The Bracelet-Adorned Queen: The Virgin Mary in “Advent Lyric” IX

The Bracelet-Adorned Queen: The Virgin Mary in “Advent Lyric” IX (lines 275-347)

The Advent Lyrics, a series of twelve anonymous poems included in the tenth century Exeter Book, were probably originally written by a monk or cleric in the early ninth century. [1] A wholly religious work, the poet’s ultimate focus is Christ’s role on earth and as heavenly lord, but his characterization of Mary is unique, for the lyrics offer a varied portrait of the Virgin Mary in all of her guises–including, significantly, her blending of two roles: that of friðwebbe, or peace-weaver, and sacred heroine: she is the human link between God and mankind, and it is she who may communicate between the two (Chance 26-8). Additionally, although she is not a warrior like Judith, she is a heroine noble in her sacrifice.

The life and virtues of the Virgin Mary were common themes in early medieval Latin literature, but critics seldom scrutinize her role in English vernacular literature. Perhaps due to an assumption that the Virgin’s relevance has remained static through history, few appear to have studied her literary significance outside of theological treatises or references to her in later allegories such as Pearl. Certainly, there are few studies of her roles in several of the “Advent Lyrics.” In general, since the Patristic era the Virgin has been acknowledged and celebrated for her roles as the mother of the Redeemer and intercessor for the faithful. She is the martyr’s antithesis as a woman whose sacrifice was spiritual rather than physical, and who achieved her reward on Earth as well as after death. In this, the Virgin represents the ideal and the hope for a humanity languishing in spiritual exile, for if they, too, can commit themselves to virtue, they would be admitted to Christ’s great hall. Yet in the bulk of Marian literature, her reward is earned not because of her commitment to virtue, but because of her acceptance of it: God elects Mary for divine maternity due in part to her immaculate birth, but also because of her passive innocence. Chastity, passivity, and humility are her primary characteristics, and they are to be emulated by Christian women (Chance xiv). In contrast, the “Advent Lyrics’” poet recasts the Virgin Mary’s celebrated chastity as her conscious sacrifice to God, for which, along with bearing Christ the Warrior, she is lauded as queen of three realms.

The “Advent Lyrics” amply illustrate the various images of the Virgin Mary. In lyrics two and four, she is exalted for her chastity, and for her roles as a mother and as a bride of Christ–the orthodox view in Western Christianity. In lyric seven, there is a dialogue between the young Virgin and Joseph, which takes its cue from the “Doubting of Mary” tradition. Understandably, this particular section has aroused much discussion; it’s remarkably poignant in its treatment of the Virgin and her suspicious betrothed. Additionally, critics have argued that section seven is the first written drama in English. This discussion, however, is complicated by the debate over the assignation of speech boundaries. However, in section nine (lines 275-347), the poet appears to have departed from convention and presents the Virgin Mary as a warrior’s bride, and as a singular woman who presents God with her virginity. Mary shifts from being “the handmaiden of the Lord [to become] Queen over all that was created” (Burlin 146). Rather than a submissive child who simply doesn‘t know sin, she recognizes her human state and sacrifices it to her Lord.

“Advent Lyric” nine is one of four that the poet based on Latin monastic O’s: “O Gabriel,” “O rex pacifice,” “O Iierusalem,” and “O mundi Domina.” These antiphons were possibly composed before 790, as they were “available in toto by that date” (Rankin 332). These antiphons typically traveled as a group, and were popular with secular as well as monastic communities, evidenced by “their transmission pattern [which] is not so much monastic as regional, for, apart from the English books [such as the Leofric Collectar] they are all found in books of southern German, Swiss, and northern Italian origin [. . . .]” (332). “O mundi Domina” addresses the Virgin directly and describes both the Virgin’s and her Son’s glories.[2] The antiphon briefly summarizes Mary’s liturgical role as “mistress of the world, descended from royal seed.” Taking the antiphon as his base, the “Advent Lyrics’” poet developed these themes of Mary’s heroic lineage, in both theological and human matters, and uses them to reinforce her position as “hlæfdige”: she is queen not only because of her earthly heritage–for she is descended from King David–but also as the mother of the conquering hero, Christ. While her son may “rule the stars,” she is both his mother and his consort. The poet embellishes the antiphon’s declaration of Mary’s sovereignty to underscore her autonomy, her strength, and the gifts she offered not only to God, but to mankind.

