by Lynn Picknett
‘On the feast day of SAINT *** Mary Magdalene . . . in the year 1209 something utterly horrific and bewildering, yet at the same time somewhat magnificent, took place at Béziers . . . France. [E]very last inhabitant of the town went willingly to their deaths at the hands of the Pope’s men rather than deny their passionately held belief that Jesus and the Magdalene were lovers.’
The opening of Chapter Two of Lynn Picknett’s fascinating study does not define the whole work but there is a danger that they may deter some readers from reading on. That would be a pity because the book as a whole is well-written and reasonably well researched.
The 1209 massacre and sack of Béziers is well documented in mainstream history. However, as far as I know, there is no evidence that all inhabitants of the town held the belief alleged by Picknett. The Cathars, who made up only a small proportion of Béziers population, certainly believed in the dual roles of men and women in religion, and they venerated Mary Magdalene. But to go farther seems to me anachronistic. Support for the idea of Mary and Jesus as husband and wife comes from much more recent research and recently-discovered documents.
Lynn Picknett chooses as sources the Bible, the ‘Lost’ and Gnostic Gospels (Nag Hammadi), and other first century writings as well as modern academic and non-academic literature. In particular, she focuses on the marginalising of women by the fathers of the emerging Roman Church and by other patriarchal societies which have sought to play down women’s role in religious ritual. While avoiding support for some of the more imaginative meanderings of two popular books, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, she does however draw much on the legendary on her journey to discover the real Mary Magdalene. Who was she and why was she so marginalised – and even demonised – by the canonic Gospel writers and the Church?
‘. . . mostly, in Christian art, [she] is portrayed as fair-haired, in a full range of shades from mousy to outright . . . blonde, as if in the depths of her agony of self-hatred she still finds the strength to reach through her sobs for the peroxide bottle.’
Whether or not Mary and Jesus were lovers – and I doubt this can ever be proved either way – the marginalisation and demonising of women throughout history is no myth. All credit goes to Picknett for highlighting the sad plight of the girls of the Magdalene Laundries and other injustices. Most of us look back on witch trials with horror and the excising of some once prominent women from history as abhorrent, but where does that get us in relation to ‘discovering’ the biblical Magdalene.
If one accepts the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as at least partly true, there are questions to be asked and answered, and Mary Magdalene goes quite a long way in answering them. Why was Mary depicted as a reformed prostitute? How did the Nicean Council of 325 decide which version of Christianity was the true one and which ‘heresy? On what basis did it include in the canon those four gospels and exclude others?
Picknett’s book tackles those questions and others. Was Magdalene a priestess of Egypt . . . a black woman . . . the leader of Jesus’s disciples, and so on? However, I have one of my own: what could possibly have prompted generation after generation of parents to call their daughters after a reformed prostitute?
In Chapter 4 of my own family history book, Tapestry, I speculated on the repeated occurrence of the name Magdalene in generations of my own family and wrote: ‘Enthusiasts of those [popular works of alternative history] may ponder what circumstances brought the Magdalene name to Scotland and consider what its connection might be with the Lothians – and with Leith, which is awash with Templar lore.’
I do not have the answer to that, nor do I suspect does anyone else. Some committed Christians, I feel, might find it a disturbing read, even blasphemous, while professional historians might consider it superficial. As someone who fits into neither category, I enjoyed reading Mary Magdalene as an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of journalistic non-fiction.
‘It seems that it was because of the patriarchy’s fear and hatred of the real Mary Magdalene that the gospels of the New Testament – in which she barely appears – were chosen out of so many others that lauded her . . . providing the male-dominated thinking for the whole of European history of the last two millennia . . .’
Although I do not think Lynn Picknett has discovered her subject or proved her case, thus far I agree with her. As much as anything, I feel the marginalisation of women is what this book is about.
*** The capitalisation is mine.