Exploring Digital Mary Magdalene
is an online collection of digital editions containing a late medieval legend of Mary Magdalene’s conversion, preserved in both Latin and various vernacular manuscripts. The most venerated female saint in the later Middle Ages, second only to the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene was a popular subject of sermons, legends, plays and other devotional literature. In line with the development of vernacular literature and drama and the rise of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, whose sermons to lay audiences dramatized the lives of Biblical figures, Mary Magdalene’s story received widespread attention. Indeed, as has been observed, Mary Magdalene was considered as “the greatest of sinners, but also the greatest of penitents,” and her dramatic transformation from exemplary sinner to exemplary saint captured the imaginations of preachers and devotional writers. This conversion legend is an important and little-known witness to the flourishing of Mary Magdalene’s cult in the later Middle Ages and the literary activity that it precipitated, and a valuable resource for scholars of late medieval literature and cultural history.
The Mary Magdalene conversion legend is significant for its complex history of transmission in Latin, Middle Dutch, and dialects of German—a testament to the text’s transcultural mobility. Given the text’s transmission across linguistic and cultural boundaries, a single print edition would be unable to capture the particularities of each witness. We developed this set of digital editions in order to preserve the distinctive features of each manuscript and to present them in an interactive, dynamic, and user-friendly way. Our objective is to create editions faithful to the original texts—and the particularities of punctuation, abbreviation, and word choice that define each one—yet accessible to the modern reader.
Please use the following information when you cite the corpus:
Exploring Medieval Mary Magdalene, Text Editions, Manuscript Shelfmark, <url> [date of access].
Example: Exploring Medieval Mary Magdalene, Text Editions, Brussels, Bibliothèque de la Société des Bollandistes, Cod. 347, fols. 23r–24r, <https://maria-magdalena.ub.uni-freiburg.de/wordpress/ms-viewer/viewer.html> [Accessed 1 May 2019].
1. Who We Are
Exploring Digital Mary Magdalene moved from Harvard University to the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg in 2021. The project was initially conducted at Harvard University from 2017 to 2019, where it began as the focus of a graduate student seminar conducted by Professor Racha Kirakosian. Students from different disciplines—including not only German, but English, Linguistics, Classics and History of Art—came together to produce interactive and fully-searchable editions of the linguistically diverse manuscripts containing this little-known legend. In the process of working both individually and collaboratively on the set of manuscripts, students gained a historical knowledge of Mary Magdalene’s significance in the later Middle Ages; developed paleography and coding skills; and produced a valuable digital resource whose capabilities surpass the limitations of traditional printed critical editions. This pilot project serves as a model of a research seminar focused upon working across disciplines—and, in turn, bringing their different methodologies into conversation—and learning by doing.
2. Our Method
Creating the Exploring Digital Mary Magdalene collection was a multi-step project involving paleography, coding, and web design. Our team made transcriptions of each manuscript, and then encoded the text in XML, according to TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) guidelines. In our codes, we marked up features of each manuscript such as rubrication; medieval punctuation, capitalization, and abbreviations; and scribal edits. We also tagged the names of people and places (i.e. Mary Magdalene, Jerusalem) so that users may easily search for those key terms in the manuscripts. Our digital team used the codes to design an interactive display for the manuscripts and edited texts.
Conforming to current TEI guidelines, our team has employed a set of best practices useful for the TEI tagging of textual phenomena ranging from variant spellings and punctuation to scribal corrections and editorial interpolations. These standards and the full TEI code of each digitized text are available on the “Editorial Principles” and “TEI Documentation” sections of this website.
The digital medium enables us to edit and display manuscripts in a dynamic and interactive way. For instance, users can view any number of manuscripts at once, and, in turn, compare the way the same narrative episode in the legend is rendered in different manuscripts. Users can also track where in each text, and how many times, a specific figure (for instance, Lazarus) is mentioned. Furthermore, digital editing enables us to make our editorial interventions clearer and more transparent: users can choose to read the text with either original or edited abbreviations, punctuation, and capitalization.
The Mary Magdalene conversion legend, in particular, offers itself as a case study of a set of manuscripts whose attributes are best captured in digital editions.The circumstances of the text and the manuscript material have hindered scholars from editing the text in the print medium, which is not suitable for representing the legend’s actual transmission. A digital application, however, perfectly accommodates the complex transmission by enabling interactive use of the edited texts and easier access to different variants.
While the study of this legend and its manuscripts that this project enables will be in and of itself important for medievalists, linguists, historians, and codicologists, our team has created this resource in order to introduce the practice and standards of digital editing to Harvard, and to ease the way for future scholarly efforts in working with digital manuscript. This resource also has the potential to serve as an interactive teaching tool for students of paleography and codicology.
