The MS Digby 133 «Mary Magdalene»

Beyond scribal practices: language, discourse, values and attitudes

by Stefania M. Maci (Author)
©2017 Monographs 338 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 239


The MS 133 Digby Mary Magdalene has commonly been investigated by paying attention to literary features, while linguistic aspects have seldom been taken into consideration, with the result that any deviation from the norm has been classified as scribal inconsistency. However, what has been regarded as scribal carelessness actually seems to be a modern misunderstanding of scribal practices. Indeed, the significant combination of Southern, Midlands and Northern elements featuring in the language of Mary Magdalene is the result of the scribe’s desire to faithfully reproduce the author’s design, in which variants may have a marked social function. We can thus infer that the Mary Magdalene author probably created a sort of biblical koiné, shared with the audience, which was realized with the linguistic varieties offered by the existing late Middle English dialects and clearly exploited not only for poetic but also, and above all, for religious purposes. At the same time, the text puts an innovative emphasis on the figure of Mary Magdalene, who simultaneously plays the role of sinner and saint, virgin and prostitute, female and male. Thanks to the methodological approach of this volume, the author shows that most unusual forms are diatopic and diastratic alternatives used in specific religious contexts to realize well-defined sociolinguistic purposes.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Foreword
  • List of Abbreviations and Symbols
  • Abbreviations of text references
  • Chapter I. Introduction
  • Part One: Language Within The Sentence
  • Chapter II. Early history
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 MS Digby 133
  • 2.3 Mary Magdalene
  • 2.3.1 Description
  • 2.3.2 Authorship, date and provenance
  • 2.3.3 Sources
  • 2.4 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter III. Scribal practices
  • 3.1 LME scribal practice
  • 3.2 Scribal practice in Mary Magdalene
  • 3.2.1 Figurae in accented syllables as vocalic potestates
  • 3.2.2 Figurae in unaccented syllables as vocalic potestates
  • 3.2.3 Figurae as consonantal potestates
  • 3.3 The mix of accented figurae as orthographic dialectal variants in Mary Magdalene
  • 3.4 Conclusion
  • Chapter IV. Sound patterns
  • 4.1 Middle English Pronunciation: Vowels
  • 4.1.1 ME vowels
  • Quantitative changes
  • Qualitative changes
  • 4.1.2 LME short vowels
  • 4.1.3 LME long vowels: the Great Vowel Shift
  • 4.1.4 EModE vowels
  • 4.2 Middle English Pronunciation: Diphthongs
  • 4.2.1 ME diphthongs
  • 4.2.2 LME diphthongs
  • 4.3 Vowels and diphthongs in words deriving from ON
  • 4.4 The behaviour of OF (and AN) vowels and diphthongs in ME
  • 4.4.1 Stress
  • 4.4.2 Quantitative developments with ME equivalences
  • 4.4.3 Qualitative developments of OF (and AN) vowels with ME equivalences
  • 4.4.4 Qualitative developments of OF (and AN) vowels without ME equivalences
  • 4.5 Pronunciation in Mary Magdalene
  • 4.5.1 Quantitative lengthening
  • 4.5.2 Qualitative lengthening
  • 4.5.3 Mary Magdalene and the GVS
  • Mary Magdalene and the GVS: the reflex of ME ī
  • Mary Magdalene and the GVS: the reflex of ME ū
  • 4.5.4 Diphthongs
  • 4.5.5 Consonants
  • 4.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter V. Morpho-syntactic features
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Articles
  • 5.3 Nouns
  • 5.3.1 Loanwords
  • 5.4 Adjectives
  • 5.5 Demonstrative, distributive and quantitative adjectives and pronouns; quantifiers
  • 5.6 Adverbs
  • 5.7 Interrogative adjectives, pronouns and adverbs
  • 5.8 Person pronouns and possessive adjectives and pronouns
  • 5.9 Relative pronouns and relative clauses
  • 5.10 Numerals
  • 5.11 Verbs
  • 5.11.1 Interrogative and negative constructions
  • 5.11.2 To be
  • 5.11.3 To have
  • 5.11.4 Modality
  • Development of modality: from OE to ME
  • Modals and modality in Mary Magdalene
  • 5.11.5 Present Tense
  • Singular forms of the present indicative in Mary Magdalene
  • Plural forms of the present indicative in Mary Magdalene
  • 5.11.6 Progressive forms
  • 5.11.7 Past tense
  • 5.11.8 Perfect tenses
  • 5.11.9 Passive voice
  • 5.11.10 Present participle
  • 5.11.11 Past Participle
  • 5.11.12 Subjunctive
  • 5.11.13 Imperative
  • 5.11.14 Infinitive
  • 5.12 Word order
  • 5.13 Conclusion
  • Chapter VI. The resources of metre and rhyme
  • 6.1 Metrical scansion and rhythmic pattern
  • 6.1.1 Metrical scansion
  • Southern infinitive desinences
  • The pleonastic use of to do
  • 6.1.2 Rhythmical pattern
  • Etymological reconstructions
  • Rhythm and sounds
  • 6.1.3 Rhetorical effects
  • Alliteration
  • Aureate diction
  • 6.2 Conclusion
  • Part Two: Discourse Above The Sentence
  • Chapter VII. Mary Magdalene: cult, role, themes, structure, design
  • 7.1 Mary Magdalene’s cult and role
  • 7.2 Mary Magdalene: themes, structure and design
  • 7.2.1 The nature and staging of Mary Magdalene
  • 7.2.2 Stage directions
  • 7.2.3 Design and themes in Mary Magdalene
  • 7.3 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter VIII. Values and Attitudes
  • 8.1 Values and attitudes
  • 8.1.1 Linguistic ‘violations’ and shared laughter
  • Diatopic and diastratic variants
  • Alliteration, parody and comic interludes
  • 8.2 Concluding remarks
  • Chapter IX. Conclusion
  • References
  • Appendix
  • 1. Rhyme Concordance in Mary Magdalene
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Rhyme concordance
  • 2. Phonemic interpretation
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Interpretation
  • Series index

