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The Annunciation as Model of Meditation: Stillness, Speech and Transformation in Middle English Drama and Lyric
The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, portrayed in the Gospel of Luke 1: 26-38, is the moment when the Godhead becomes incarnate in human flesh and begins the Christian narrative of salvation (Appendix I). It is the introduction of Mary, the Mother of God, the humble young woman chosen for her pureness and humility to bear Christ in her continually inviolate womb. In medieval liturgy, art, prose and poetry Mary is a model of virtue and holiness, and the Annunciation scene provides some of her role’s most vital features within the spirituality of the Middle Ages. Luke’s Annunciation episode, the only scriptural account of the event, sets the tone for all subsequent Annunciation representations: his language and the words of his characters are simple and spare, yet complex and evocative. Luke’s bare but explicit rendering of the event prompted medieval literary interpretations to emphasize two crucial features: the power of the words exchanged, and the rich, ambiguous stillness that surround them.
To try to comprehend the transformation of the virgin’s womb into the vessel of the Word of God made Flesh is to expose the basic struggle of humanity’s physically limited ability to comprehend the ineffability of the divine, that ageless struggle of each fallen soul. As Augustine points out, though a contradiction of terms is created when we seek to speak about this ineffability, “this contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally.”1 Yet Mary is spoken to by God; she speaks back, and her womb is silently transformed by those words – how can this paradox of silence and verbum be resolved? The Annunciation becomes, above all, a meeting of human and divine in conversation: a conversation that is the essence of prayer. This meeting between the divine and human is the same yearning momentum of the contemplative, the mystic, seeking the inner stillness of unico mystica: True “Quiet” is a means, not an end: is actively embraced, not passively endured. It is an incident in the self’s growth in contemplation; a bridge which leads from its old and unco-ordinated life of activity to its new, unified life of deep action – the real “mystic life” of man. This state is desired by the mystic, not in order that consciousness may remain a blank, but in order that the “Word which is Alive” may be written thereon. (1911: 384)
Stillness becomes the paradoxical catalyst for dramatic transformation, and dramatic stillness becomes a strategic approach for representing the transformative miracle of the Annunciation. An examination of medieval literary representations of the Annunciation, particularly the verse of the liturgy, the poetry of the Middle English carols, and the drama of N-Town Mary Play, reveals the subtle power of the interaction between stillness, speech, and transformation, and how these interactions create a unique model of sophisticated meditation upon the Incarnation for medieval lay audiences.
The Annunciation was a popular subject for the many lyrics and carols that focused on Mary, and the poetic form was often used to develop a complex re-imagining of the event. I syng of a mayden (Appendix II), one of the most admired fifteenth-century Middle English lyrics, offers, within a deceptively simple form, an extremely delicate and haunting presentation of Mary (the “mayden / þat is makeles”) and her conception of Christ (“here sone”). Though it begins with the celebratory, epic-like “I syng” and returns to that tone throughout the poem by means of the repeating burden, the power of the poem lies in the dynamic contrast with the insistent “stylle” of the intervening stanzas. “He cam also stylle” utilizes several different meanings of the adverb “stylle”: the silence of Christ’s movement; the sense of motionlessness of the moment of conception; the secret, humble nature of His coming; and the continuous, eternal nature of the Incarnation, “still” happening in individual souls.2 The metaphor of “dew in aprille” derives from the Old Testament prefiguring of Christ’s conception as the morning dew, as found in Isaiah 45:8 and Judges 6:34-40, and maintains the effect of “stylle” by emphasizing the sense of quietness and physical stillness in the midst of natural fertility.3 This paradox of divine tranquility and activity also echoes the mystical dual nature of God – “perfect stillness, perfect fecundity,” according to John Ruysbroeck (Manning 1962: 163).4
Mary’s physical stillness as proof of her virginity remains the poet’s priority. The poetic scene’s expressive levels of stillness emphasize that Mary maintains her virtuous composure and humility throughout the event; that none of the violence of carnal action was involved, but only silent, spiritual intercourse with the Holy Ghost; that her womb, through each stanza’s tightening focus on her body, remains continually free of the taint or movement of concupiscence.5 Likewise, these levels of stillness are also crucial to the “silent night” of the eve of Christ’s birth.6 In both the conception and birth of Christ continual intactness of Mary’s womb (still “stylle,” as it were) expands to envelop the entire setting with silent, sacred impermeability.7 It is just Mary and Gabriel, or just the Virgin and the infant Christ, who privately, “secretly” commune in the space, while the rest of humanity is kept at a distance – the distance between mankind’s Fall into sin and the Virgin’s return to holy purity. The reader, however, is invited into that privacy, and granted a glimpse of God’s power matched by Mary’s humility. As these medieval literary representations stress, it is important to make the further connection between physical purity and spiritual spotlessness, as Mary’s physical stillness becomes as much an indication of her inviolate womb as the parallel holiness of her humility and thought.