3. The Manuscripts and the Legend
This Mary Magdalene conversion legend, one of many legends surrounding the saint, was attributed to Isidore in the Middle Ages, but probably originated in the Low Countries. Three Latin manuscript versions of the text exist today, produced in the fifteenth century in the Netherlands and in western and northern Germany. Latin A (Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, ms. 7917, fol. 147r-148r) is the oldest witness, dating to the fifteenth century. Latin B (Société des Bollandistes, ms. 347, fol. 23r-24r) was copied from Latin A and is slightly shorter, and Latin C (Cod. Gl. Kgl. S. 205, fol. 89v-90r) was then copied from Latin B. While A and B are relatively similar, C has been both abridged and expanded from its model, and it contains a commentary on the legend that is singular to that manuscript witness.
The text was then copied from a Latin manuscript (either A or B, but with more hints toward B) into the vernacular. The vernacular legend has been transmitted in eight different manuscripts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Written in at least four different Germanic dialects, the texts go all back to one source, but they are so called “siblings,” meaning that no hierarchy can be drawn between the versions.
For more information on each manuscript witness, see the “Manuscript Information” section of this website.
4. Mary Magdalene in History
From early Christianity onward, the figure of Mary Magdalene played a central role in devotional culture, developing “a singular and remarkable significance among apologists, exegetes, and dramatists.” Mary Magdalene’s status as first witness to the Resurrection meant that she was prominent in the Church’s Easter liturgy from early on. The medieval Mary Magdalene was a composite figure combining the attributes of three women in the Gospels: In his homilies, Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary of Magdala, the woman Jesus had healed of seven demons, with Mary of Bethania, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and a nameless penitent who had anointed Jesus’ feet with tears. A legendary tradition also developed around her life after Christ’s Ascension: she was said to have preached and evangelized in the region of Provence, and to have retired to an eremitic life in a cave in La Sainte-Baume. As such, the Mary Magdalene of the Middle Ages embodied “various roles as sinner, model penitent, follower of Christ, exegete, and preacher.” This diversity of attributes, and the dramatic nature of her conversion from sinfulness to sanctity, made her an especially fruitful subject for sermons, plays, and devotional texts, and a popular role model for increasingly literate lay audiences.
Mary Magdalene’s legendary story survives in many iterations. Among the most influential was Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, produced around 1260. As Peter Loewen and Robin Waugh have observed, the Legenda Aurea frames Mary Magdalene in terms of a dramatic opposition between her pre- and post-conversion identities, an opposition evident in the conversion legend that is the focus of our project: She is portrayed as flagrantly sexually unchaste until she repents at Jesus’ feet at the house of Simon the Leper, and her newfound and extraordinary devotion is “parallel to but opposite to the emotional expression and intensity of her previous life dedicated (presumably) to luxury and sexual adventure.” The Legenda Aurea continues the story beyond her conversion, describing her career of evangelism and preaching as an apostle.
As Katherine Jansen has observed, lay devotion to Mary Magdalene, as apostle and contemplative, was widespread in the late Middle Ages: Pilgrims traveled to La Sainte-Baume, and laypeople such as Isabel Bourchier, countess of Eu, commissioned texts on Mary Magdalene for personal devotion. Furthermore, monastic foundations for contemplatives were founded in her name, and female mystics such as Catherine of Siena emulated the exemplary asceticism of Mary Magdalene.
The project would not have been possible without the generous support from the Barajas Dean’s Innovation Fund for Digital Arts and Humanities of Harvard University. We are indebted to Cole Crawford (Humanities Research Computing Specialist) and Rashmi Singhal (Interim Director of Arts & Humanities Research Computing), who have been a tremendous support and source of advice. Eleanor Goerss (History of Art and Architecture, Harvard), Joe Wolf (Celtic Languages and Literatures, Harvard), and Robert Rößler (Germanic Languages and Literatures, Harvard) have assisted as Digital Teaching Fellows. Special thanks go to Prof. Jeffrey C. Witt (Philosophy Department, Loyola University of Maryland) for generously sharing his TEI-editor and for general advice. We are grateful for the University Library of the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg for setting up and hosting the website.
Seminar Participants, Fall-Spring 2017-2018
- Eleanor Goerss
- Zach Hayworth
- Anna Kelner
- Jenny Körber
- Hans Martin Pech
- Susanne Zwierlein
Seminar Participants, Spring 2019
- Jonas Hermann
- Becky Jarvis
- Avantika Kumar
- Philip Liston-Kraft
- Hannelore Segers
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 See Jansen as well as Loewen and Waugh for detailed analysis of how Mary Magdalene’s story was interpreted in the later Middle Ages, and the relation of the saint’s popularity to lay literacy and personal devotion.