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Medieval Sourcebook:
Life of Mary the Younger, d.c.903


This text [the first five chapters and conclusion] is from an anonymous account of the life and posthumous miracles of a ninth-century Byzantine noblewoman of Armenian origin, Mary ten Neas, who died in 903. In its present form the vita cannot have been set down before 976, as it refers to Basil II (976-1025), and was possibly written after 1025. Two manuscripts survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and were used in 1925 by the Bollandist editors to establish the text translated below. Although up to a century separates the author and St. Mary, both lived at a time when Byzantium was at the height of its medieval power, militarily aggressive and not undergoing any great religious controversy. The text then reflects internal Byzantine developments in conceptions of women and female sanctity uncomplicated by polemical intent or western influence. As such it is a prime source with which to explore the social and religious transformations which left Byzantine Christianity bereft of new female heroes for centuries to come.

According to the Life, St. Mary's sanctity was recognized by others due to her pious acts in her lifetime, the incorruption of her body, and miracles performed after her death. A cult was established by the local clergy The Life itself was probably written by the anonymous author in a monastery in the area of Biyzae within a century after her death. If Mary was a real person, and the account of her cult in the Life is accurate, it seems that her cult began spontaneously, and that her married status presented little problem to her early admirers. The Life as we have it is a step removed from the initial anagnorisis (recognition) of the saint. The author had to write a vita which took account not only of Mary's reputation for miracles, but of how her sanctity conformed to tradition.

The structure of the Life is straightforward. It begins with a prologue (section 1) in which the main point the author wishes to make, the moral of the story, in this case the availability of grace to both sexes is made. In accordance with hagiographical traditions there is then presentation of background information on the saint (section 2). St. Mary's life occupies just eight paragraphs (sections 3-10), and her posthumous vindication two (sections 11-12). A variety of miracles take up almost the half the narrative (sections 13-24). The future of Mary's children is also discussed, with both eventually becoming monks (sections 25-31). A conventional prayer to the saint and to God ends the Life.

This translation of the first five chapters of the Life of Mary the Younger was undertaken for a seminar paper in 1990. Since then a complete translation - with a long and most interesting introduction - by Professor Angeliki Laiou has appeared in Holy Women of Byzantium, ed. Alice-Mary Talbot, (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996), 239-289.

Chapter titles are not in the original. Comments and notes are indicated by square brackets, expansions of meaning by carets


The life, career, and partial narration of the miracles
of the blessed and renowned Mary the Younger.

from the Vatican Library, Codex greac. 800 (=V), and
the Athonite Monastery of St. Athanasius, K. 821 (=L)

Edition: Vita Mariae Junioris, Acta Sanctorum Bollandiana, (Brussels, etc.: 1643-) Novembris IV:692-705: Also ed. E. Kourilas, in Thrakika 26 (1957), 111-47


1. [The call of all human groups to sanctity]

[The partial translation of section 1 into French in Patlagean "Femme disguisee", 621-22, helped in this passage.]

While only men are called to struggle in the world, since they can fight and exhibit bodily strength, the arena of virtue is not only open to men but to women also. The God who presides over the struggle bestows generously to each of the sexes common prizes and crowns. Neither sex, fate [tuche], bodily weakness, difference of lifestyle, nor anything else can constitute an obstacle to those who wish to struggle [agonizetshai]. For in this place [i.e. the arena] a man is not accepted while a woman is rejected; a master or a rich man are not chosen to be worthy of the struggle while a slave or a poor man are discarded as unworthy; an adult ["one perfected in age and in manhood"] is not admitted and a child ["one still unripe and helpless (or childish)"] rejected; and the God who oversees our trials [the agonothetes] does not receive celibates ["those who have assumed the life without union"] while rejecting married people ["those who have assumed the yoke of conjugal union"]. On the contrary, now all people, of both sexes, all ranks [axioma] and ages, and all means of living, have been summoned to this good struggle, the kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth, young men and maidens together, old men and children [Ps 148:11-12].

In the same way, with the blessed Mary, the wonder of our generation, whom our account has taken for its subject, even though she was a women, united to a man, and had children, absolutely nothing prevented her from attaining the glory of God - not the weakness of her nature, not the torments of her marriage, not the necessities and the cares of feeding of her children. Rather all these things served as the basis of her glory. To those who say and think that these circumstances and the rest create an obstacle to valour, she is the proof to free them from their vain debates, and to show that they invent pretexts for their sins.