Other lyrics also use similar techniques to prioritize the importance Mary’s physical stillness in the Annunciation scene. Just as in I syng of a mayden, dramatic contrast is formed between burden and verse in the lyric beginning ‘Nowel, el,’ bothe eld and yyng (Appendix III). At two separate moments the status of Mary’s body is noted: in the first line of the fourth verse, “Mary stod stylle as ony ston,” and in the sixth verse: “Mary, on bryst here hand che leyd; / Stylle xe stod, and thus xe seyd.” The first instance might imply her fear and awe at the angel’s proposal; however, it also effectively echoes the stillness imagery of the previous stanza, where “the tyme of lytyl space” is reconciled in her womb. “Stylle as ony ston” is “an expression characteristic of folk-song and probably borrowed therefrom” (Greene 1935: 397). But when Mary’s motionless stance is mentioned again in the last verse, it becomes clear that her stillness is more than just an expression, and has adopted a sacred importance for her representation. As the lords and ladies to whom this carol is sung imagine Mary with her hands in a gesture of humility and her body tranquil, her words of obedience ring with even more truth and poignancy. The sound of her speech, does not disturb the quietness, but crucially communicates her silent contemplation on the Word of God as well as preserves the intactness of her virginity.
Like the simple yet suggestive repetition of the lyric, medieval drama’s medium of speech and movement can be subtly manipulated and restrained in order to evoke the stillness of the Annunciation scene and its primary importance for the transformation of both the Virgin Mary and the soul of the Christian spectator. Among all the medieval dramatists’ presentations of the Annunciation scene, the N-Town playwright alone “by a brilliant combination of different sources has succeeded in transposing into a cosmic setting and preserving some of the mysterious grandeur that great devotional writers had seen in the event” (Woolf 1972: 168-9). This “mysterious grandeur” finds its force in the same evocation of stillness captured in the lyric I syng of a mayden, which can be most dramatically seen in the N-Town’s presentation of Mary’s interaction with Gabriel after he has answered Mary’s concern about her virginity (Appendix IV). Unexpectedly, an awkward pause ensues, as the stage directions explicitly direct:
Here þe aungel maktyth a lytyl restynge and Mary beholdyth hym, and þe aungel seyth:
GABRYEL Mary, come of, and haste the. . .
Gabriel’s impassioned second speech finally prompts Mary’s spoken consent. As Richard Beadle has observed, this use of silence to intensify dramatic effect is extremely unusual, as “the N-Town ‘Salutation’ gives us perhaps the first... outstandingly effective use of stage silence” (Beadle 1997: 3). This pause is in part inspired by a passage from Nicholas Love’s The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, 26: 29-32 (Appendix V), which in turn relies not only on the pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes Vitae Christi, but also in this case St. Bernard’s “Homelia super Missus est Angelus IV.”8 St. Bernard pleads with the Virgin: “Hoc totus mundus tuis genibus provoluntus exspectat. . . Virgo, responsum festinanter,”9 and both Love and the N-Town compiler have exploited that hopeful anxiety to great effect.