Section nine opens as an echo of the Latin O, “Eala þu mæra     middangeardes” (275), yet the poet departs from the monastic O at this point. He neglects to mention her royal lineage at the outset, and he chooses to emphasize instead Mary herself: “seo clænest cwen     ofer eorþan / þara [þ]e gewurde     to widen feore” (276-77); the Virgin is acknowledged immediately as a queen and as the purest of all who have ever been. Yet these first two lines aren’t without some controversy. In his comparison of the “Advent Lyrics’” manuscript against various editors’ transcriptions, S. K. Das argues that the manuscript actually reads “þara ege wurde,” (the addition of þ is erroneously based on assumptions of scribal error)[3]. Das also notes that “ege” “generally means ‘fear,’ ‘awe.’ Here the word may mean ‘reverence,’ ‘veneration,’” (58 n.277). If Das is correct, the line may be translated so: “O thou glory of the middle earth, / the cleanest queen over earth / of all those the veneration of whom has come to exist” This is, of course, greatly different from the milder reading of “the cleanest queen over earth/ of those who have been,” in which the Virgin appears as simply the most chaste human in history. In Das’ wording, the adoration of the Virgin is emphasized in addition to her purity, and in the wider context of “Advent Lyric” nine, Das’ interpretation is entirely justifiable.

The poet clearly envisions Mary as the conquering heroine–the New Eve who bruises the serpent’s head in the Protoevangelium,[4] and whom “ealle reordberend” rightfully salute as bride of Heaven’s great Prince. Reinforcing mortals’ celebrations of the Virgin, her role as Queen of Heaven is further defined and exalted by Christ’s noblemen:

Cristes þegnas, cweþað           ond singað

þæt þu sie hlæfdige     halgum meahtum

wuldorweorudes,        ond worl[d]cundra

hada under heofuonum,          ond helwara. (283-286).[5]

Mary is lauded by Christ’s thanes as their mistress, and as the queen of temporal and hellish troops. This position was awarded by “holy might,“ which refers to Christ‘s power, but it is entirely likely that the “holy might” is the Virgin’s own righteous strength in deliberately overcoming her earthly nature–forsaking the temporal for the spiritual. Mary, in her determination and faith, “geþohtest þrymlice,    þristhycgende, / þæt þu þinne mægðhad, meotude brohtes, / sealdes butan synnum.” (288-290a). No frightened girl, this. Instead, the Virgin is resolute, “firm-minded” and boldly resolved, she brought her maidenhood to God, / gave it without sin. In other words, Mary offers herself to God because she has selected Him as husband. That Mary is alone in her dedication, that heaven has not seen her like before in all humanity, is stressed.

After establishing that the Virgin consciously chose to offer her virginity, and thereby rejecting her temporal nature, the poet reinforces the image of Mary as a warrior’s queen–and a queen of warriors–by describing her as “bryd beaga hroden” (292a). The image of “ring-adorned” women in Old English literature a gesture towards the Anglo-Saxons’ Germanic heritage, and is one that “may be related to the [. . . ] conventional stock character–the Germanic warrior-woman” (Damico 183). The descriptive “beaga hroden” is comparable to “beaghroden,” a term that also describes Beowulf’s , Wealhthow, and “Judith‘s” heroine[6] (Cook 104 n.292). In general, the term appears to “possess connotative value closely associated to battle or activity on the battlefield [. . . ]” (184). While Mary is not a warrior-woman, she is descended from a noble line, and she is both bride and mother to a warrior-hero, and her ring-adorned figure reinforces this status. In a sense, Mary unites each of these female characters: like Wealhthow, she is a friðwebbe, and like Judith and her maid, Mary is victorious against sin.

