Ideas

Sex and Exile: The wild tale of Saint Mary of Egypt

IDEAS presents a sample from an audio miniseries from the London Review of Books podcast. In their debut episode, co-hosts and medieval scholars Irina Dumitrescu and Mary Wellesley take on Mary of Egypt, a “fallen woman” turned saint, whose wild story courts comparisons to Pretty Woman, Fleabag, and Sex and the City.

LRB podcast tells the story of a saint who indulged in a ‘Sex and the City situation, late antique style.'

Saint Mary of Egypt lived sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries. She led a wild and debaucherous youth until a religious awakening, followed by self-exile in the desert. This 1641 painting of Saint Mary is by Jusepe de Ribera. (Wikiart/Public Domain)

*Originally published on October 29, 2021.

As a young woman in Alexandria, Mary was not exactly a candidate for sainthood.

"She basically just wants to live as sinful a life as possible. Drinks, eats, and has all the sex she can," Irina Dumitrescu says in an audio miniseries from the London Review of Books podcast called Encounters with Medieval Women.

Medieval scholars and co-hosts Dumitrescu and Mary Wellesley explain that this young Egyptian eventually did change her ways. She converted her carnal passions into religious ones, and aged into the dramatic figure known as Saint Mary of Egypt.

Hers is one of the vivid stories told in the podcast.

With Mary of Egypt, she has to overcome herself, or transform her own sinfulness into into something higher.- Mary Wellesley

Mary's story is set in antiquity, but gained popularity beginning in the 8th century, and then again in the medieval era, when it was translated into Old English. 

As Dumitrescu points out, "There's no evidence that Mary actually existed. But this doesn't seem to have stopped her career at all."

Dumitrescu and Wellesley bring a modern analysis to the story of Saint Mary's religious awakening, long and self-imposed desert exile, and geriatric meet-up with a pious monk, Zosimas.

They also think about Saint Mary's arc in the context of modern stories, including the subversive title character at the heart of the acclaimed BBC comedy series from Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

As Mary Wellesley points out, "Fleabag is also a story about redemption. It's a story about being imperfect and learning to make better choices and coming to terms with your past sins."

London Review of Books's Encounters with Medieval Women has more episodes, that will tell the stories of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and the Wife of Bath. Find them on any podcast app or at lrb.me/medieval


Guests in this episode:

Irina Dumitrescu is a writer and professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She's also a visiting Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute in Toronto. 

Mary Wellesley is a historian and essayist who teaches at the British Library. She's the author of Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers.

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