Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 1179 Helmst., fol. Iv

Saint Marina: A hidden woman in the Lives of the Fathers

This fifteenth-century manuscript – now Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 346 – both reveals and hides stories from the Lives of the Desert Fathers. This collection is mostly composed of stories of hermits such as St Symeon, but it also includes a hidden woman: St Marina.

The binding of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 346

The story of Saint Marina

The female identity of St Marina (fols. 159r–162v in this manuscript) remains hidden – until she is buried. Her community of monks subsequently declares Marina’s burial place a miraculous site.

The story of Marina is unexpected in a work called the Lives of the Fathers. The story’s text emphasizes this fact: her life begins with a giant red ‘F’ for ‘frater’. ‘Frater erat’, the page declares – ‘There was a brother’.

The opening of the story of Saint Marina: MS. Laud Misc. 346, fol. 159r

Marina’s father secures a place for both of them in a monastery. Marina lives, from this time forward, disguised as one of the brothers, ‘Marinus’. One day when the monks go out to the market, Marina is exposed to the scandal of a woman who is impregnated by a knight and blames ‘Marinus’ as the one who caused the pregnancy.

Marina/us is then forced beyond the walls of the monastery and made to look after the child she has supposedly fathered. Disguised and accused as a man, Marina is punished with the life of a mother in poverty. Her labours are markedly feminine, and yet it is not until she is buried that the men find she is a woman, thus discovering their error in listening to the female accuser.

This particular tale within the didactic collection of lives offers a moral lesson to men and women alike. Marina’s loyalty to her biological father is equal to the love she bestows upon a child that is not hers by birth.

The community of monks within the Vitas Patrum learns from the non-biological maternal love Marina bestows upon a child for whom she lives a life of penance.

The lives of the fathers are subordinated, in the end, to two exemplary mothers: the Virgin Mary and the newly named Saint Marina. This legend suggests the possibility of a deep bond between men and women. That the brothers think Marina is a man caring for the abandoned child need not preclude the possibility that they had sympathy for the woman hiding underneath the monk’s habit.

This manuscript raises questions related to disguise, enclosure and revelation, and its physical characteristics reflect this.

A veiled fragment

The manuscript’s binding includes recycled material relating to its content. This is a frequent occurrence in medieval books. This manuscript is backed with a fragment of a sacramentary from the eleventh or twelfth century.

A sacramentary fragment: MS. Laud Misc. 346, fol. 256v

This particular fragment of a sacramentary used in the binding of MS. Laud Misc. 346 refers to an ordeal by fire or cold water, or a trial used to determine the guilt of one accused of a crime.

The accidents of binding call our attention to the themes of trial and disguise epitomized in Saint Marina’s story, the story of a young woman who lives as a man, is put on trial, and is later revealed to be not only innocent but also the only female in a community of monks.

About the author

Stacie Vos is a PhD Candidate at UC San Diego and a Lecturer in English at University of San Diego. Her dissertation, Englishing the Virgin: Marian Devotion and the Making of English Prose Style, explores metaphors of enclosure in late medieval English literature, a topic around which she has organized an interdisciplinary research group. She is a 2020–2021 Ahmanson Research Fellow at the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.