Ultimately, Mary effects the coming of Christ because she is “þe þa beorhtan lac / to heafonhame     hlutre mode / siþþan sende”(292b-294a). Mary herself has sent the “bright gift” of her virginity to the heavenly home, which is the reverse of the conventional view that God selected a passively pure female. Mary is assertive, and not the second lyric’s young girl “þe he him to meder geceas” (36b). In her courage, and in her resolve, Mary demonstrates “heroic behavior in sanctity” (Chance xv), and for this she is rewarded twofold. Having accepted Mary’s virginity, “sigores frume / his heahbodan     hider gefleogan [. . .] snude cyðan,     þæt þu sunu dryhtnes / þurh clæne gebyrd     cennan sceolde” (295b-298). In addition to conceiving the Christ child, Mary is granted perpetual virginity. Her rejection of material nature–her physical, carnal self–culminates in this guarantee. The passage in its entirety ensures that readers will understand that Mary is an heroic, noble woman who deserves her prizes not merely because she is chaste, but because she is consciously, resolutely so for God’s sake. The Virgin has proved that she is worthy by transcending earthly, Eve-like nature.

After praising Mary with references to heroic poetry, the poet modifies his approach to the Virgin; he uses a complex series of allegories to emphasize the Virgin’s destiny, her character, and her significance in human redemption. While the Virgin Mary’s role remains important, she loses some of her previous agency as her identity is collapsed into that of the Church. The poet relies on this technique throughout the “Advent Lyrics;” his “allegorical method is neither linear nor vertical, but circular” (Gardner 115). It’s not clearly representational, as the intention is to convey the mystical rather than an idea of reality. The poet builds up to the allegory as he reminds his audience of the Biblical prophet Isaiah, who predicted the Incarnation. However, the “Advent Lyrics’” poet has confused his prophets: he actually refers to Ezekiel who, in a vision, is shown a gate at a sacred temple’s sanctuary.[7] In the Old Testament, Ezekiel is told by an angel that the gate was entered once by God and shut thereafter, for it’s to be used by a prince, who “shall enter by way of the porch of that gate, and shall go out by the way of the same” (44: 2-3). The Advent poet enlarges the brief Biblical treatment by detailing “æþelic ingong.    Eal wæs gebunden / deoran since    duru ormæte, / wundorclommum bewriþen. (308-310a). The door clearly guards a great mystery, as it is “bound by dear treasure” and secured by “wondrous locks.” The locks appear to fascinate the poet, as he returns to the “ceasterhlides clustor” which no human man may ever raise. The gate is absolutely impenetrable except to God, who,. the poet asserts, “sylf wile, Gæsts mægne / gefælian” in order to visit the Earth. At this point the gates would again be locked and remain eternally closed, “nymðe Nergend God, / hy ære ma     eft unluceð” (324b-325). This door is a threefold Marian metaphor that reinforces not only her significance for the Incarnation, but the transcendent potential for humanity.

