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Marian Anagrams

By Henry Handley

It started on a weekday so innocuous I can’t remember the day of the week: I picked up an 1866 book in the collection, a response by Cardinal John Henry Newman to Rev. Pusey of the Anglican Church, and opened the cover. Instead of finding only the name of the former owner, one C. Robinson, Order of the Sacred Cross, of Rome, and the library stamp of the Immaculate Heart Center in Chicago, I also found:

Ave Maria Gratia plena dominus tecum  
Same letters exactly form:
Deipara sum ergo Immaculata

Who figured this out? When? And why? I went to the best place to do research on Marian phenomena, coincidentally my place of work. I found a much older and richer history than I expected.

The Marian Library has 17 books that announce their inclusion of anagrams in their titles, published between 1608 and 1760. The anagrams are frequently based on Ave Maria gratia plena, Dominus tecum (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”) but sometimes take another line or two from the original or adapt other Marian titles from the Litany of Loreto and other sources in order to make longer statements in Latin. Sometimes they’re the basis for longer poems. 

Most books, however, begin with the first words of this familiar prayer — itself deriving from the words of a messenger of God — to find new words and advance arguments on Marian doctrine. The above example loosely translates to “I am the God-bearer therefore [I am] the Immaculate one.” 

Joan Baptista Anyes (1480-1553) composed 100 anagrams of Ave Maria gratia plena Dominus tecum. A list of his anagrams is included as an undated pamphlet, the seventh of eight items bound together in a Marian miscellany. Another published version was printed with a Spanish translation of Pope Alexander VII’s 1661 apostolic constitution Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, outlining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, although it wouldn't be proclaimed a dogma for almost 200 years. 

A collection of 100 Latin anagrams might seem like a novelty today, too trivial to print next to an official church document. Before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed in Pius IX’s 1854 bull Ineffabilis Deus, however, it was the subject of centuries of theological debate. Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas didn’t necessarily subscribe to Mary’s Immaculate Conception.1 When what scientist and historian George Sarton called “anagrammatic mania” swept Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, anagrams and other word puzzles were taken seriously and composed by the thousands; even King Louis XIII hired an official anagram writer.2 As this mania influenced both secular and theological writing, Marian doctrine was not immune. Authors of anagrammatical works were included in a 17th century bibliography of theological writings in support of the Immaculate Conception.3

At worst, these anagrams can be seen as superstitious. Language — even Latin — is usually thought of as a human invention, after all, and just because words can be arranged to make other words doesn’t necessarily make them true. But the surprisingly large body of work by anagram writers might remind us of John’s proclamation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”4 God’s creativity reflects human creativity, even if composing anagrams is somewhat eccentric: Some people have written multivolume works on Mary. Some have written hundreds of anagrams.

Still others write blog posts.

— Henry Handley is a collections librarian and assistant professor in the Marian Library


1 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947-1947), I, q. 27, a. 1 et seq.

George Sarton, “Notes on the History of AnagrammatismIsis 26.1 (1936): 132-138.

3 James Hilton, “The Angelic Salutation, and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary” in Chronograms Continued and Concluded, More Than 5,000 in Number (London: Elliott Stock, 1885): 2:484. 

4 John 1:1, NRSV.

Image: Joan Baptista Anyes’ anagrams of Ave Maria gratia plena Dominus tecum 

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