Bypassing the full influence of N-Town’s sources for a moment, we can imagine that the audience’s experience of this scene on stage recalls many of the delicate nuances of stillness captured in the carols. The tension of hearing Mary’s silence, making the messenger of God wait, stresses both her wise pensiveness and the importance that her quietness bears on the success of the Incarnation. When the conception actually occurs, it is also through the silence of the Holy Ghost’s “iij bemys” of light sent to the Virgin, whom Gabriel lauds as a “lanterne off lyght” (line 290), as she holds within her the light of Christ, her womb like a lantern. Light is a common device for visualizing the conception, because, like dew, light neither harms nor destroys that through which it passes, but illuminates and gives life.10 The indisputable purity of the Virgin’s womb, now full with the incarnate Godhead, is clearly demonstrated to the audience through the dramatic use of stillness and silence: they, too, with Mary and Gabriel, are privy to the quiet secret of the miraculous conception (which, to their eventual amusement, the rest of the play will unsuccessfully try to disprove).11 Just as difficult as the Incarnation is to comprehend, it is more of a challenge to present on stage: thus the visual stillness of Mary (like her womb) must be dramatic enough to expand as an invisible, sacred enclosure encompassing stage, audience, and all Christians with this single most powerful manifestation of divinity. For Mary, silence is power.12
All of these examples of versified interpretations of the Annunciation scene establish a paradigm wherein stillness and silence enable miraculous transformation by means of the divine. However, deeper examination reveals that this paradigm has several complexities that emerge from the medieval devotional traditions and iconography surrounding the Incarnation. The key paradox is that language, as written or spoken word, is also crucial to the paradigm of stillness and transformation. Speech, like stillness, maintains the virginity of Mary’s body and the miraculous nature of the conception in three ways, all of which help form a unique model of contemplation based on the specifics of the Annunciation scene.
Firstly, Mary was held to have been interrupted by Gabriel at her prayers or Old Testament reading, specifically the foreshadowing of the Incarnation in Isaiah 7:14: “Propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum: ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel.”13 Almost all late-medieval visual representations show Mary with an open book or a Bible in hand, just as Love’s Mirror describes Mary in her private chamber quiet with “hire meditaciones perauentur redyng þe prophecie of ysaie” (23:11-16 in Appendix V). An early sixteenth-century illumination showing the Annunciation scene staging of a pageant play (most likely the N-Town play) shows her book clearly in view, though no stage directions exist to that effect (Appendix VI). Her act of silent reading is a fundamental feature of her characteristic pensive stillness throughout liturgical, learned and popular, performed texts; Love makes a prime example of this connection between prayer and silence when he employs it to advise those who would follow Mary’s behavior (24:40 – 25:5 in Appendix V). Many liturgical hymns and vernacular sources such as John Ryman’s carols also refer to Isaiah’s foretelling.14
Secondly, Gabriel’s words carry the ineffable force of the divine will that is the Word of God, as in Wisdom 18:14-15: “Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia, et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet, omnipotens Sermo tuus, Domine, de celis a regalibus sedibus venit.”15 Again, silence accompanies the Word of God to realize the transformation without violating the Virgin’s womb. This interaction is clearly a priority in many liturgical hymns and their vernacular elaborations set for devotional purposes. Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi is the Latin basis for the Middle English song Gaude Maria, Christis Moder (Appendix VI), which expands the single line “qui per aurem concepisti” to include Mary’s tranquility in virginity, producing “Thou stodyst full still withowt blyn, / Whan in thy ere that arand was done so”.16 She is listening in physical and mental quiet, and conceives through the ear which hears the Word of God. Likewise, in a Marian liturgical sequence (Appendix VIII: 1), the Word of God is the focus of the first three verses: Gabriel brought the Word, the Word was good and kind, the Word was made Flesh with Mary’s womb intact. Finally, because she was made pregnant through the Word of God (and not man) she suffers none of the conception pain or labor pain of Eve’s legacy. The second sequence (Appendix VIII) as well as the aforementioned Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi highlight Mary’s conception immediately upon hearing and comprehending the Word of God. The elegant parallels of “audit et suscipit” and “credit et concipit” evoke the merging of human linguistic comprehension of God (as physical non-action) with God’s incomprehensible action – our own fallen insufficiencies demand that God express his ineffable will through the only means available: word.
