Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the culture of Western Christianity, the Virgin Mary has symbolized the ideal of female virtue. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary examines different facets of Mary’s persona to see how her myth and cult developed from the origins of Christianity to the present. Warner’s interest in the myth of the Virgin arose from her experiences of parochial education whose rituals of devotion to Mary were designed to foster ideas of sexual purity and chastity in young women. By studying the ways in which the Virgin’s myth was constructed, Marina Warner demonstrates how her exalted position undermines female worth and dignity.

The organization of the book is based on the major roles that the Virgin Mary assumed as her cult developed. The five sections look at her status as virgin, queen, bride, mother, and intercessor. To an extent, this sequence represents the chronological development of the Virgin’s cult in Western Christianity. The issue of Mary’s virginity concerned the early Church. The queen and bride were prominent concepts in feudal society of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the Late Middle Ages, the focus shifted to the Virgin’s life experiences as a mother, although with the Counter-Reformation’s promotion of the Immaculate Conception, her maternal qualities waned. Finally, because the Virgin has always been called upon as intercessor, the last section provides an opportunity to study rituals connected with her cult.

Alone of All Her Sex can be read on two levels. On the one hand, the book is a work of historical research that provides a comprehensive documentation of the myth and cult of the Virgin. Warner utilizes an interdisciplinary approach that considers evidence from theological writings, anthropology, the sociology of religion, and art history. On the other hand, Warner subjects this extensive and varied material to critical analysis to expose the underlying negative or misogynistic attitudes toward women that are inherent in the myths surrounding the Virgin and the devotional practices associated with her cult. The book’s feminist message is interwoven within the body of material that she has assembled and presented in elegant and often evocative prose. Its persuasive power comes from the scope of the documentation and from the author’s balanced and rational tone.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In some ways, Alone of All Her Sex stands somewhat alone in its reception. Although it contains a feminist message, it is not a work that easily fits into a particular genre. In terms of historical scholarship, it is one of the most complete investigations of the broad ramifications of the Virgin’s cult. Historians of medieval studies and religion, however, have not pursued its method or insights fully since it is often regarded as “popular history.” Feminist religious studies have considered the impact of Mariology, but the extensive information and documentation in Warner’s book mutes its message. Warner’s historical approach, utilizing literary, artistic, and anthropological evidence, provides an interesting and compelling way to expose myths about women. For both its method and message, Alone of All Her Sex deserves to be more fully integrated into the literature of women’s studies and issues.

Marina Warner has written several other books, including Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (1981) and Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (1985), that deal with different aspects of the historical and aesthetic portrayal of women.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991. A collection of essays that examines aspects of attitudes toward the body and gender in religious thought and practice, especially in the late medieval period. Several ideas that Warner discusses—such as gender reversal applied to priests and monks, the importance of the physical body in female devotion, and the symbolism of the Virgin’s milk—are placed in the context of medieval religious practices.

Coakley, Sarah. “Mariology and ‘Romantic Feminism’: A Critique.” In Women’s Voices: Essays in Contemporary Feminist Theology, edited by Teresa Elwes. London: Marshall Pickering, 1992. This essay categorizes several contemporary discussions of Mariology according to type of feminism. Warner’s book is discussed as an example of deconstructionist Mariology.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973. One of several works by Daly that explore the sexist implications inherent in the Christian religion, with proposals for ways that women can liberate themselves from these concepts. The problems with Mary as a feminine role model are discussed, with the author’s objections similar to those raised by Warner.


(The entire section is 410 words.)