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In 1512, Erasmus went on pilgrimage to the famous Marian shrine of Walsingham in 1512 and described his journey in the satirical A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake. He lampooned the legion of salesmen who attempted to sell a square of tattered cloth by passing it off as Mary's veil, or a bottle of milk as her breast milk. And he mocked the credulous pilgrims who flocked to "Falsingham" in the hope of miraculous cures or spiritual renewal.

At the cusp of the Reformation, poking fun at the cult of the Virgin was no longer considered blasphemy. Humanists such as Erasmus and the ever-growing band of Church reformers who followed Martin Luther openly discussed the need to restore Mary to what she had been in the Gospels: a Jewish virgin who found fortitude in her faith and whiled away her days in humble domesticity. This slimmed-down Mary was worlds away from the Catholics' Holy Queen: majestic, triumphant and the all-powerful intermediary between humanity and God.

Whether in her Protestant or Catholic guise, Jesus's mother appeared everywhere by the time Erasmus was making his pilgrimage: in paintings, music, poems and street processions; on military banners, in parish churches, at court.

Yet the early Christians, who needed compelling narratives to support and spread their faith, had looked to saints and martyrs, not Mary, for this. Men like St Bartholomew and women like the martyr Perpetua were far more popular in the early Church. Mary was a shadowy figure, with only a walk-on part in the Gospels - though the Koran devotes an entire chapter, or sura, to Maryam, revered as the mother of the Prophet Jesus and an example for Muslim women. (Indeed, in Islam, Maryam is the third most important female figure, after Khadija, Mohammed's first wife and Fatima, his daughter.)

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