Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Virgin breaks the neck of a devil
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This illumination comes from the Taymouth Hours, a richly decorated English manuscript of uncertain origins. It apparently had a royal provenance and features multiple narrative cycles in its marginal illustrations. The Virgin Mary of the Taymouth Hours is a figure of exceptional vigor and physicality. Her every gesture evinces strength and purpose, and her defeat of the Devil and his associates and minions often entails striking displays of force and even violence. In this manuscript, Mary is an independent agent who takes direct action without any reference to Christ. This implies that she is powerful and important in her own right. Here, the crowned Virgin swiftly snaps the neck of a devil who had tried to break the neck of one of her devotees by causing the woman’s horse to stumble. The Virgin is shown without a halo, and her demeanor is that of an imperious queen or princess. The illumination is one of several in the manuscript representing Marian miracles and appears at the bottom of a page in the Office of the Dead.

    Typically, the Virgin was regarded as a dainty intercessor whose uncommon grace and graciousness permeated every act she performed on behalf of her petitioners. However, this illumination demonstrates another side of her nature, namely her role as a robust protector who physically steps into problematic situations to save her devotees from harm. During the thirteenth-century, there was a proliferation of Marian stories that featured the Virgin reacting violently to various offenses. In his work on the Virgin Mary in late medieval culture, Gary Waller cites Benedetta Ward’s research on the number of occasions in England when the Virgin’s predilection for punitive power is demonstrated: she notes the commonplace phrase vindicta Mariae to describe such instances of punishment, which might even include the offender’s death. We see an example of such an outcome in this image when the Virgin kills a devil. Although the Virgin’s behavior appears transgressive, this image reminds the viewer that her fundamental humanity, the quality that makes her uniquely qualified to intercede on behalf of the human soul, also can cause her to lash out in a vindictive rage and seek a violent reprisal.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Devil Intercession Mary, Virgin, Saint Miracles Travel Violence
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1325- 1350
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: British Library, London, Yates Thompson 13 f. 166v.
  • Original Location: S.E. England (London?)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 100/70 [Size of manuscript page]/
  • Inscription: Cy n(ot)re dame ru(m)pe le col dun deable q(ue) voleyt avoyr rumpu le col d'une dame q(ue) fu sa servaunte [Here our lady breaks the neck of a devil who wanted to have broken the neck of a lady who was her [the Virgin's] servant.]
  • Related Resources: Sand, Alexa. Vindictive Virgins: Animate Images and Theories of Art in some Thirteenth-Century Miracle Stories. Word and Image 26,2 (2010): 150-159.;
    Smith, Katheryn A. The Taymouth Hours: Stories and the Construction of the Self in Late Medieval England. British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2012. 252-253.;
    Waller, Gary. The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Literature and Popular Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 59, 86-87.;