Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture

Written by Jaroslav Pelikan

(Yale University Press, 1998), 288 pp.

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


A follow-up to his excellent and useful book, Jesus through the Centuries (reviewed on this site, and originally published in 1985). This book is perhaps even more useful, since there are so few that accomplish what this book does.

The importance of a work like this one lies in the fact that – even more than in the case of the Lord – the subject of Mary has seemed to invite very little historical acumen. It seems like there are Mariologist and then there are historians, and ne’re the twain shall meet. The only other decent book on the subject that I know of and that is widely available is Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gombero. I have read a number of theological tracts on Mary that are good theology, but that’s systematics, and I am speaking about history here. History and Mary haven’t mixed well because it is a subject that has been dominated by devotion, and that of a certain kind. Perhaps it’s also fair to say that, again, relative to the Lord, we know even that much less about her as an historical person.

Of course, this isn’t a book about Mary herself – in a way only the first chapter comes close to qualifying as that, entitled, “Miriam of Nazareth in the New Testament.” This is a book about her significance in Christian thought over the centuries.

One complaint. It’s about Pelikan’s writing style. It’s sometimes annoyingly vague and overly-reliant on quotes rather than incisive conclusions. Yes, I know why he does it: because impressions are a legitimate means of teaching, and not everything is reducible to pithy statements. But I am happy for the ones he does provide: little did he realize, it seems, that this is what readers need most of all, pivot-points for orienting us around the long and complicated story of Christian history. Readers need things like, “This was the first time such and such was said or happened.”

What set the thought and devotion of this period [12th to 13th Centuries] apart from what preceded it was the growing emphasis on the office of Mary as Mediatrix. The title itself seems to have appeared first in Eastern theology… (p. 130)

The sort of vagueness that I dislike is apparent in his abiding of that trend in academic writing of employing vague chapter headings that fail to inform you  of what the chapter is about. Very often to determine this you have to either read the whole chapter or – a quicker way – look at the end notes. For instance, by looking at the end notes you can determine that Chapter 10, entitled “The Face That Most resembles Christ’s,” is about Dante, and that Chapter 12, “The Mater Gloriosa and the Eternal Feminine,” is about Goethe.

To me, the most interesting chapters were 11, 13, and 14, devoted, respectively, to Protestantism, private revelations of Mary (Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima), and views of the Immaculate Conception (especially the views of Bernard, Aquinas and Scotus).

This is an essential book for people caught in a single-sourced, a-historical view of the Blessed Virgin, the most important woman who has ever lived.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *