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True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages

Many medieval miracles centered around the belief in the power of the Virgin Mary, who favored those who paid devotion to her. Such an example is the fable of the knight who, after having entered the monastery of Citeaux, could learn only the Ave Maria and constantly repeated it. At his death a fleur-de-lis grew from his grave, on every flower of which appeared in gold the words Ave Maria.

A robber-knight, who daily said an Ave, robbed a holy man. The holy man then told the knight that he had a secret to tell him, but only in front of his entire household. All assembled except the Chamberlain, who was sent for. When he finally arrived, the holy man forced him to confess that he was actually a devil in disguise, waiting for the day when the knight might forget his Ave, and the devil could then drag him off to hell.

A bishop suspended a priest because he could say no other Mass than that of the Virgin. She appeared to the bishop and told him that he must reinstate the priest within thirty days or he would die. In terror the bishop obeyed, and begged the priest to never sing any other Mass.

Evagrius (sixth century) and Gregory of Tours tell a story, of which there are many versions, showing how the Virgin was regarded as a protector. A Jewish child had received Communion with others in a church of the Virgin. His father threw him into a furnace. His mother rushed out to help. The boy, who was drawn unhurt from the furnace, into which his father was later thrown, said that the woman whom he had seen with a Child in the basilica had covered him with Her mantle to protect him against the fire.

When famine struck a monastery dedicated to the Virgin, the abbot bade the monks to pray to Her all night. The next morning the barns were filled to overflowing, and this miracle occurred several years running.

A poor knight sold his wife to the Devil for great riches. When she was taken to meet the Devil by her husband, she was filled with great fear and fled to a church, where she commended herself to the Virgin. As she prayed she slept, and the Virgin took the appearnace of the woman and went with the knight. When they met the devil he reproached the knight for bringing the Virgin instead of the wife. The Virgin sent the Devil away, forbidding him to have power over those who called on Her. She bade the knight to cast away his wealth, and then, dwelling in Her praise, he received many riches from Her.

Excerpts from: Medieval Faith and Fable by J.A. MacCulloch. Boston: Marshall Jones Company Publishers, 1932.

A popular medieval story concerned a Flemish monk who was painting a picture of heaven and hell on the portals of his abbey. He was engaged in portraying the devil as hideously as possible when His Satanic Majesty, appearing in person, begged the monk to paint him as a young and handsome man. The monk refused and the angry Devil pulled away the scaffold on which the artist was working. But as the monk fell, a statue of the Virgin, in a niche below the portal, stretched out her arms and held him in safety until help arrived.

Excerpts from: Life in Medieval Times by Marjorie Rowling. New York: The Berkely Publishing Group, 1979.

A version of the miracle described above is illustrated in the 13th century manuscript of the Cántigas of Alfonso X:

"How a painter painted a very beautiful image of St. Mary and an ugly one of the devil. How the devil appeared to the painter and threatened him for painting him ugly."

"How the painter painted an image of St. Mary on top of the vault. How the devil destroyed the scaffold, but the painter remained suspended on the painting."

"How the people came and saw the painter suspended and the devil fleeing. How all the people gave thanks to St. Mary for the miracle she had done."

In these miniatures the artist is seated on a kind of step ladder on which pots of paint are arranged while he paints the image of the Virgin and Child on the wall, but for painting the vault a scaffold is used.

Excerpts from: The Medieval Artist at Work by Virginia Wylie Egbert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.


Tales of the Middle Ages

© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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