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This volume was made possible by the support of so many people that it is not possible to acknowledge them all properly. I am truly indebted to Prof. Maurizio Gotti, Editor of the Linguistic Insights series, for his stimulating observations and detailed comments on earlier drafts of this book. I am immensely grateful to Prof. Joanne Findon and Prof. Theresa Coletti for their stimulating discussion of Maria Magdalena via email. I would like to express my gratitude to Prof. Gabriella Mazzon for her enthusiastic comments on this volume. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the Bodleian Library, for granting permission to reproduce Folio 107r of the Digby 133 Mary Magdalene.

Also, I am thankful to Prof. Michele Sala and Dr Larissa D’Angelo for their help and support. Many thanks to my husband and my son, who have lived with me and Mary Magdalene, patiently, for the last twenty years.

It goes without saying that I am the only one responsible for any errors or omissions. ← 11 | 12 →

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It has been nine years since my first full-length study presented readers with a linguistic analysis of Mary Magdalene (Maci 2008). New critical editions and further analysis of the play call for a new volume. This book (i) provides expansions, updates and clarifications in all parts of the previous work, (ii) adds new developments and (iii) clarifies subtle issues that are commonly considered particularly problematic or in need of elaboration.

All these aspects are now investigated in new chapters, whose aim is to better explain the figure and role of Mary Magdalene and how they have been symbolically and poetically realized in the play. The analysis carried out in this volume is meant to demonstrate that the linguistic formulation of Mary Magdalene – which at times has aroused criticism – is not due to scribal carelessness but may rather be the result of the author’s precise poetical design.

I hope that the readers of this book – in particular, specialists of late Middle English language and literature – will find this book both interesting and stimulating, and that this work will provide them with useful insights in their fields of research. ← 13 | 14 →

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This book by Stefania Maci is a great testimony to how a modern linguistic analysis that overcomes the limitations of traditional editions not only can lead to a reinterpretation of textual variants, but can also bring to a reassessment of the thematic structure of a text. At the same time, it is also a testimony to the progress that has been made in manuscript studies, and to how palaeography can contribute to our understanding of the origin and transmission of a text.

