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Mary of Nemmegen: Faustian Witchcraft or a Curious Saint’s Legend?

The importance of artistic connections between England and the Low Countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has long been well recognized by scholars. This has meant considerable attention to the influence of the work of Netherlands artists and the import trade in their work. Netherlands musicians’ compositions also were for a time regarded as the most perfect models for imitation or inspiration in Britain and across the Continent. Some today still insist that the high point of Western music was achieved in the perfection of the compositions of Josquin Des Prez, and that the history of this art thereafter was a period of decline from which it has never recovered. In literature and drama the Low Countries connection was significant but less influential across the Channel, though Everyman, translated from the Dutch Elckerlijc, is regarded as a unique “masterpiece” which surpasses the artistry of the original. Nevertheless, attention to other translations, and to book production bringing Low Countries’ work to England, is well worth our study. This observation applies in the case of Mary of Nemmegen (published c.1518), adapted from the Middle Dutch play Mariken van Nieumeghen and offered to English readers in an anonymous translation from the press of the Antwerp printer Jan van Doesborch. Both texts, along with a rendering into modern English of the Dutch drama, are now offered in a new edition prepared in collaboration with Martin Walsh and Ton Broos. This edition has been published by Medieval Institute Publications.

Mary of Nemmegen is worth our attention for a number of reasons. Most prominent, however, are the parallels with the Dr. Faustus legend and its presentation of the occult and witchcraft. Both Mariken, who became Mary in the English adaptation, and Faustus had their inception in approximately the same historical moment, a time when there was an unusual interest in magic and a rising hysteria about witches.See Jeffrey Burton Russell,Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), who concludes his very useful study with the comment that witchcraft in the late Middle Ages was “the first stage of a long period of witch delusion” and “in another sense . . . a manifestation of the innate and perennial darkness of the human soul” (289). Mariken van Nieumeghen may be dated in the earliest decades of the sixteenth century, with Willem Vorsterman’s edition (but not the direct source used by the English translator) issued in c.1515. A “Faustus junior” seems to have been first noticed as “the chief of necromancers, astrologer” and practitioner of other forms of black magic, albeit a fraud, by the Abbot Trithemius as early as 1507, while in 1509 “Johan Faust” was granted a bachelor of divinity degree from the University of Heidelberg.See E. M. Butler, The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 122, and Philip Mason Palmer and Robert Pattison More, The Sources of the Faust Tradition (rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1965), 84, 86–87. In the mid-sixteenth century Erfurt Chronicle, “Faust” is quoted as saying that he cannot retract the pledge he has made in a pact with the Devil written out in his own blood (“mit meinem eigenen blut gegen dem Teufel verscrieben”) “to be forever his, with body and soul.”Ibid., 117. The pact is repeated in the story of Faustus as trickster and magician in the English Faustbook used by Christopher Marlowe, in whose play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus it is identified as a binding “gift of deed.”Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 141 (A-text 2.1.60) and 142–43. For the “certain Articles” described in the English Faustbook, Marlowe’s presumed source, see P. F. Gent., trans., The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, ed. William Rose (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1963), 68. Mary too makes an agreement with the Devil, though to be sure in her case it does not involve a written document. Her agreement with Satan meant that she would abandon her name and adopt “Emmekin.” She was not to make the sign of the cross, and the trajectory of her life thereafter turns her away from her devotion to the Virgin in favor of a life of dissolution, frivolity, and accessory to crime. Ultimately she will be forced to register deep disappointment with her life. Faustus also will look back on his life, much of it wasted in idle trickery, as futile, for which he falls into existential despair, which in Søren Kierkegaard’s terminology is the sickness unto death.For an excellent discussion of despair in the period under discussion, see Susan Snyder, “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” Studies in the Renaissance 12 (1965): 18–59. Predictably, his life ends in damnation when the “jaws of hell” open up to receive him, perhaps literally interpreted in Marlowe’s drama as an actual stage prop, a hell mouth.Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 282 (B-text, 5.2.120), and the editors’ note.

