How the relics of blessed Mary Magdalene came to the French town of Vézelay ought to be commented on briefly
Possession of the relics of Mary Magdalene enabled the abbey of Vézelay in Burgundy to become one of the most important pilgrimage centres in the whole of Europe. In 1037 a new abbot was elected at Vézelay. Abbot Geoffroy brought with him the Cluniac reform of the Benedictine order and the cult of Mary Magdalene. Miracles began to take place and soon large numbers of pilgrims began to attend. Within a short period of time it was declared that the actual relics of the saint existed in the crypt of the abbey.
Given that there was an established cult of Mary Magdalene’s relics at Ephesus and that there seemed no previously recorded account of how the relics had reached the Burgundian abbey, his claim was contentious.
Geoffroy himself, acknowledged this, writing that “Many have wondered how it was possible that the body of Saint Mary Magdalene, who was born in Judea, was brought to Gaul from such a distant region”. He justified his claim on the grounds that all things were possible for God and furthermore, sceptics had been punished while those who had confessed their doubt had been rewarded with salvation by Mary Magdalene’s intercession. In 1058 the relics were given the Papal seal of authenticity.
With the claim to possession of her mortal remains beyond dispute, the abbey grew to become one of the major pilgrimage shrines of medieval Europe.
By the end of the century one of the largest churches in Christendom stood over the simple crypt.
There are a number of legendary narratives which tell of how the relics reached Vézelay. The stories overlap and the names of the protagonists vary, however two key figures emerge, a monk named Badilon and the original ninth century founder of the abbey, Count Girart de Roussillon.
The oldest account features Badilon, who in the ninth century had taken refuge at Vézelay from the nearby monastery of Saint Martin at Autun which had been raided by Visigoths from southern France. At some point he had travelled to the Holy Land and on his return had acquired the relics of the saint at Constantinople .
The secondary tradition names Girart de Roussillon and his wife Berthe as the principal figures These were the founders of two abbeys in Burgundy at Vézelay and Pothières.
They acquired quasi-sanctification via a Latin hagiography entitled the Vita Girardi and were buried at Pothières.
The epic vernacular poem the Chanson de Girart de Roussillon which deals with the rivalry between Girart and the emperor Charles the Bald, provided a variation on the legend.
According to this account, the relics of Mary Magdalene were passed to Girart by a pilgrim named Guintrant who had been incarcerated for fifteen years while in the Holy Land and miraculously released at which point God had placed the saintly relics in his care.
Both of these traditions included variants which took account of the legend that held that Mary Magdalene had travelled by ship from the Holy Land to Marseille in the company of her brother and sister, Lazarus and Martha and a company of seventy-two disciples.
In Provence, she lived the life of a hermit and on her death had been buried at Aix by Maximinus, one of the disciples who had accompanied her from Palestine and had now become the city’s first bishop.
Unlike the rest of France, Provence had suffered from a continued Saracen presence during the eight and ninth centuries.
This was therefore fertile ground for the epic poets of the Chansons de Geste of the twelfth century whose tales of heroic deeds by Frankish warriors against the Moors in Provence possessed the quality of proto-Crusades.
The relics of Mary-Magdalene were considered at risk and were rescued in clandestine operations in a number of seperate accounts. In one of these the two traditions come together when we learn that Girart de Roussillon sent a monk named Badilon to retrieve the relics from Aix and bring them safely to Vézelay.
That the relics of Mary Magdalene’s brother Lazarus had been translated to Autun in 972 would certainly have lent the Provencal tradition a greater degree of substance.
Any doubts which abbot Geoffroy may have entertained would have been dispelled when one Saturday after Matins, as he placed the cover over the relics, a vision appeared to him of a woman who seemed to say to him ,“I am she who is thought by many to be here”.