Passages from the Medieval Morality Play Mary Magdalen

Theater was an excellent way in medieval culture to safely explore the problematic catagories of sexuality and gender while ultimately re-establishing the status quo. Because theater pivots on the idea of otherness and the masking and de-masking of characters, the medieval mystery and morality plays were safe simply by virture of their dependence on fictional conventions and not realistic ones. Here are some passages from the medieval morality play Mary Magdalen which highlight this aforementioned exploration. This play deals with the marginalized catagory of prostitution:

[After the death of Lazarus, Satan sends his servant Luxuria (or Lechery) down to make a victim of the vulnerable and mourning Mary Magdalen, Lazarus' daughter, and turn her to prostitution.]

SATAN. Heyly word, worthyest of a-bowndans! In hast we must a conseyll take; Ye must aply yow with all your afryauns, A woman of worshep ower servant to make.

[After Luxuria sucessfully wins Mary over into prostitution, an angel of the Lord approaches her in her sleep.]

GOOD ANGYLL. Woman, woman, why art thou so onstabyll? Ful bytterly thys blysse it wol be bowth; Why art thou ayens God so verbyll? Wy thynkes thou nat God made the of nowth? In syn and sorow thou art browth, Fleschly lust is to ye full delectabyll; Salve for thi sowle must be sowth, And leve thi werkes wayn and veryabyll. Remembyr, woman, for thi pore pryde, How thi sowle xal lyyn in helle fyr! A! remembyr how sorowful itt is to abyde Withowtyn eynd in angur and ire! Remember the on mercy, make thi sowle clyr! I am the gost of goodnesse that so wold ye gydde.

[Mary responds.]

MARY. A! how the speryt of goodnesse hat promtyt me this tyde, And temtyd me with tytyll of trew perfythnesse. Alas! how betternesse in my hert doth abyde! I am woddyd with werkes of gret dystresse, A! how pynsynesse potyt me to oppresse, That I have synndon every side. O lord! wo xall put me from this peynfulnesse? A! woo xall to mercy be my gostly gyde? I xal porsue the prophett, wherso he be, For he is the welle of perfyth charyte; Be the oyle of mercy he xal me relyff. With swete bawmys I wyl seken hym this syth, And sadly folow his lordshep in eche degre.

[Consequent to Mary's plea, and ending the first act, the seven sins are cast out of her, her father (in this version, her brother in the Bible) is raised from the dead, and Christ heals some lepers.]

The second act of this play deals with Mary's good deeds after her transformation from her life of ill repute. In this way, though the marginalized role of prostitution has been dramatized on stage, the status quo--that of purity and chastity in godly women--is reaffirmed. The moral of the play is clear--prostitution and sexual openness are of the Devil and his disciples, the purging of them from the body is a miracle of God. Prostitution is once again portrayed as being contaminating to the purity of the godly body, just as it was marginalized from society so that it would not contaminate the godliness of the community.