We must then describe, as is right, in full and from the beginning, the affairs of this saint.

2. [St. Mary's nation and homeland]

At that time Basil [Basil I, ruled 867-886] ruled the empire, not the one born in the purple, but Basil the Macedonian. He was the one who became an emperor after being a stable hand, and the one who slew the Emperor Michael [Michael III, ruled 842-867]. It was under this Michael that the effrontery of the iconoclasts was brought to an end, and that the doctrine of the Orthodox began to sprout afresh. History hands him down as the "son of Theophilos" [Theophilos, ruled 829-842], the last of the iconoclasts, but his imbibing of much wine has also led him to be ridiculed as "the drunkard" [methuonta]. One Basil had removed Michael, he substituted himself in the Imperial office. At the time Basil was ruling, some powerful men from Great Armenia came to the great city of Constantine and approached the Emperor. He received the men gladly, giving them gifts and exalting them with honors, <for which he> was held in repute by the first ones honored.

The father of holy Mary was acknowledged to be among these <early nobles coming from Armenia>. He fathered two sons and three daughters. Of these, two of the daughters, while their father was still alive, were given out <in marriage>, but Mary - whom we are honoring - since she was the last born, and her mother would have no more children, was kept hold of by her mother, lived with her, and was brought up by her.

Once, when Mary's brother-in-law [her sister's husband] - he was called Vardas Vratzes - was in the environs of Mesene in Thrace, which is indeed even now called after the Vratzes by everyone. By going out to this property, Vardas became familiar with, and friendly to, one Nikephoros, a drungarios, who came from the village of Kamaras. In time their friendship made them grow together, and since he was devoted to the utmost, Vardas made haste to bind himself <to Nicephoros> still more. <To do so> he contrived a bond, <that would be> both strong and unbreakable. One day then, addressing himself to Nikephoros, he said "Since, you are dearest to me among men, and from our intimacy with one another we have made as one ["both been distilled at the same time"] and have been bound together, I have been led to propose that our bond of love be made firmer and more perfect. <I propose> that bonds of kinship be added to this <bond of love>, so that we shall be bound together twice over by our joining in intimacy, and by a kin relationship". Right there and then <Vardas> began to go over the details with Nikephoros. "I have a chaste sister-in-law, a maiden who is exceedingly beautiful, not only to the eyes, but also in her soul, so that her inner beauty is lit up by the beauty of her body. If it is God's will, you will take her to yourself as wife, and thus we shall have taken care that in the future our love [agape] remains unbroken. I shall be the one responsible for persuading the mother of the girl to assent to the marriage of her daughter". Nikephoros heard the speech with pleasure and without waiting they went to Constantinople to talk with the mother of the girl about the proposal. She was persuaded, and her daughter was married to Nickphoros. In this way did the very beautiful Mary, leave her home and attend upon a man.

3. [St. Mary's virtuous work in her village]

Just as myrrh is unable to avoid being arousing, even if it is well hidden, for the sweet smell proclaims itself, neither is virtue able to avoid being active, for its works make this activity known. Since she was fervent in the spirit and a servant to the lord, neither did the most dignified of women herself escape notice. Because of her virtue she was a wonder to those around her and was talked about by everyone. To them she was a monument of self-control, a pattern of divine love, a type of mercy, a pattern for all in piety. No one saw her being angry for no reason, nor use whips on servants, nor utter insults ["shouting aggressively"]. She cherished the holy churches ["divine dwelling places"], and was able to say as David "O Lord, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwells" [Ps. 25:8]. She never sent away those in need as gloomy or exhausted, nor did she want to put off anything of the necessities of life, rather she used to want to do each task that came along as another was finished [unsure translation.]

Mary held in highest honor and reverence priests as ministers of God and stewards of inspiring and great mysteries; she looked to the monks as fathers, and to everyone she had the good color of modesty blooming in herself. I shall not even mention her scrupulous housekeeping, her love of industry, her plainness in dress and her simplicity, her self-control at the table, or all the other guileless [?] things <she did>. But how can I pass over her zeal for the divine temples? How can I rush on past her earnest struggle? How could I keep silent about her moderate and harmonious way in singing hymns to God?

