particular, her genitals–became a focus of theological discussion during the Middle Ages. [1]

Chapter 3 analyzes the centrality of Mary in the popular literary culture of late medieval England, as shown in Lydgate’s poetry, the many anonymous Marian lyrics, and, most significantly, the Cycle plays. Waller argues that these popular representations depict a humanized–and embodied–Mary, whose female sexuality remains in focus. Waller finds the fullest development of Marian “gynotheology” in the drama’s depiction of a humanized Virgin (65) to whom women viewers would have related. Reformers’ concerns, according to Waller, centered on the attention given to Mary’s female body, especially the focus on her genitals and what he terms her “vaginality (79), as evident, for example, in the N-Town Midwives scene.

Pilgrimage becomes the focus of Chapter 4. In a return to his focus on the “sister” images of Mary burned in the 1538 bonfires, Waller examines the Reformers’ concerns over the uses and abuses of Marian images at Marian shrines such as Walsingham and the tales of miracles associated with them. Waller argues that this concern with images links to the Protestant concern to regulate female bodies, women’s sexuality, and maternity, and positions the late medieval critique of pilgrimage, especially women’s pilgrimage, in light of these Protestant concerns over regulating the female.

Part Two moves past 1538 to examine the “fades and traces” (vii) of Marian energies in the newly Protestant England. In spite of the Reformers’ efforts to get Mary “out of their heads”(viii), the English showed a lingering nostalgia for the Virgin through engagement with multiple transformations of her representation. In Chapter 5, Waller begins with a meditation on the landscape of ruined religious structures that Cromwell’s Dissolution had left in its wake across Britain. Nostalgia for the Old Religion developed against the backdrop of the ruined abbeys and pilgrimage sites and found expression in poems, ballads, and music and the cult surrounding Elizabeth, in part inspired by “the transition from a sacramental understanding of the universe to what we loosely call the modern ‘secular’ world.” (112). The Marian “fades” and “traces” he finds in these examples point to “something [the Virgin Mary] represented (or misrepresented) [that] would not disappear” (116), but instead resurfaced in a variety of transformations and transferences as Mary’s “liminal suggestiveness” (135) endured past the removal of the Virgin herself from the religious and emotional life of England.

In the sixth chapter Waller explores the ways English Petrarchism exhibits various Marian “traces.” Petrarchism arrived in England already laden with Catholic associations (136), and furthermore its subject position of suffering lover contemplating his idealized beloved’s beauty and virtues allowed a layer of English Marian nostalgia to be grafted onto it. Through psychoanalytic readings of a number of literary works, Waller develops a claim that both English Marian devotion and Petrachism exhibit “uncanny interminglings and echoes which unquestionably grow from a dominant pattern by which desire was structured and experienced” (152). Waller reads both medieval Marian devotion and English Petrarchan poetry as manifestations of “deeply rooted…needs and desires” and “the desire for transformation and wonderment within human experience”(155). Waller’s seventh chapter, focusing on Marian traces in Shakespeare, is in many ways his strongest. Through inspired readings of All’s Well That Ends Well, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale, Waller contributes to the ongoing discussion of a Catholic presence in Shakespeare by arguing that characters such as Helena, Marina, and especially Hermione represent various aspects of, if not the theology, then the “richly numinous association[s]” (178) of the Virgin.

In his final chapter Waller reads works from Donne (d. 1631), Milton (d. 1674), Herbert (d. 1633) and Crashaw (d. 1649) to show how Marian traces and fades continued several generations after the 1538 image burnings. He argues that, far from the eradication of Mary from the English consciousness claimed by Tina Beattie, he finds abundant evidence for an enduring and productively transforming engagement with those aspects of Marian devotion that had engendered her popularity in earlier times.[2] Waller argues for a more nuanced understanding of how Marian energies resurfaced in new and unexpected ways after the “shattering” of Mary’s central role during the Reformation (208).

The first section of the book, “The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval Culture to 1538,” employs psychoanalytic theory to account of Mary’s importance in English culture in the period. Given the density of Waller’s reliance on theory in this section, more literary examples would have been helpful. Waller relies on N-Town rather heavily to support his argument about Mary’s body, for instance, and other examples from the wealth of late medieval Marian texts would have been welcome. In contrast, the book’s second section deftly weaves theorizing with a variety of specific literary examples from works by Robert Southwell, Edmund Spenser, Walter Ralegh, Sir Robert Sidney, and William Shakespeare.   

Waller’s argument that the Virgin Mary endured in the English imagination long past the Reformation promises to provide a new context for the role of Mary in England, not only for students of the Early Modern period, who seems to be Waller’s target audience, but also those studying the medieval cult of the Virgin in England. Though Waller seems most at home analyzing Early Modern texts, and his theoretical engagement with medieval ideas about the Virgin feels unmoored without the detailed textual analysis that characterizes the second part of his book, his call for a correction to the idea that the Virgin Mary simply disappeared from the English consciousness is well-placed and compelling.

Joseph Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Indiana University. He specializes in Middle English literature, with a special interest in literary representations of the Virgin Mary.



[1]Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), Bulgarian born French philosopher, brings cultural theory, psychoanalysis, and feminism together in her many works. Waller especially focuses on Kristeva’s theory of abjection, elaborated in her book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

[2]  See Tina Beattie, “Queen of Heaven.”  Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. Ed. Gerard Loughlin. (Oxford: Blackwell, 207) 293-307.