This progress has been achieved largely thanks to the new approaches introduced by the LAEME and LALME, and to the data provided by these resources and by accompanying investigations by Meg Laing and Roger Lass, which allow us to reassess graphic variants and their possible correspondences with phonetic values. At the same time, the last two decades’ significant advances within discourse analysis, pragmatics and sociolinguistics in their application to historical data allow now for fine-grained investigations of the use of grammatical and lexical items and constructions in relation to the sociocultural context of the production and reception of the text. This applies particularly to the assignment of specific registers to ‘speaking voices’ within the text, i.e. coherent repertoires of lexical and grammatical elements that characterise such voices socially and pragmatically, expressing their status and/or communicative stance.

Thanks to these developments, the complexity of the linguistic, historical, social and cultural background of late-medieval play manuscripts is increasingly taking the centre of scholarly attention. Although the so-called Digby Mary Magdalene Play has been investigated by other scholars in the past decades, the publication of this book reveals the productivity of a new generation of linguistic and philological studies that takes the full extent of this background into account. Dramatic texts (or pseudo-dramatic texts, i.e. those written in a dramatic form even though not necessarily intended to be actually performed) are emerging as particularly interesting examples of this ← 15 | 16 → complexity of signification. Therefore, the preservation and survival of such texts no longer appear to be, from our modern perspective, a fortunate coincidence, but rather an attempt at preserving some significant witnesses of a whole system of late-medieval values into the Renaissance.

This book is a very good example of how the language used in late-medieval play texts is representative of a whole world-view, in which religious and secular elements are both encapsulated in a network of signifiers that, far from being the chaotic and unsystematic jumble Middle English writing is often considered to be, forms a refined and complex system of allusions that interdisciplinary studies such as the present one are presently contributing to uncover. Stefania Maci builds on her own previous knowledge of the Digby Mary Magdalene to develop a convincing case for the remarkable qualities of a text that was previously often considered a marginally interesting sloppy copy. Thus, her study is a significant addition to a trend of scholarly investigation that will hopefully lead to an ever-increasing integration of linguistic and philological analysis in the study of texts of particular literary and socio-cultural relevance.

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List of Abbreviations and Symbols

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Abbreviations of text references

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I.  Introduction

Mary Magdalene as reproduced in the Bodleian Digby 133 manuscript is one of the most spectacular and ‘theatrical’ plays (Findon 2011: 2) ever performed in the late fifteenth century. It deals with the private and public story of Mary Magdalene, an aristocratic lady who, in a privileged way, lived with her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus, inherited a castle, led a sinful life and was converted by Jesus, who resurrected Lazarus. This private aspect of Mary Magdalene’s life is dealt with in the first part of the play (ll. 1–924), whereas the second part of the play (ll. 925–2144) deals with Mary Magdalene’s public life as an apostle and her adventures, including her converting the King and Queen of Marseilles, destroying their heathen temples, sailing with the royal couple to Jerusalem to meet St. Peter, as well as her thirty-year long spell as a hermit in the wilderness, her death and ascension to Paradise. The protagonist is a woman who dominates the stage and whose theatrical life is an adaptation of Biblical and apocryphal sources, together with legendary ones, melted with folklore – traditional texts that the Digby author wittily manipulated and moulded with the literary tradition of the times, as

he followed other English writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, who habitually incorporated their own material into rewritings or translations of Latin, French and Italian texts. (Findon 2011: 5)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (February)
early Modern English Scribal practices diatopic and diastratic variants rhymes aureate diction sociolinguistic variation and attitudes
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 338 pp., 1 fig. col., 37 tables

Biographical notes

Stefania M. Maci (Author)

Stefania M. Maci is Associate Professor of English Language and Translation at the University of Bergamo (Italy). Her main research areas are the History of the English Language and English language in academic and professional contexts from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives, with a particular interest in the analysis of tourism and medical discourses as well as legal texts.


Title: The MS Digby 133 «Mary Magdalene»
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338 pages