There was no chapel for prayer in her house, but in the evening and early in the day Mary went on foot to the Katholikon [main church] of the village according to the proper time of the service [synaxis]. Nothing could prevent her from [going to] the preparation of the gifts [prothumion]; not disorder in the air or the change of seasons, not the coldness of winter nor the heat of summer, not a rain or snow storm, not the distance of the journey, which was over a stadion [A classical Greek stadion was 606 3/4ft, so this does not seem to be a particularly long distance], and not <even> a river. She crossed over each <of the obstacles>], and like others she was not able to cross <the river> with dry feet, rather it was necessary for her to wade through the waters. By none of any of these things indeed was she, who bore a male soul in her female body, once made effeminate [katemalakisthe] so as to abandon such a heroic crossing <of the river>, unless she was prevented by serious illness. When she was praying in church, however, she made her arrival simply, and, taking some place secretly in the body of the church, she would at first ceaselessly throw herself on her knees, in order that she might be proved by wearing herself out with the sweaty toil of her actions upon the ground.

It is because the blessed one was violently in love with God, which it was possible to infer from certain signs at the time, and because she was also known as philanthropos and carer for her relations, that the following account is offered.

On one occasion, it was the time to collect the public tribute - the one which is customarily known as the diokete [housekeeping]. This tax applied to those living in the village, and those who had tribute demanded of them, but were unable to pay, were sent to jail in chains. What then <did> that soul so fond of compassion do? She was affected by the report <of the jailing> for she could not bear the inhabitants of the village to suffer evilly, and looked after the condition of each of them. Out of mercy she sought for gold <to help> those suffering. She was unable to find this from her own resources, but friends lent to her what she needed. Taking the loan, she sent <the money>, through some stout man, to the tax collectors, who let loose the chains of imprisonment. All those released from the prison did not go home, but instead went rejoicing and shouting in her honor to the one who had delivered them, proclaiming her as their champion [or benefactor]. This indeed, from many people and before many people, was the conclusive proof <of her holiness> in accordance with time-honored traditions of benevolence.

What then were among the circumstances and temptations that tested her as to whether she would fall meanly and be feminized [emalakizeto], or on the contrary, bear herself nobly and be made manly [endrizeto]? Could there have been, perhaps, nothing unphilosophic to be found in her [that is nothing which did not reflect on life] , or <perhaps, nothing in> the circumstances that <could> test the lover of God. The following account will make the situation clear.

4. [Birth and death of her first child]

After the marriage a fruit, a male child, was born to her. The newborn was named Orestes, but <when> the child was five years old, he was cut off untimely by the scythe of death. All the rest <of the household> wept unsummoned, and mourned in a agitated manner, but she was the mother. While internally she was, in truth, turning herself over in her heart and rending herself in pieces, <externally> she stood her ground against her moaning, and in appearance was bereft of tears. She did not show herself up in an undignified way, or tear her hair, or scratch [or disfigure] her cheeks with her hands, or rend her tunic, or put ashes on her head, or let slip a blasphemous word. She almost conquered <her> nature. To show that she was so great mother in her mourning, she gave thanks to the steward of our soul: with a quiet voice, and by settling her mind, she uttered in a great-souled way the [words] of Job The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Thus he was given by the lord, and thus he was born, Blessed be the name of the Lord forever [Job 1:21]. Thus with endurance and thanks she bore the blows, for if she accepted so nobly the death of her only begotten, what other pains would she not bear readily and in due measure?

5. [Migration to Bizyae, and virtuous activities there]

What happened after this? Mary had a second son who was named Vardanes. Then she set off on the <journey> to Bizyae. The reason for this change was as follows. After the emperor Basil, Leo the Wise and Alexander [Leo IV and Alexander, co-emperors from 879], his sons, were proclaimed throughout the Empire, but the prince of the Bulgarians, Symeon, who bore the name of a Christian, but who was a man who fully bore <also> the title of murderer, at this time marched against the Romans and caused much bloodshed. Now Mary's husband Nikephoros was the bravest [of those] fighting against the Bulgarians and by a vote of the commanders was sent to the tourma of Bizyae, and so, accompanied by his wife and children, he moved to of the city.

