Kreuzigung (Crucifixion - 1868), by Gabriel Wüger (1829–1892)

Mary Magdalene kneeling within a Stabat Mater scene
Kreuzigung (Crucifixion – 1868), by Gabriel Wüger (1829-92)






foolishly tearful or sentimental





In the Christian Church, the Magdalene designates Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus, who cured her of evil spirits. She witnessed the Crucifixion and Jesus appeared to her after the Resurrection. In the Western Church, she was also frequently identified with the unnamed sinner of the gospel of Luke, 7, and therefore represented in hagiology as a reformed prostitute elevated to sanctity by repentance and faith.

The name Magdalene is from ecclesiastical Latin (Maria) Magdalena, or Magdalene, from Greek (Μαρία ἡ) Μαγδαληνή (= (María hē) Magdalēnē), meaning (Mary of) Magdala. Μάγδαλα (= Mágdala), from Aramaic Magdĕlā, meaning literally tower, is the name of a town on the Sea of Galilee.

The popular form of the name, Maudlin, was probably adopted through French forms such as Madeleine. In the course of the history of the two English forms, there has been an almost complete overlap of usage, although apparently never for very long in each sense. Magdalen or Magdalene became the established spelling for references to Mary herself and in senses relating to her identification as a reformed prostitute, and maudlin for mawkish sentimentality.


The restored spelling in Magdalene College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford (the latter spelt without final -e), has not affected their earlier pronunciation Maudlin. Magdalene College, Cambridge, gives the following explanation:

Why ‘Maudlyn’?
One of the questions we are asked most commonly is about the pronunciation of the name of the College! Though nowadays spelt in the biblical and continental way, ‘Magdalene’, the College name is customarily pronounced ‘Maudlyn’.
The College at its refoundation by Lord Audley in 1542, was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. The choice of the name of Mary Magdalene appears to have had a touch of vanity. In many early documents, the name is clearly spelt as pronounced: ‘Maudleyn’, containing within it the name of Audley himself! The final ‘e’ on Magdalene was an attempt, with the advent of the postal service in the mid-nineteenth century, to distinguish us from our sister College, Magdalen Oxford.


In the gospel of John, 20, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as weeping:

(New International Version)
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’
‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ 14 At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’
She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).
17 Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Medieval representations of Mary Magdalene customarily showed her weeping (the French phrase pleurer comme une Madeleine, literally to cry as a Madeleine, means to cry one’s eyes out), so that the compound maudlin drunk referred to the stage of drunkenness characterised by tearful sentimentality and effusive displays of affection. It is first recorded in The shyp of folys of the worlde (1509), the translation by the poet and clergyman Alexander Barclay (circa 1484-1552) of Stultifera NavisJacob Locher’s 1497 Latin version of Sebastian Brant’s Der Narrenschiff (1494). In Of glotons and dronkardes, the author mentioned

Some sowe dronke swaloynge mete without mesure
Some mawdelayne dronke mournynge lowdly and hye
Some so drunk swallowing meat without measure
Some maudlin drunk mourning loudly and high.

Similarly, in Pierce Penilesse his supplication to the diuell (1592), the English playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (1567-1601?) wrote that one kind of drunkards

is Mawdlen drunke, when a fellowe will weepe for kindnes in the midst of his Ale, and kisse you, saying; By God Captaine I loue thee, goe thy waies thou dost not thinke so often of me as I do of thee, I would (if it pleased GOD) I could not loue thee so well as I doo, and then he puts his finger in his eie, and cries.

The adjective maudlin is first attested in Michaelmas terme (1607), a comedy by the English playwright Thomas Middleton (1580-1627). Rerrage, Shortyard and Easie are gambling at dice:

– Rerrage: Oh worse then consumption of the Liuer! consumption of the patrimonie.
– Shortyard: How now? marke their humours master Easie.
– Rerrage: Forgiue me, my posteritie, yet vngotten.
– Shortyard: Thats a penitent Maudlen Dicer.
– Rerrage: Few knowe the sweets that the plaine life allowes.

‘R. C.’, the unidentified author of The Times’ Whistle: or A New Daunce of Seven Satires (around 1616), wrote the following in the satire against gluttony, drunkenness and tobacco:

The second kinde [of drunkards] we maudline drunkardes call.
I thinke the humid stuffe they drink doth fall
Out of their eyes againe, for they distill
Teares in great plenty. Woemen when they will
Can weep, we say, but these doe never cry
Except they first be drunk; but then they dry
The fountaine of their teares quite vp before
They cease from weeping, or doe once give o’re
Their dolefull lamentation. I suppose
The name of “Maudline drunk” from hence arose.
This kinde of drunkard is the kindest creature
That ever did converse with mortall nature;
When he is in his fit, you may commaund
All that he has, his purse, his heart, his hand,
To do you service; why hee’l ever kill
Your heart with kindenesse, soe you’l sit & swill
In his loathd presence; keep him company
And he is pleasde, ther’s his felicity.

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