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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XI. Early Transition English

§ 10. The Virgin Cult and Erotic Mysticism

Closely connected with this woman-literature are those works which belong to the Virgin cult and those which are touched with erotic mysticism. This section is the outcome of those chivalrous ideals which had dawned in the twelfth century, to soften the harshness of earlier heroics and to refine the relation between the sexes. These new ideals coloured the atmosphere of court life, and the exaltation of woman in its courtly sense found a counterpart in the revived Virgin cult, just as knightly wooing suggested the image of the wistful sould striving for union with the Divine. This erotic mysticism, which was to appear again in Crashaw, Herbert and Vaughan, was merely a phase of those allegorical tendencies of which Dante was the culmination. The pious soul yearning for a closer walk with God now expressed its longings in the language of earthly passion, just as earlier mystics had tried to interpret the Divine nature by the use of more commonplace allegory. And this development was encouraged by the mysticism of Hugo de St. Victor, which influenced both Paris and Oxford; while elsewhere on the continent a school of nuns were producing works laden with passion and breathing an intense emotion.

The Virgin cult is represented in the first place by the prose Lofsong of ure Lefdi, a fairly close translation of the poem VOL. 1–17. Oration ad Sanctam Mariam of Archbishop Marbod of Rheims (1035–1138), and by On God Ureisun of ure Lefdi (A Good Orison of our Lady), a poem in riming couplets, for which no Latin original has yet been found, though it contains suggestions of the work of Anselm. Other examples of the kind are found in The Five Joys of the Virgin, a poem in eight-line stanzas; A Song to the Virgin, with Latin insertions; A Prayer to Our Lady, a sinner’s repentance in interesting four-line stanzas; A Prayer to the Virgin, in similar form. Another side of the Virgin cult is represented by the Middle English versions of the Compassio Mariae and the Assumptio Mariae, which appeared about the middle of the century. The former is a west Midland translation of a Latin hymn, and the work is artistically interesting as illustrating how metrical innovation was made. The six-line strophe and the riming formula are taken over from the original, though this identity of form prevents a literal rendering. The treatment is otherwise not without originality. Alliterative ornament is added, and use is made of a popular piece of medieval fancy, namely the comparison of Christ’s birth to a sunbeam passing through glass and leaving it unstained. Assumptio Mariae rests on a venerable legend of the ascension of Mary; it is of eastern origin, but is found in Latin, German and French versions. The English version is written in short couplets, and appears to be of an eclectic kind.The episode of unbelieving Thomas is taken from a Latin version; otherwise the poem is strongly reminiscent of Wace’s Vie de la Vierge Marie.