Spotlight on a Feast: Conception of Mary

Conception of Mary detail

Detail of fol. 206v

"On the feast of the Conception of Saint Mary, all should be done as on her Nativity." So reads a marginal addition on folio 206v, directly underneath the feast for Saint Attala of Strasbourg. Innocuous though it may seem, the Conception of Mary, celebrated on December 9, was a controversial feast in late medieval Europe, the period during which Western MS 97 came to Strasbourg and acquired its marginalia. The dispute was theological: could Mary have been sanctified before her conception? Was Mary's conception thus "immaculate"--free of original sin--or was she only sanctified later in the womb? Although the feast had been known and celebrated in Western Europe since the 11th century--first in England, then on the Continent--it inspired attacks from leading theologians throughout the middle ages, among them Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Lombard, St. Albert the Great, and the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas.

For the Dominicans, veneration of the mother of Christ was both a pious and a political matter. The Order was famous for singing the Salve Regina antiphon in procession daily after compline, a practice initiated in the 13th century. In the 14th century, the Order became engaged in multiple disputes with the papacy--first with John XXII, over a theological claim, and later with his successor, Benedict XII, over resistance to reform--each of which, according to the Dominican historian William R. Bonniwell, inspired in the friars even more fervent Marian devotion. By the mid-14th century, the Order celebrated Mary with six feasts: the Sanctification (or Conception), Nativity, Annunciation, Visitation, Purification, and Assumption. 

Yet the theology behind the feast of the Conception was a sticking point: the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the most revered of Dominican friars, resolutely denied that Mary could have been conceived without original sin. (He wrote in his Summa theologiae, "It is simply not fitting that Christ should not be the savior of the whole human race. Hence it follows that the sanctification of the Blessed Virgin was after her animation."*) While other Orders such as the Franciscans and Carmelites readily adopted the feast and its doctrine in the late middle ages, the Dominicans found themselves in the minority, and increasingly under fire.

The Western Schism of 1387-1417, which saw two rival Popes stationed in Rome and Avignon, was an especially tense period. In 1387, A Dominican theologian from Spain named John of Monzon angered officials at the University of Paris by lecturing vehemently against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The incident became so controversial that Pope Clement VII was called upon to settle it (Monzon, sensing defeat, soon retreated to Roman-controlled regions). The Avignon-affiliated Dominican Order corroborated Montson's views in a statement released in 1388, which contended that Mary became sanctified only 80 days after being conceived, rather than at the moment of conception:

The truth of orthodox faith is expressly affirmed in a doctrinal manner by the famous doctors, Albert and St. Thomas; namely, the Mother of Christ the Saviour was fully sanctified on the eightieth day from her conception, on which day the soul was infused in her body, and after a brief space of time the same soul with the body was more fully sanctified than were other Saints (trans. Boniwell, 212).

The Rome-affiliated branch of the Dominicans also preferred to refer to the feast as the "Sanctification" rather than the "Conception," but did not foment such controversy as their Avignon rivals. Similar disputes would continue to crop up in the next century: in the 1480s, an effort within the Order to establish the feast as the "Conception" was quashed by "Sanctification" apologists.

Thus it may surprise us that the marginal addendum in Western MS 97 refers specifically to the feast of the "Conception" rather than to the "Sanctification." Perhaps the controversies that played out in Paris and Rome did not reach Strasbourg, or perhaps the scribe was making a theological claim with his or her word choice.


Principal secondary sources consulted: William R. Boniwell, A History of the Dominican Liturgy (New York City: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., 1944); and Virginia Nixon, Mary's Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004). 

*qtd. in Nixon, p. 14.


Step: 2 Saints in the Margins
Spotlight on a Feast: Conception of Mary