By moving here Mary exchanged her location in a country village for a city, but she did not change her character [There is a pun in the Greek. Location is `topos', character is `tropos' - `she changed her topos but not her tropos'], rather she conducted herself in accord with her own purposes. She protected widows and orphans, and she gavetowards the needs of monks, both those <who lived> in caves and those who were enclosed in their own small huts. She took advantage of her intimacy with some priests to take care of the good order of churches all around. In one thing only did she change - she no longer made her way to church each day as she had done before, rather she pursued her prayers at home, prostrating herself before an icon of the Mother of God, and singing the appropriate hours with the book of psalms, which she understood very well. She was not acting in a new way out of any hesitation or laziness, but due to her temperate self-control, and her desire that she not be seen indiscreetly by everyone in the crowded city, whether they be foreigners or native inhabitants. We note of this <change>, since its was only a new form, and <Mary> perfectly observed, as links holding a chain together, her other <good actions>.

The renowned woman heard the voice of the Saviour Do not despise one of these little ones [Matt 18:10], and she took care to look after the needs of those around her [translation unsure]. She did not mind if another's servant came to her when one of the belongings of his masters was lost, or a vessel broken: she made up what he had lost and he returned to the his master's house gladly, not fearing blows or scourges. She did not see her male servants and maidservants as slaves, and she refused to treat them as belonging to her house, for she judged wisely that all <come> from God and considered the equal honor of nature, and <also judged> that we use slaves as our hands or feet, often in base matters, while ourselves keeping our ease. Because of these <opinions>, she strove not to whip them <but> to nourish and to cherish them.

She ordered that the gates not be closed against the arrival of strangers, and she sent them forth lavished and happy. And if monks came along, what honour, what friendly welcomes <she showed them>, as angels of God descending from heaven.

[….]

[the chapter goes on to explain that while Mary neglected herself, she did not touch or use up her husband's goods.]

6. [St. Mary has twin sons, Vaanes and Stephen. She predicts their respective futures as a soldier and as a monk]

7. [St. Mary is falsely accused by Nikephoros' sister and brother of an affair with a servant Demetrios]

<summary> They accused her of having an affair with a servant called Demetrios. Her husband took the charge to be true and waiting little time he went to his spouse and said "It is not pretty, O wife, the report I have heard about you". But what report and concerning what and from whom might you have heard this. He replied "My siblings were the people who gave the report, that the house was empty, and more fearfully, your adultery with the servant Demetrios. The blessed on heard this shameful charge and crying said "O dear"..

[….]

8. [St. Mary protests her innocence]

9. [St. Mary's ill treatment by Nikephoros]

10. [St. Mary dies]

11. [Her funeral]

12. [St. Mary's body is found uncorrupted]

13. [An insane girl is healed]

14. [A woman possessed by a demon is healed]

15. [More miracles. Two paralytics healed]

16. [A cleric is cleansed of demons]

17. [St. Mary appears in a dream to Nicephoros. He builds a church]

18. [More miracles]

19. [Dealings with a monk]

20. [Appearance to Stephen, Bishop of Brusis]

21.

22.

23. [Dealings with Symeon of Bulgaria]

24.

25. [About St. Mary's son Baanes]

26. [Baanes visits St. Mary's tomb]

27. [Transfer of St. Mary's body. Stephen becomes a monk]

28. [New miracles. A woman is cured of a demon]

29. [Casting out of demons]

30. [Baanes emulates the virtues of his mother]

31. [Baanes becomes a monk]

32. [Syncrisis]

33. [Prayer to St. Mary]

But, O honored Mary, the embellishment of all women living in the Universe, the delight of the just and the sweetest flavoring of the saints, the repute of the virtuous, the instrument of the graces, the never-empty treasury of remedies, the storehouse of the gifts of God and the all-holy Spirit, standing besides the blessed and all holy Trinity, along with the honored choir of children and proclaiming with freedom Look, (here) I am and the children you have given me, O Lord [Heb 2.13], be gracious to we the unworthy, before the placable, patient, and forbearing Lord, assisting as an partner and co-ambassador, the assembly of saints, the band of martyrs, the legions of the just, the choirs of angels, the body of the apostles, the order of the prophets, and the collection of the fathers, for, know well, all <are> co-ambassadors on our behalf, bearing the Form of benevolence [philanthropia] in themselves, since they truly learnt benevolence from he who proclaimed it aloud [i.e. Christ]. Before all and with all, you have the self-assistance of our race, the Lady and Mistress of all, the Theotokos, the ever virgin mother or our lord Jesus Christ, who is ever importuning on our behalf and who never gives up pleading on our behalf.

[….]

To the glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the all-holy and supersubstantial Trinity, the one Divinity and Lord, be given glory, power, honour, and worship for ever and ever, amen.


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall November 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu