The Golden Legend of Mary Magdalene

I’ve heard of the legend of Mary Magdalene arriving in France after the death of Jesus but never did track the story down until recently. This legend comes from the the book titled  Legenda sanctorum (Readings of the Saints) by Jacobus de Varagine and released around 1260 CE-ish. The book is also known by the title, “The Golden Legend.” The book is a collection of stories relating to various saints that made it’s way around medieval Europe and was added to throughout that time period. I am focusing on the Mary Magdalene section. I looked online for a recent translation (originally published in Latin), but the only translation I could find was from 1483 and it’s in Middle English. I’m sure there are other translations but to view free online, that’s all I could find. So I decided to “modernize” this Middle English translation into something that is a bit easier to read. An exercise that I thought would be rather simple has turned into something a bit more time consuming. So I have to decided to present this legend in three separate blog posts. Please note, I am not a scholar/professor, etc… so excuse any errors I may make. This is a learning experience. I will provide a link to the text I am basing this translation on for those who want to read the 1483 version.

Be aware that this legend has medieval issues like Mary Magdalene being fused with the repentant woman and also being mis-identified as the sister of Lazarus and Martha. It also portrays Mary and her family living in castles. Now, I’m not a castle expert, but I don’t think castles, as we know them, were around during Mary’s time on this planet. But this is an apocrypha of medieval times, so just “go along with it.” I also decided to keep some of the language and not totally turn it into modern English. Hey, I like some of the phrases used. Some areas will resemble their 1483 counterpart very closely, while other areas, I reworked. At any rate, I hope you enjoy part 1 of 3 of my 2021 translation of “The Golden Legend of Mary Magdalene.”


Here follows the life of Saint Mary Magdalene, and first of her name.

Mary is as much to say as bitter, or a lighter, or lighted.  By this be understood, three things that be three, the best parts that she chose.  That is to say, part of penance, part of contemplation within forth, and part of heavenly glory.  And of this treble part is understood that is said by our Lord: Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken from her.  

The first part shall not be taken from her because of the end, which is the following of blessedness. 

The second because of continuance, for the continuance of her life is continued with the contemplation of her country.  

The third by reason of perdurableness; and for as much as she chose the best part of penance, she is said: a bitter sea, for therein she had much bitterness.  

And that appeared in that she wept so many tears that she washed therewith the feet of our Lord.  And for so much as she chose the part of contemplation within forth, she is a lighter, for there she took so largely that she spread it abundantly.  She took the light there, with which after she illuminated the other, and in that she chose the best part of the heavenly glory, she is called the light.  For then she was illuminated of perfect knowledge in thought, and with the light in clearness of body.  Magdalene is as much as to say as abiding culpable.  Or Magdalene is interpreted as closed or shut, or not to be overcome.  Or full of magnificence, by which is showed what she was before her conversion, and what in her conversion, and what after her conversion.  Before her conversion, she was abiding guilty by obligation to everlasting pain.  In the conversion, she was garnished by amour of penance.  She was in the best wise garnished with penance.  For as many delights as she had in her, so many sacrifices were found in her.  And after her conversion, she was praised by overabundance of grace.  For whereas sin abounded, grace over abounded, and was more.

Of Mary Magdalane

Mary Magdalene had her surname of Magdala, a castle, and was born of right noble lineage and parents, which were descended of the lineage of kings.  And her father was named Cyrus, and her mother Eucharis.  She, with her brother Lazarus, and her sister Martha, possessed the castle of Magdala, which is two miles from Nazareth, and Bethany, the castle which is nigh to Jerusalem, and also a great part of Jerusalem, which all these things they departed among them.  In such wise that Mary had the castle Magdala, whereof she had her name Magdalene.   And Lazarus had the part of the city of Jerusalem, and Martha had to her part Bethany.  And when Mary gave herself to all delights of the body, and Lazarus his all to knighthood, Martha, whom was wise, governed nobly her brother’s part and also her sister’s, as well as her own.  She administered to knights, her servants, and to poor men, such necessities as they needed.  Nevertheless, after the ascension of our Lord, they sold all these things, and brought the value thereof, and laid it at the feet of the apostles.  Then when Magdalene abounded in riches, and because delight is fellow to riches and abundance of things; and for so much as she shone in beauty greatly, and in riches, so much the more she submitted her body to delight, and therefore, she lost her right name and was called a sinner.  

And when our Lord Jesus Christ preached there and in other places, Mary was inspired with the Holy Ghost, and went into the house of Simon Ieprous, whereas our Lord dined.  Because she was a sinner, she did not appear before the just and good people but remained behind at the feet of our Lord, and washed his feet with the tears of her eyes and dried them with the hair from her head, and anointed them with precious ointments.  For the inhabitants of that region used baths and ointments for the over bearing heat of the sun.  And because that Simon the Pharisee thought in himself that, if our Lord had been a very prophet, he would not have allowed a sinful woman to have touched him.  Our Lord then reprimand him of his presumption, and forgave the woman all her sins.  And this is she, the same Mary Magdalene to whom our Lord gave so many great gifts.  And showed so great signs of love, that he took from her seven devils.  He embraced her all in his love, and made her right familiar with him.  She would be his hostess and procuress on his journey, and often times excused her sweetly; for he excused her against the Pharisee which said that she was not clean, and unto her sister that said she was idle, unto Judas, who said that she was careless with goods.  And when he saw her weep, he could not withhold his tears.  And for the love of her, he raised Lazarus, whom had been dead for four days, and healed her sister from the flux of blood which had held her seven years.  And by the merits of her, he made Marcelle, chamberer of her sister Martha, to say that sweet word: Blessed be the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck.

