Mary’s Imperial Mercy, or, What an Empress Needs

Last post for my Intro to Medieval Studies class, and several days late at that. For a record of part of the seminar’s conversation, see Miranda Hadjuk’s post here.

According to the Gracial of Adgar, there once lived a certain secular man, a farmer, who devoted himself to worldly pursuits. As this French work, dating to around 1165, compiles miracles of the Virgin Mary, we can guess at what might happen next. The Farmer’s a wicked man: he routinely plows onto his neighbors’ lands, sends his reapers into their wheat, and pastures his livestock in their fields. But whenever he’s on his way to do his wickedness, he habitually says a little prayer to the Virgin Mary. When he dies, demons come rushing for his soul, confident that so dedicated a sinner belongs to them. The angels concur, until one angel recalls the farmer’s devotion to the Virgin. And with that, the unclean spirits flee. (I cite from a Latin translation; Adgar himself claims to be translating from a Latin original, by a certain Master Alberic; for another Latin account, nearly identical, see Caesarius of Heisterbach)

And in another exempla collection, the friar Nicholas of Wexford tells of a certain wretched man [miser] who “sororem suam tenuit multis temporibus fornicarie” [a hard clause to translate, because it’s so very repulsive: literally, who had fornicated with his sister many times]. After a long time in this vileness [vilitate], he was struck by a heavy illness, and he lay for a day, or more, with his entire upper body cold, and lower too, with only a spark of heat still trembling in his heart. And then he’s led to hell, with demons wanting to throw him him; the Virgin shows up, liberates him, and restores him to life. Nicholas, the man’s confessor, asked how such a thing could be possible, given the horrendous sin? For no other reason, he says, but that my sister was a sometimes brewer; whenever she’d brew, we’d habitually reserve a “bolla,” that is, two gallons, out of love of the Virgin, and that alone was enough to save me from hell.

Marian stories of this sort are first written in Jerusalem, Syria, and Egypt, in Greek, in the fourth century; Gregory of Tours compiles the first set of stories in Latin in the sixth century; and they began to be compiled in great numbers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, like the ones above. Those compiled by Bartholomew of Trent (d. 1251) would make their way back to Egypt, where they would be, in part, translated and adapted into Arabic. And then, around 1400, they would be translated into Ge’ez, a a Semitic language that remains the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christianity; there hundreds of additional stories would be added to the collection.

Christianity became the official religion of the royal court of Ethiopia in the fourth century, perhaps in 333, under King Ezana; bishops were provided from Alexandria in Egypt. By the sixth century, the scriptures would be translated from Greek into Ge’ez, . I’ve read — in my inexpert and probably haphazard way — that we have only minimal historical records of Ethiopian Christianity between the first period of Muslim contact until the twelfth century, when Christian Zagwe rulers arose (and created the astonishing Lalibela), and then, in 1270, the Solomonids, so-called because of their claim to be descended from Menelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is in this period that we witness the proliferation of Ethiopian stories and holidays devoted to the Virgin Mary.

Many of these Marian stories date to the seventeenth century, that is, at a time when the Solomonic rulers were in desperate straights. One — the topic of Thursday’s class — concerns a certain nobleman of Qəmər, nominally Christian. He was an anthropophage [bälaˁe säbˀ, which literally means “man eater”]; he killed and ate 78 people, and, when his remaining — surviving, really — servants fled, he killed and ate his wife and children. With nothing but a leather water bag, his golden bow, and his appetite, he wanders. He finds a plowman too strong to kill, so he asks him to sell him his ox. The plowman refuses; the anthropophage offers him his bow; the plowman, perhaps nearly a vegetarian, refuses (“I prefer bread to anything else; I reject your offer”); the anthropophage raises the offer, with two arrows, and is similarly rejected. Finally and fully rebuffed, he asks for cave to shelter in, and on the way there, he finds a beggar covered with hideous lesions; the anthropophage is too disgusted to eat him. Please, calls the beggar, give me some water! In the name of the heavens and earth, in the name of the righteous and martyrs, in the name of — and here the anthropophage finally relents — the Virgin Mary. And the beggar gets a swallow of water, and then — in at least one version of the story (and here) — the anthropophage manhandles him so he stays thirsty; and then, in his cave, the anthropophage starves to death. And that one drink of water, offered in the Virgin’s name, is enough to save the anthropophage from hell.

