In the Middle Ages, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was held in high regard and her cult regarded across Europe. To the medieval mind, Mary was the perfect woman.
She embodied many ideals of courtly love which was practised during the Middle Ages; she was pure, free of sin, and the perfect mother. Over the years, thousands of statues were placed in churches, showing the Virgin with her child, and there were countless roadside shrines where people could stop and pray, perhaps asking for intervention for a personal need.
Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary
Although Mary was venerated since the days of Jesus, it was during the Middle Ages that a cult developed. Men and women alike prayed to the Virgin Mary and this adoration was expressed through both ‘official’ channels, such as places of worship, and in more informal ways, through the use of roadside shrines, carrying a banner of Mary in a jousting tournament or purchasing a relic associated with the Virgin.
Feasts of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages
The high esteem in which Mary was held is demonstrated by the fact that there were more than twenty feast days held in honour of her, and dozens of flowers, including lily of the valley, iris, marigold and rose, associated with the mother of Jesus.
Many of the finest churches and cathedrals in Europe, including the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lincoln and Chartres Cathedral, were devoted to the Mother of God, and countless smaller parish churches similarly devoted. Unofficial shrines to Mary abounded across the Christian world, with worshippers leaving flowers and tokens at roadside shrines. Other official shrines, which attracted thousands of pilgrims included Walsingham in Norfolk, UK, a place of medieval pilgrimage visited by a succession of monarchs, including Henry III and Henry;
A positive result of the Cult during the Middle Ages is that it led to an improved perception of women across society. Early in the period, ordinary women were viewed as little better than the property of men. In the later Middle Ages, church approval of the adoration of Mary, and a view of her as the intercessor for sins, led to more respect for women, particularly those from the upper reaches of society.
Medieval Relics of the Virgin Mary
Throughout the Middle Ages, tradespeople made money from religious relics which were claimed to be those of the Virgin Mary. Any religious house which housed a relic belonging to Mary could be assured of a steady stream of pilgrims and their donations. Chartres Cathedral, often described as ‘the Virgin’s seat on earth’.
At the other end of the scale, unscrupulous tradespeople travelled Europe’s towns and villages selling relics, of such odd objects as Mary’s breast milk, finger or even part of her cloak.