Scholars have interpreted the gates variously: Cook saw them as a reference to Christ’s birth, whereas Burlin understood them to represent the entrance to Heaven. (Clayton 197). The door actually represents both. Certainly, the gates are associated with the Virgin’s womb, through which Christ enters the world. That the gates remain eternally locked–with the exception of Christ’s passage–is symbolic of her perpetual virginity. However, the gates are not merely representative of her chastity, for Mary represents a type for the holy city of Jerusalem, which is representative of Heaven as well as being a type of the Church (Chance 27). Here the Virgin is the entrance to that city from which God departs and which gates he may “unlock again” upon judgment day. Rather than simply representing Mary as the vehicle for Christ’s birth, here Mary is the gate to heaven itself, and the poet is clear: “þu eart þæt wealldor,” the gate “meahtum gehrodene” that Christ met on his journey to the Earth.  The poet advances this idea when he references the locking of the gate “lioþucægan bileac     lifes Brytta.” This line offers two interpretations. Campbell has translated the line as “the Giver of life locked you with a mysterious key” (68). However, “lioþucægan” means “limbs serving as a key,“ and would refer to the Virgin’s womb, within which the key to salvation comes forth. Das places “lioþucægan” in the accusative, which would modify the translation to “the Giver of Life locked the limbs serving as a key,” which is a reaffirmation of Mary’s perpetual chastity (61 n.334). Mary herself is not the key, but her womb is a key in the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Clearly, identifying Mary’s womb as a key in itself complicates the lyric’s lock and key issue. In lyric two, which the poet developed from one of the Seven Greater Antiphons, “O clavis David” (O Key of David), Christ is identified as “se þe locan healdeð,     lif ontyneð” (2). This is reminiscent of Christ’s assurance that he is “the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14.6). It is not Mary’s womb, but Christ himself who is “the key, the opener and closer of the locks of eternal life” (Greenfield 240). Christ’s way from Paradise is via the Virgin, and only he can access those locks that allow a return to Paradise. By invoking her name and by celebrating her virtues, the penitent hopes that he, too, may access “heofonhame;” the poet pleads that the Virgin “Iowa us nu þa are     þe se engel þe, / godes spelboda,     Gabriel, brohte” (335-337). He asks this on behalf of “burgsittende,“ the city-dwellers who not only live in temporal cities, but are members of the New Jerusalem–the Church. Although he asks Mary to show mercy toward the “burgensittende,” the primary purpose appears to be not that she intercede with Christ for the forgiveness of sins, but that Christ detain himself no longer. In the world of the “Advent Lyrics”–where all time is concurrent–the poet is anticipating not only Christ’s return, but also the first Incarnation. Until this return, humanity is obliged to exist in the “deaðdene” as slaves to sin. Additionally, he asks Mary to make known “þa fofre [. . .] þinre sylfre Sunu” (338-39). Through the Virgin, the friðwebbe, the poet believes that humanity can achieve a greater understanding of Christ and of the mystery of his birth.

In a departure from the rest of lyric nine, the poet relies on a sentimental image of the nurturing mother as he and the city-dwellers “on þæt bearn foran     breostum stariað” (341). The Christ child at the Virgin’s breast is a vision that offers hope for mankind‘s release from Earthly troubles, and the poet asks the maternal Virgin to “Geþinga us nu     þristum  wordum”(342) that Christ will not desert his people, and that he instead may welcome them to “heofanhame.” Here Mary takes on the role as universal mother, the nurturing of the Christ child represents the nurturing she offers humanity along with, as the poets hopes, her sympathy. With Mary’s intercession, Christ will return to retrieve his lost ones, and all will dwell “in wuldre” and without sorrow, near God. In a sense, with Christ’s return, all of the exiles will be welcomed home. By appealing to Mary’s maternal, and holy, nature, the penitent appeals to the best within himself. By recalling that Mary was a mere human who resolved to maintain her purity, and to dedicate it to God, she overcame physical and temporal concerns. Mary’s focus was on the spiritual. By mimicking her actions and by settling his thoughts on Christ, the penitent hopes to achieve the heavenly reward.

