Mary of Nemmegen
A 16th-century fictional tale of a woman’s seduction by the Devil and her ultimate redemption and triumph over him.
Mary of Nemmegen was published at the beginning of the 16th century in Antwerp. The identity of the author is uncertain, but is believed to be Ann Binns or Byns. The story appeared at a time when women were seen as weak vessels easily used by Demonic forces. The triumph of Mary is a female version of FAUST, but she stands in stark contrast to the equally weak but doomed male counterpart in the Christopher Marlowe drama Dr. Faustus, written in the same period, and later in Johann Goethe’s Faust. According to the story, Mary lives in the land of Gelders. One day, while shopping in Nemmegen, she is caught by encroaching darkness and does not have enough time to return home before nightfall. She calls at the home of her uncle and aunt for shelter. The aunt refuses to let her in. Mary, loaded with heavy parcels, is in despair. She cries out that she cares not whether God or the Devil will help her.
The Devil answers her call. He appears in the guise of an ugly, one-eyed young man. The Devil cannot embody perfection but must be defective in some way. He introduces himself to Mary as a “man of many sciences.” If she will promise to be his paramour, he will teach her all his knowledge, as well as shower her with gifts of gold and silver and love her above all women. In addition, she must give up her name, because “for one Mary [the Blessed Virgin] I and all my fellowship fare the worse,” he tells her. Mary agrees, effectively making a Pact with the Devil. She asks also to be taught magic and spell casting so that she can raise spirits, but the Devil dissuades her from this.
She becomes known as Emmekyn. She takes up with the Devil, and they go to different cities, including Antwerp. Emmekyn dazzles people with the knowledge she has been given, and men vie for her favor, even killing each other in their rivalries. Emmekyn enjoys it all, but she never loses her connection to her namesake, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Meanwhile, the aunt, in a fit of temper influenced by the Devil, self-administers punishment for turning her niece away and cuts her own throat and dies. After seven years of a dissipated lifestyle, Emmekyn grows bored and persuades the Devil to leave Antwerp and return to Nemmegen. They arrive on the day of a traditional procession and pageant for the Blessed Virgin. The sight of it causes Emmekyn to repent.
The Devil carries her high up into the air and casts her down, hoping to break her neck. But God does not allow it. Emmekyn falls into the street before many people, including her uncle, a priest, to whom she makes confession. He tells her, “There is nobody lost without the fall in despair.” She then has an audience with the pope to seek absolution. Interestingly, she confesses only to her material sins and not to the desire to have learning and knowledge.
The pope gives her a heavy penance: She must wear three iron rings around her neck and arms. After two years, the rings miraculously fall away, showing that God has indeed forgiven her.
In a Dutch dramatic version of the story, an inset of the PROCESSUS SATHANE play is added. Masscheroen, the advocate for the Devil, petitions God for justice, arguing that the sinfulness of humankind should be judged the same as that of the Fallen Angels. He says that God has become too lenient, and people have become increasingly wicked. God acknowledges that he may be right, and Masscheroen claims the right for the Devil to act as God’s avenger. The Virgin Mary intervenes and makes a compassionate appeal to God for mercy. Mary wins the case. Mary of Nemeggen shows that no matter how far one falls from grace, there is always the hope of redemption and God’s forgiveness. Faust, on the other hand, is doomed to Hell beyond all hope once he makes his pact and falls into sin.
- De Bruyn, Lucy. Woman and the Devil in Sixteenth-Century Literature. Tisbury, England: Bear Book/The Compton Press, 1979.