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An extract from a longer essay by the same title


“Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.”

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 4


THERE IS A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY COPY of the Stimulus Amoris, a printed edition of the book’s first English translation, that bears the handwritten inscription “Mary B.” Nothing of Mary is known apart from her name and initial and her interactions with the manuscript, which is well read and well thumbed, the original binding broken, its pages damaged by water. Those pages most cockled and smudged coincide with the Stimulus’s more dramatic evocations of the Passion and more fervent prayers. That the now-dry droplets are ringed by salt reveals them to be tears, the pious reader weeping as she read.

Mary B’s tears appear to fall in direct exchange with the words written, most often collecting in the margins of passages that speak of sorrow and weeping. “Let the fountaine of teares never cease running from our eies,” James of Milan wrote, and Mary B, reading it, obliged. Some pages have been wet to such degree that they have all but fallen apart, much like Mary B, who appears to have fallen apart along with them.

From a tear-stained page, now white with salt:

But woe is me, how vile am I become! For it seemes, that God, who loves his very enemies, hates me. What, am I worse then his enemie? For to redeeme his enemies, he would be wounded unto death; whereas I faint and pine away, and he seemes not to regard me.

But in this vale of tears, Mary B cries too for joy, swooning from one mood to the next along with the text. For she, the reader, submits herself wholeheartedly to the meditations and their images. When James writes of compunction, she feels along with him. When he speaks of ecstatic love, she moves in time. And Mary, whom we will never know, traces her presence through the manuscript with her ardent affections, with her tears; both of sorrow and of grace.

From another page, similarly laced with salt:

O my God, O my love, O delectable light… O indissoluble conjunction, cordiall diffusion, inward transformation! O most loving enkindling, O provoking enflaming, most sober inebriation, and most solid melting! O my husband, O my God, O my love! O the joy of my heart, O the ardourofmy mind, Otheenflamingofmylove! O most sweet solace!

Of the marginal annotations made in Mary B’s copy of the Stimulus Amoris, nearly all simply reiterate the text, revealing little of the reader who wrote them. There is a single exception, written alongside a passage that begins:

Love rules me, and not reason, and I runne with force & violence, whither-soever thou inclinest and forcest me. But they that see me, deride me, because they know not, that I am drunke with thy love.

In the margin, the note amans est amens: Anyone in love is insane.




Lucienne Bestall is an arts writer and curatorial researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa.



Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

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