Mary Magdalene is the one that washed the feet of our Lord and dried them with the hair of her head, and anointed them with precious ointment, and did solemn penance in the time of grace, and was the first that chose the best part, which was at the feet of our Lord, and heard his preaching.  She anointed his head; was night unto the cross at his passion; made ready ointments, and would anoint his body, and would not depart from the monument when his disciples departed.  To whom Jesus Christ appeared first after his resurrection, and was fellow to the apostles, and apostle to the apostles.  Fourteen years after the passion of our Lord, long after the Jews had slain Saint Stephen and cast out the other disciples into neighboring countries to preach the word of God.

There was that time with the apostles, Saint Maximin, which was one of the seventy-two disciples of our Lord, to whom the blessed Mary Magdalene was committed by Saint Peter, and then, when the disciples were departed, Saint Maximin, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, Martha, Marcelle and Saint Cedony (who was born blind but was cured by our Lord) and other Christian men were put onto a ship and sent out into the sea without any tackle or rudder, for they were sent to be drowned.  But by the purveyance of Almighty God, the ship landed at Marseille, where no one would receive them to be lodged.  They dwelled and abode under a porch before a temple of the people of that country.  When the blessed Mary Magdalene saw the people assembled at this temple, whom were there to sacrifice to idols, she arose up peacefully with a glad visage, a discreet tongue and well speaking, and began to preach the faith and teachings of Jesus Christ, and the people withdrew from the worshipping of the idols.  They were marveled of the beauty, reason and fair speaking of her.  And it was no marvel that the mouth that had kissed the feet of our Lord so graciously, should be inspired with the word of God more than the other.  

And after that, it happened that the prince of the province and his wife made a sacrifice to the idols to have a child.  Mary Magdalene preached to them of Jesus Christ and forbade them those sacrifices.  And after a little while, Mary Magdalene appeared in a vision to that lady saying “Wherefore thou has so many riches and cause suffering among the poor people, to die from hunger and the cold?”  She doubted and was afraid to speak of this vision to her lord.  And then the second night, she appeared to her again and said in likewise, if she did not warn her husband to comfort the poor and needy, a great menace will overcome them.  Yet she said nothing to her husband.  And then Mary Magdalene appeared to her and her husband on third night when it was dark with a frowning and angry visage like fire, as if the house had burned, and said “Thou tyrant, who is in member with the devil, and whose wife who is a serpent, an enemy of the cross, who has filled thy belly with food while the people starve.  Whom live in a palace wrapped with clothes of silk but allows the people to live in discomfort, without harbour and takes no regard to them.  Thou shalt not escape without any punishment for living this way for so long.”  And when Mary Magdalene said this, she departed away.  Then the lady awoke and sighed.  The husband sighed strongly as well for the same cause, and trembled.  And then she said “Sir, have thou seen the vision that I have seen?”  “I have seen,” said he, “that I am greatly marveled of, and am afraid of what shall we do.”  And his wife said “It is more profitable for us to obey her, than to run into the ire of her God, whom she preached of.”  For which cause, they received them into their house, and ministered to them all that was necessary and needful to them.  Then as Mary Magdalene preached on a time, the said prince said to her “When will thou defend the law that thou preach?”  And she answered “Certainly, I am ready to defend it,” as she that is confirmed everyday by miracles, and by the predication of our master, Saint Peter, whom now sit at the seat of Rome.  To whom then the prince said “I and my wife are ready to obey thee in all things, if thou may get thy God whom you preach of, that might give us a child.”  And then Mary Magdalene said it could be done and then she prayed unto our Lord that he would of his grace give them a son.  And our Lord heard her prayers, and the lady conceived.  Then her husband would go to Saint Peter to see if Mary Magdalene was truly preaching of Jesus Christ.  Then his wife said to him “What will you do sir, will you go without me?  Or when you depart, I shall depart with you, and when you return, I shall return, and when when you rest and relax, I shall rest and relax.”  To whom her husband answered, “Madam, it shall not be so, for thou art great and the perils of the sea be without number.  Thou be safe, and stay at home and take care of our possessions.”  And the lady would not change her purpose, and fell to her knees, weeping at his feet, demanding he take her with him.  And at last, he consented and granted her request.  Then Mary Magdalene set the sign of the cross on their shoulders, to the end that the fiend might not stop them on their journey.  The couple obtained a ship that was large enough for them and left all their belongings in the keeping of Mary Magdalene, and went forth on their pilgrimage.

Part 2 will be out next week.

Check out the 1483 version at: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/goldenlegend-volume4.asp#Mary%20Magdalene

2021 version by Bill Piper

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