Thirdly, Mary’s spoken consent of Luke 1:38, “Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” exhibits the fulfillment of the holy words of both Isaiah and Gabriel, the ultimate realization of the Word made Flesh. Love elegantly parallels the humility of her silence with the humility of her words: “And so in þees meke & lowe wordes of Marie at þe ende þou hast ensaumple of grete mekenes, as þou haddest in hire silence at þe bygynnyng” (27:11-19, Appendix V). Her words are clearly idealized meekness, yet they also ring with courage; from that moment she is a willing participant in the salvation narrative. The repeating burden of I syng of a mayden stresses that “kyng of alle kynges / to here sone che ches” because Mary chose to accept the Holy Spirit, which elicited the divine response of “he came also stylle,” thus turning obedient inaction into dramatic action. Mary’s few and well-chosen words, the vocalized expression of her soul’s silent decision, are framed first by the silence of her prayerful listening to God’s words in Isaiah and in Gabriel’s mouth and framed finally by the silence of her conception of Christ. As in Psalm 45:2 , holiness is as much a product of Mary’s womb as of her words: “Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum: Diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis: propterea benedixit te Deus in aeternum.”17
Through these three ways that language functions in the Annunciation scene – Mary’s reading, Gabriel’s message, and Mary’s acceptance – the conception of Christ (Word made Flesh) is made possible not through the physical transgression of the virginity of the Mother of God, but through the human expression and comprehension of the divine by means of language. Sound, like dew and light, enters Mary’s womb through the power of the Holy Ghost in order to give human form to the Godhead. The virgin conception through the ear and virgin birth from the womb, as Pope Gregory concludes, are the same feat of splendid transparency: “Ingressus est per splendidam regionem, aurem Virginis, visitare palatium uteri; et regressus est per aurem Virginis portam.”18
Within late medieval vernacular devotional traditions, the transformative powers of speech and stillness combine as key access points for contemplation on the Incarnation. In these examples of Middle English verse, Mary’s model of meekness is subtly developed into a more sophisticated model of meditation, wherein her silence and speech become conduits for the individual soul’s transformation. The imaginative re-enactment of the Annunciation scene within the mind of the individual Christian makes possible his or her own active participation, like Mary, in the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption. This is most obviously demonstrated by the N-Town play, whose “mysterious grandeur” is in part powered by its own engagement of the audience’s imagination. Richard Beadle’s consideration of the N-Town’s Annunciation scene asserts that “the Virgin’s silence suspends the action for a moment of contemplation on the mystery of the Incarnation, transposing from the meditative tradition to which Love’s Mirror belongs a devotional technique that had been growing steadily in elaborateness and sophistication from the twelfth century onwards” (1997: 5), a devotional technique exhibited in the tensions of St. Bernard’s aforementioned homily. This is seen in Love’s “devout imaginacion,” a cue for the reader or listener to internally visualize the biblical scene and place themselves physically and emotionally within it. Creative imagining is likewise urged by the imagery of I syng of a mayden;19 but in both the lyrics and the N-Town play, the rich ambiguity of the scene’s stillness invoke a higher level of contemplation. This higher level is the meditative stillness that initiates inner transformation like that of Christ’s conception – but on the level of individual soul, it becomes a mystical experience of the Incarnation of Christ.
Ultimately, in these various vernacular interpretations of the Annunciation scene, Mary’s moment of contemplation is offered as a moment of contemplation for all of humanity. The stillness of humility and the comprehension of God’s word, the crucial paradigm of the Incarnation, become the tools for effective meditation upon the Incarnation itself. This concept can be found in another vernacular source for the N-Town play, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost, a popular devout living guide which writes, “So depely es þe herte festenede in God and in his werkes, þat wordis hym wanttis; and þe stillere þat he es in slyke Meditacion, the luddere he cryes in Goddes eris.”20 Here the paradox of contemplating the ineffable divine is brought to the fore; ultimately, words slip away to silence as the heart moves closer to God. Like the Virgin’s silence in the N-Town play, one is compelled to quiet their own soul to converse with God. Beyond simply stimulating extensive visualization, these tools of stillness and speech directly exercise the individual soul’s mystical capacity to be a willing and active participant in the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption. It is worth returning to Underhill’s apt perspective, wherein “true “Quiet” is a means, not an end: is actively embraced, not passively endured. . . This state is desired by the mystic, not in order that consciousness may remain a blank, but in order that the “Word which is Alive” may be written thereon” (1911: 384). God’s silent conversation with Mary is this exact inscription of Word into flesh. Thus the stillness of the Annunciation scene so treasured by these vernacular sources is more than the virtuous silence advised by Love’s Mirror (24:40 – 25:5 in Appendix V), but is “the true and healthy mystic state of ‘Quiet’. . . [which] is the tense stillness of the athlete” (Underhill 1911: 384). Mary, that spiritual athlete, sets an example in her lifelong training in the Scripture, as she generates it herself with her own words. “Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum: dico ego opera mea regi: lingua mea calamus scribae velociter scribentis,”21 proclaims Psalm 45:1, prominent in medieval Marian liturgy. The connection to Mary is clear: her belief is revealed through her spoken obedience to God, and her tongue writes the Word made Flesh that is Christ. To read as the Virgin reads, to pray as she prays, to answer as she answers, all while emulating her stillness, makes each contemplative Christian the “velociter scribentis,” transforming their soul into the “perpetual generation of the Word that Meister Eckhart speaks of in his Christmas sermon: ‘We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all Eternity: whilst this birth also comes to pass in Time and in human nature’” (Underhill 1911:384). Through meditation on the Word of God and through quiet contemplation of the Godhead, the Christian is encouraged to follow Mary’s example. The Middle English drama and poetry that consider the Annunciation as a paradigm of stillness, speech and transformation launch their audience into a subtle but highly sophisticated, active and willing engagement in devotional contemplation, where ‘devout imagination’ is heightened to a mystical intensity rooted in the mystery and ineffability of the Incarnation.