There are a number of critics who view the Virgin in literature and liturgy as a tool of patriarchal authorities to maintain women’s second-class status (Warner xxiv). Mary Dockray-Miller, in her study of the “Advent Lyrics,’” is representative of these. She is critical of the poet’s portrayal of Mary’s rejection of carnality, and she writes that the lack of physicality is symptomatic of the Virgin’s “objectification” and passivity–Mary as metaphor means she is essentially de-feminized and disempowered (44). However, Miller may have overlooked the “Advent Lyrics’” key purpose–a meditation on the Incarnation and human potential to transcend life in deaðene     gedwolan hyran.” Mary exemplifies this overcoming of the temporal, which was a virtue long before the Virgin was lifted as an ideal. In this, she isn’t just a model for women, but for all of humanity who wish to transcend the earthly condition. The Virgin, in her active decision to pursue a chaste existence, gives all Christians a human paradigm to model themselves on. She is rewarded, certainly, in Heaven, but she offers hope that others may be similarly rewarded on Earth. While ordinary humans won’t be offered the opportunity to give birth to Christ, they may be rewarded in their earthly life in other ways. Additionally, Mary is hardly a passive, or minor, player in lyric nine: Mary becomes the gate through which mankind achieves Christian salvation, she is “opening the door to [Christ’s] revelation and the meaning of the New Jerusalem” (Campbell “Patterns” 247). None other than Mary, as is argued throughout the Advent series, but reinforced specifically in lyric nine, was able to do so. Stemming from her conscious sacrifice to God, by her “faith and consent” (Burlin 21), the Virgin is an active participant in the Christ story. As such, it is to Mary the friðwebbe and sacred heroine that humankind are to pray, and upon her image they must meditate, in order to understand her gift–that spiritual quality rather than her virginity–that captured God’s attention.


[1] Mary Clayton, in The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England, argues that linguistic evidence, as well as similarities between the verses and contemporary prayers, indicate that the original poet was probably a Mercian monk of the early ninth century whose work was later copied by a scribe for inclusion in the Exeter Book (Clayton 206).

[2] “O mundi Domina, regio ex semine orta: Ex tuo jam Christos processit alvo, tanquam sponsus de thalamo; hic jacet in praesepio qui et sidera regit” (Burlin 43). “O mistress of the world descended from royal seed; from your womb Christ has come forth, like the bridegroom from the bridal bed; he lies in the crib, who rules the stars.”

[3] It is believed that the “Advent Lyrics’” scribe erased the initial þ, (see for example Krapp 11 n.277). Das contends that, after analyzing the manuscript, there is no significant gap that justifies this assumption (58 n.277).

[4] In Genesis 4.16, God says to the serpent “and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise they head, and thou shalt brusie his heel.”

[5] “Christ’s noblemen say and sing that thou are mistress by Holy might of the heavenly host, and the worldly ranks under Heaven, and Hell.”

[6] Wealhthow, the peace weaver, is described in line 623 of Beowulf as “beag-hroden cwen.” In contrast, Judith and her handmaiden, the warrior-women, are referred to “as beahhrodene ‘ring-adorned ones ’ [when] they march through the horde of an invading army with dauntless courage [. . .] in triumph” (Damico 185).

[7] Cook surmises that the poet became confused because the Advent liturgical lesson featuring Isaiah precedes that of Ezekiel (105).

Works Cited

The Advent Lyrics of the Exeter Book. Trans. and ed. Jackson  J. Campbell. Princeton:     Princeton UP, 1959.

Burlin, Robert B. The Old English Advent: A Typological Commentary. New Haven: Yale UP,   1968.

Campbell, Jackson J. Ed. “Introduction.” The Advent Lyrics of the ‘Exeter Book’. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959. 3-42.

—. “Structural Patters in the Old English ‘Advent Lyrics.’” ELH. 23.4 (1956). 239-55.

Chance, Jane. Woman as Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986.

Clayton, Mary. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “The Maternal Performance of the Virgin Mary in the Old English ‘Advent’”. NWSA Journal. 14.2 (2002). 38-55.

Greenfield, Stanley. “Of Locks and Keys–Line 19 of the O.E. Christ.” Modern Language Notes.  67.4 (1952). 238-240.

The Holy Bible. King James Version. N.p.: n.p., n.d.

Pigg, Daniel F. “Representing the Gendered Discourse of Power: The Virgin Mary in ‘Christ I.’” In Parenthesis: Papers in Medieval Studies. 1 (1999). 104-26.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex” The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York:    Knopf, 1976.

%d bloggers like this: