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.