Laura Saetveit Miles (MPhil), U. of Cambridge
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1. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 1.6: “Quae pugne verborum silentio cavenda potius quam voce pacenda est” (Green 1995: 16). Translation, Reed 2003: 150.
2.See MED stille (adj), definitions 1, 3, 5, 6, respectively.
3.Isaiah 45:8: “Rorate coeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum: aperiatur terra et germinet Salvatorum.” S.M.: Officium: Missa de sancta maria per aduentum (Wickham-Legg 1926 is hereafter Sarum Missal or S.M.). Judges 6:34-40 is the story of the dew falling on Gideon’s fleece.
4.For more on the nature aspects of this poem, see also Weber 1969: 56-58; Reiss 1972: 162; Davies 1963: 334-335; Woolf 1968: 287-288.
5.For further on Christ’s decent into Mary’s womb without the movement of concupiscence, see Manning 1962: 162, and n. 26, p. 169; also Davies 1963: 335.
6.See also Reiss 1972: 161.
7.In the N-Town Nativity Play, “a little quiet on stage suffices for the painless delivery” (Carlson 1999:201), which occurs when Mary is alone.
8.For the connections between the N-Town Mary Play and these works see Beadle 1997: 6; also, Sargent 2004: 25.15-30 and 262nn, and Woolf 1972: 167-168.
9.P.L. vol. 183, col. 83. (Migne’s Patrologus Latina is hereafter P.L.)
10.See Coletti 1982: 256 for further references which emphasize the role of light in the conception.
11.See the following plays of “Joseph’s Doubt” and “The Trial of Mary and Joseph,” both centered around the impossibility of a pregnant, yet intact womb, as discussed in Carlson 1999: “In retrospect, Joseph’s righteous anger takes on the aspect of a tantrum of a child shut out from the great secret shared by Mary and the angel” (Carlson 1999: 206).
12.Also, later on in the N-Town Mary Plays, Mary’s dominance over her defeated accusers is marked by their silence: “ We can see a suspension in certain other hierarchies as well in the paradox of the chaste wife and mother who imposes silence. Judges are confounded, midwives are less than wise women, detractors feel the sting of their own words” (Carlson 1999: 213).
13.SM: Communio: In annuncianione sancte marie, etc.
14.See Greene 1935: nos. 66, 174, etc.
15.SM: Ad missam officium: Sexta die a natiuitate. See also Davies 1963: 335; Manning 1962: 163, n. 27.
16.The connection between this Latin hymn and its vernacular elaboration is set forth in Duffy 1992: 258.
17.SM: Gradale: Sexta die a natiuitate, etc. See also Weber 1969: 15-22.
18.P.L. vol 78, col. 731: Pope Gregory the Great, Liber responsalis sine antiphonarius. See also Tasioulas 1997: 241, n. 23.
19.See Kane 1951: 164-165, Woolf 1968: 287, and Weber 1969: 59-60.
20.Perry 1914: p. 58, line 11-13.
21.S.M.: Psalm and Gradale, versicle: Missa s. marie a purificaione ad adventum, etc.