Mary/Emmekin also has reason to despair, but in contrast to Faustus’s fate is able to break her bondage to the Devil. Like Faustus, she had subordinated her will to him and become (to borrow the words of a later commentator on witchcraft) the Devil’s “owne instrument.”William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (Cambridge, 1608), 61. Upon her return to Nemmegen after a dissolute life of crime as the Satan’s accomplice in Antwerp, only by chance or providence is she was able to come to a full realization of the dark depths into which she has sunk, having given herself body and soul to her seducer, the Devil. To this she life had fallen and continued thus for many years following her initial crisis when she was shamed and accused of being a harlot by her aunt, weakened so as to be vulnerable to the Devil’s entrapment of her. No elaborate conjuring had been necessary, but only, in her loss of moral direction, by simply naming the Devil she made him appear materially before her.This is a motif in folklore, as cited by Douglas Gray, Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 30. For the special vulnerability of the “holiest virgins and girls” to such entrapment, see the Malleus Maleficarum 2:93D (trans. Christopher S. Mackay, The Hammer of Witches [Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2009], 277). Idle words have power. But in spite of the many years that followed of servitude to Satan, sunk deeply in disobedience to the Powers of the Good, she will be able to rebel against her slavery and emerge from her darkness of soul. From her new perspective, she will be able to look back on her life with full realization of her sexual, moral, and ideological failures. In this she will find “hope beyond hopelessness” (again Kierkegaard’s phrasing) as she sets out to activate the process that eventually rescues her from the permanent darkness of damnation, contrary to the threat of the pit which was to be Faustus’s inheritance.

Upon her return to Nemmegen, Mary/Emmekin, witnessing the annual wagon play, a morality that mirrors her own condition,For the text of the wagon play see Mariken van Nieumeghen, where it has the title Masscheroen. It is not provided in the English text. experiences conversion and is brought to tears, which are a sign of contrition, a mark of inward spiritual cleansing. Mary’s weeping places her in direct contrast to Marlowe’s Faustus, who in his despair is unable to weep, for he is not able thus to free himself from his enslavement to evil. “[T]he devil draws in my tears. . . ,” he laments, unable to lift up his hands to heaven, unable because, he cries, the demonic powers “hold them” fast.Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen, 193 (A-text, 5.2.31–34). But if he is not able to free himself from his despair at his condition by his own act, neither can Mary emerge from despair by herself after her conversion experience: she requires the rites of the Church.

Her apostasy and crime, worst of all in sleeping with the Devil (a capital offense), has been so heinous that no ordinary priest or even bishop can give her absolution. Not even the bishop of Cologne can help her. She must go as a pilgrim seeking forgiveness to the Pope, who gives her as her penance heavy rings to wear on her arms and neck. From these she is only released after long years of suffering and prayer in a convent for fallen women at Maastrich. Her story of miraculous victory over the world, the flesh, and the Devil therefore is likened to a saint’s biography, comparable to the life of Theophilus of Adana. Theophilus likewise had made an agreement with the Devil but ultimately was penitent and so was to be remembered in the Golden Legend.See Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 2:157.

Mary of Nemmegen thus has the marks of a saint’s legend that could have found its place in such collections as Osbern Bokenham’s Legendys of Hooly Wummen, except that no other claim of Mary’s existence exists aside from the weak assertion in the text that her story is genuine. There is no documentary evidence for a convent of Mary Magdalen at Maastrich, and there are no remains of the rings allegedly venerated there, rings that had been removed from Mary by angelic visitors who had come to her in a vision. Mary of Nemmegen hence may be described as a most curious saint’s legend indeed, a fictional life of a woman who had become a witch in service to the Devil during the high season of the witch cult in Europe but who became a recipient of the holy.

To be sure, there is much more that merits our attention, including Satan’s mastery of magic and his claim to have vast knowledge to communicate to the uneducated and virginal Mary — but he will not teach her to practice necromancy, since this would allow her to have power over him. These are not entirely the black arts but include such skills as the ability to display rhetoric, a core humanistic interest among the Rederijkerskamers (Chambers of Rhetoric) of the Low Countries that were responsible for commissioning the Dutch Mariken. We do find, even in this time when ideas and practices could be dangerous, that the line between the forbidden and the accepted, as least in certain circles if not in others, could be quite blurred. Thus Mary’s uncle Ghysbryche, a priest, can possess a book of magic with which he can control the Devil, who threatens them as they set out like pilgrims first to Cologne and then to Rome. In one of the most important woodcuts in  Mary of Nemmegen her uncle also holds a monstrance with the eucharistic Host before him as a protection against a most ugly Devil, a Devil now in his own deformed and animalistic shape, who is literally bouncing off a pillar in his desire to attack and presumably kill the penitent Mary. Ghysbryche’s book has the opposite effect from Faustus’s blasphemous conjuring book, but it is nevertheless a conjuring book, if of a different and benign sort. His conjuring as a means of power over the Devil and evil is validated, the affirmation of white magic in the service of the Good.

By Clifford Davidson
The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University