During Easter, I had an epiphany. On Saturday morning ABC Classic FM played a charming melody that I had never heard before. I checked it out on “Recently Played” on my phone. It was entitled “Estampie, Stond wel, moder, under rode”. I thought, what language is that? So I looked further.
What I found just blew me away. It is English, 13th Century English. The first verse goes
“Stond wel, Moder, under rode,
Bihold thi child wyth glade mode;
Blythe, Moder, mittu ben.”
“Sune, quu may blithe stonden?
Hi se thin feet, hi se thin honden
Nayled to the harde tre.”
According to A Clerk of Oxford, this thirteenth-century poem imagines a dialogue between Mary and Christ as he hangs upon the cross. Meditation on the sorrows of Mary at the foot of the cross, as a way of imaginatively entering into the experience of the Crucifixion, was an increasingly popular devotional theme in this period.
“Stand well, Mother, under the rood, [cross]
Behold your child with a glad mood, [mind]
Joyful, Mother, you may be.”
“Son, how may I joyful stand?
I see your feet, I see your hands
Nailed to the hard tree.”
It was a similar experience to one I had in Rome. We had spent some time in Venice, where Mary Queen of Heaven paintings abound, and I experienced a degree of Protestant discomfort with this. Later, in Rome, we visited St Peters, where, quite unexpectedly, Michelangelo’s Pieta took my breath away.
My Easter epiphany was this: the Cult of Mary was not a pagan relic of a pre-Christian era. Rather, Mary is the saint of bereaved mothers. The infant mortality rate in the Middle Ages was around thirty percent (compared with one tenth of one percent today). Most women of child bearing age would have lost at least one child. Mary provided a Chistian context for this endemic grief.
Then came the Reformation. Because there were few references to Mary in the Bible, Protestants shunned the Cult of Mary. This denied an avenue of comfort for bereaved mothers.
I believe there was a grass-roots underground political reaction. It was a feminist counter-reformation among independent-minded women: the mid-wives, herbalists and brewers. They were sceptical about the new male-dominated religion and subtly challenged its authority. They were also generally illiterate which is why few records of this movement survive. This was a time of bitter religious wars and hatreds and these early feminists were caught in the cross-fire. On the basis of “He who is not with us is against us”, a propaganda compaign was mounted condemning them as “Devil worshipers” and they were rounded up and executed. History is the propaganda of the victors.
Witch hunts were a feature of Protestant Northern Europe. Catholic Southern Europe disdained such superstitious nonsense. Perhaps I have found the reason.