Saint Margaret and mothers

British Library, Additional 24686, detail of a miniature of Margaret and the Dragon. England (London/Westminster).

I believe Saint Margaret of Antioch (sometimes known as Marina) needs to be as popular as Rosie the Riveter when it comes illustrating #girlpower. Her action-packed legend maintained popularity throughout the Middle Ages and appeared frequently in both literature and iconography. While her story exists in many texts including Jacobus de Varagine’s Legenda aurea (c.1259-1266), John Mirk’s Festial (c.1380-1400), and John Lydgate’s The Lyfe of Seynt Margaret (c.1415-1426), one of my favorite versions is the anonymously composed Stanzaic Life of Margaret dating to the second-half of the 13th century.  

I love this version for a number of reasons. Sentimentally, it was my first introduction to medieval hagiography. I also love anything I can read aloud with pizzazz (see Degare and his bat), and this poem contains really fantastic rhymes. Not only are they stylish, but the rhyming verses, as Sherry L. Reames points out in her introduction to the poem, make the poem easy to memorize and fun to listen to, marking this particular edition as a likely comfort for women in the throes of childbirth. The Stanzaic Life of Margaret also gives us a full origin story for Margaret, beginning with her pagan parents and the important actions of her mother. These unique details make the Stanzaic Life worth reading, especially when considering the power of women.

The story of Margaret begins and ends with mothers. Margaret’s parents are happily married pagans expecting a daughter. When her father has a premonition that this daughter will become a Christian, he orders her death. Margaret’s mother, however, saves her babe by sending the girl to be raised in a foreign land, Antioch. In Antioch, Margaret is baptized and, at age 15, inadvertently catches the attention of the pagan lord Olibrius. When the young Margaret refuses Olibrius’ marriage proposal, he imprisons her. In this prison, Margaret encounters a holy angel who supplies her with Christ’s cross, a dragon that swallows her whole, and a threatening demon who preys on vulnerable women. With protection of the cross, Margaret survives each encounter, bursting from the dragon’s stomach unharmed and praying the demon away. When she refuses Olibrius’ proposal again, the lord orders the young girl’s death, an act which is repeatedly thwarted: his men pour burning oil on her, but she is anointed; they try to drown her, but she is baptized; they try to execute her, but the executioner is converted to Christianity by holy angels. Margaret is eventually beheaded by her own request, but before her death, she prays that she be allowed to always help vulnerable women, specifically those in labor.

British Library, Harley 2974, miniature of Margaret of Antioch emerging from the dragon and definitely keeping her cool in a tense situation (France).

The legend of Saint Margaret is one of the few stories where I find the hero more interesting than the dragon. Here’s the dragon episode in the Stanzaic Life:

180       There sche sawe a lothelye dragon in a corner glyde,

            Brennynge as the blake fyre. His mouthe he gaped wyde.

            That mayde wexed alle greene as the gresse in someres tyde.

183       The lowe fleye oute from his tonge as the fyre of brymeston.

That mayde felle to gounde tylle sche craked everye boone.

He toke her up in his mowthe; he swalowed her anoon;

Thorugh virtue of her he braste, that harme hadde sche noon.


180       There she say a loathsome dragon slithering in the corner,

            Burning like pale fire. His mouth he opened wide.

That maid turned all green* as grass in summertime

183       The flame flew out from his tongue like fire from brimstone.

            That maid fell to the ground until she rattled every bone.

            He took her up in his mouth; she swallowed her whole.

            By her virtue, he burst; so that she had not been harmed.

*(the color green was sometimes to used to reference “deathly pale”)

This dragon is exactly what you’d expect: it slithers and breathes fire, and like a snake, it swallows Margaret whole. While this image may be graphic, it definitely follows the formula for demonic serpents. The heroine of this tale, though, is anything but typical. Perhaps because of its connection to coming-of-age masculinity, the dragon’s enemies are, expectedly, men. This dragon slayer is a young girl on the precipice of womanhood, and the legend emphasizes her femininity on multiple occasions. There are multiple references to motherhood (from Margaret’s own mother saving her child to the saint’s request to help women in labor), and Margaret’s martyrdom centers on a marriage proposal and the safekeeping of her virginity. The dragon episode also stresses Margaret’s womanhood: some scholars read the dragon’s swallowing of Margaret as a rape, and it is widely accepted that Margaret’s connection to childbearing comes from her birth-like expulsion from the dragon’s body. Perhaps this is why, in most iconography, Margaret is illustrated alongside the dragon rather than one of her other foes; it is not the dragon’s hideous body which garnered medieval attention, but Margaret’s feminine one opposite it.

No matter the reason for the popularity of the legend, I think it is safe to say that we should all aspire to be like Margaret.   

Where to read it:

The Stanzaic Life of Margaret, edited by Sherry L. Reames from Middle English Legends of Women Saints (2003). It can be found online via the University of Rochester’s TEAMS Middle English Text Series.

Or, try Lydgate’s The Lyfe of Seynt Margarete from the same collection of Middle English Saints’ Lives.

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