Her understanding was keen to comprehend any matter, whatever it might be; to this was joined a great tenacity of memory, enabling her to store it up, along with a graceful flow of language to express it.
While thus she was meditating upon the law of the Lord day and night, and, like another Mary sitting at his feet, and delighted to hear His word, rather in obedience to the will of her friends than to her own, yea, by the appointment of God, she was married to Malcolm, son of King Duncan, the most powerful king of the Scots.
But although she was compelled to do as the world does, she thought it beneath her dignity to fix her affection upon the things of this world, so that good works delighted her more than riches.
This is from The Life of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland by Turgot of Durham. It’s a book which recounts the life of the eleventh-century saint, whom Anglicans remember today, and it was commissioned by her daughter from Bishop Turgot in her memory. Margaret was part of the courts of Hungary, England and Scotland at various points in her life, having been born to an English royal family in exile (after the Danish invasion), returned to England and then left for Scotland (after the Norman invasion.) She is remembered as a reformer of the church, and a Christian leader.
What caught my eye today about Turgot’s description of her, was his choice of parallel. As is obvious, he is not comparing Margaret with Mary the mother of Jesus, but Mary the sister of Lazarus. And also the sister of Martha, with whom she is often contrasted. In the Gospel according to Luke, the sisters are described thus:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Mary and Martha have been used variously as images of the contemplative life and the active life, the dangers of busyness in obscuring the spiritual life, and even a consolation for those who have to lead busy lives. I remember a tea-towel in my grandmother’s kitchen with a religious poem on it, which included the lines ”For though I must have Martha’s hands, I may have Mary’s mind”. Turgot’s comparison stresses Maragret’s concern with spiritual values, amidst the busyness of a court, and even the temptations of power and riches.
There’s also a hint that Margaret’s study of the Bible and Christian tradition, imagined as “sitting at his feet”, is a form of resistance. Required (in his account) to marry more for political expediency than personal desire, Margaret’s devotion identifies a particular “lord” to whom she submits, and whom she owes duty beyond that which can be demanded by earthly lords. The language of lordship and worship in medieval Christianity was still alive with resonances from practical affairs. “Jesus is Lord” is a perhaps more loaded and immediate declaration when there are actual feudal lords in your life than when you mostly have to answer to middle management. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes points out that the kneeling position for prayer, generally adopted as standard by the century after Margaret’s life, was taken from the position taken whilst asking one’s feudal lord for a favour.
For those who actually addressed their worldly superiors as “my lord”, the language of devotion could potentially reinforce social hierarchies, but also had potential to subvert them. Just as the abbey of Bury St Edmunds could piously refuse the jurisdiction of the local bishop by insisting on their submission to the pope, Margaret’s studies “at his feet” might be a subtle suggestion that she made it clear that she answered to a higher authority. There is a tension in the image of a queen sitting on the ground, but one which may be intended to catch our attention.
The wording itself is also significant, though this may be more obvious to a modern reader than to one of Turgot’s era. Like Martha, Margaret is imagined “sitting at his feet” whilst listening to Christ. This is not simply an image of humility, but a precise description of a particular relationship. Students of the Jewish Law were described as “sitting at the feet” of their rabbi, listening, repeating and questioning. When Paul gives an account of his education in Jewish Law and tradition, he boasts that he “sat at the feet of Gamaliel”.
It has been suggested that Mary’s position indicates that she is accepted as a student of the rabbi, and learns his teaching as legitimately as any of the men amongst Jesus’ followers. (The same has been suggested of another Mary; Mary Magdalen, who addresses Jesus after the resurrection as “rabboni”, perhaps indicating a formal relationship of student and rabbi.) Whether or not Turgot’s account contains this shade of meaning deliberately, it fills out the image presented of Margaret’s scholarship, and her religious authority.