Wendy Belcher, to whose discussion, and translation, I am indebted, reports on the early reception of this tale in 20th-century European medieval scholarship. Most found it exaggerated, absurd, or worse (one thought its cannibal material a reflection of its African context!). Belcher offers several readings of the tale: as about Mary’s intercessory powers; as a fable not about morality — as European Mary tales often were — but about mere survival; as a coded conflict between nobles and peasants, or between hunters and farmers, or between the wealthy and the poor (recall Swift’s “Modest Proposal”); and finally the intertextual: Belcher finds that the tale’s much closer to Islamic stories of terrible killers saved by God than it is to European Marian tales, which tend not to concern murderers (though see, for example, this one).

All that is convincing, of course: Belcher is an expert on early modern Ethiopia, and I couldn’t be any further from such a thing. But I’m going to suggest, briefly, that the Ethiopian adapters of this Marian material understood its core motive, which isn’t necessarily especially “African,” nor about anything more outrageous than Mary’s own sovereign mercy. Here’s what I (think I) know: from its thirteenth-century inception in Solomonic Ethiopia, Marian devotion is an Imperial cult: one fifteenth-century ruler was even named Bä’edä Maryam (He who is in the Hand of Mary); at any given moment when these works were being adapted and promulgated, the Solomonic rulers were in some manner of difficulty: in establishing their rule, in expanding it, in resisting Muslim and Pagan incursions (indeed, they sent emissaries to Venice, Genoa, Rome, and Aragon, variously looking for their own Prester John, even as the Europeans sought their own in Africa). Strong but embattled rulers need to exercise, chiefly, their authority, and they need strong supporters.

Enter the cannibal. Why doesn’t he repent? Why is murder no impediment for entrance into heaven? Why, but that the murderous nobleman — abounding in servants, baring a golden bow — is precisely the kind of supporter any Emperor requires. Pacifying a region, after all, typically doesn’t mean bringing it peace; it means bringing the murderers into your camp. As the pirate said to Alexander the Great, it’s only because you kill on a grand scale that you’re called an Emperor (Confessio Amantis, III.2380-97). The close Latin analogs to the tale don’t quite get this: a farmer who steals his neighbors’ property, and the man who commits fornication with his sister are each people who don’t respect boundaries. The same is the true for the anthropophage. All of them show insufficient deference to the border between self and other. But the sovereign mercy the first two men receive has little to do with how Mary’s majesty might play out in the political world. She’s not just thaumaturgical; she’s not just any old Saint; she is the Empress of Heaven. And as an Empress, what she wants is submission. And submission, alone, is sufficient to garner Imperial grace. And what’s still better is if that Imperial grace falls upon the most reprobate killer imaginable, reprobate in all ways save his Imperial devotion.

Think, finally, of this Marian miracle, from the Middle English Alphabet of Tales: a thieving, murderous knight captures a cleric of some sort. The “man of religion” asks the Knight to summon all his men together. He does, but one’s missing, the chamberlain. When the chamberlain is made to appear, he stares with mad eyes at the cleric, who compels him to reveal that he is, in reality, a fiend that had been encouraging the knight in his wicked ways, and he has waited for years on end to strangle the knight, but the knight, even amid his murdering, had always, every day, said an “Ave Maria.” That alone was enough to keep him safe. The knight falls on his knees before the cleric, asks for penance, and amends his life. And the tale ends like so:

And þis holie man commandid þis fend þat he sulde go his ways, and nevur aftur presume to dissese any creatur þat had deuocion vnto our̛ ladie, Saynt Mari.

[And this holy man commanded this fiend that he should go his way, and never afterwards presume to trouble any creature devoted to our lady, Saint Mary].

That’s good, to a point. But if you’re not in Mary’s camp, watch your neck!

[thanks to Wendy Belcher for offering several key corrections to the above! much appreciated]


Belcher, Wendy Laura. “Mary Saves the Man-Eater: Value in the Medieval Ethiopian Marian Miracle Tale of “The Cannibal of Qəmər”.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 8, no. 1 (2019): 29-49. doi:10.1353/dph.2019.0013.

Kleiner, Michael, and Wendy Laura Belcher. “Appendix: The Cannibal of Qəmər.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 8, no. 1 (2019): 138-144. doi:10.1353/dph.2019.0019

Appleyard, David. “Ethiopian Christianity.” Chapter. In The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity, edited by Ken Parry, 2008. doi:10.1002/9780470690208.ch6

Crummey, Donald. “Church and Nation: the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahedo Church (from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century).” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of Christianity, edited by Michael Angold, 5:457–87. Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521811132.020.

Oliver, Roland, and Anthony Atmore. Medieval Africa, 1250–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511811036.

Salvadore, Matteo. “The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458.” Journal of World History 21, no. 4 (2010): 593-627.

and, for further reading, various works by Habtamu Tegegne