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Pregnancy Advice from Medieval Preachers

Since I’ve been on maternity leave I’ve not surprisingly been pondering all things to do with pregnancy and baby care. I’ve also been thinking about medieval pregnancy advice, since it’s a topic I’ve touched on during my ongoing research on medieval fertility and infertility.

Visitation by Rogier van der Weyden, 1431, now Leipzig

Medical texts are probably the medieval sources which give most information relating to pregnancy and these works have been studied by many medievalists and early modernists. We hear in these sources about ways to facilitate (or sometimes prevent) conception, see if a woman is pregnant, predict the sex of an unborn child, and reduce the risk of miscarriage, as well as about weird food cravings, childbirth, and more. But medicine was not the only source of advice.

By the later Middle Ages preachers also sometimes commented on conception, pregnancy and baby care, with a view to advising fellow clergy and ultimately – through those clerics’ preaching – laypeople about good and bad behaviour. Their advice was much more limited than that of the medical writers and it hasn’t been well studied. One exception is an article by Peter Biller, published in History Today in 1986 (vol. 36, issue 8). Biller quotes a manual written to educate priests by the fourteenth-century English cleric William of Pagula, which tells priests to advise pregnant women to avoid heavy work. Biller also raises a larger question about whether priests – often the best educated people in their communities – were one channel by which learned medical knowledge relating to pregnancy might reach women. This is something I’d like to look into more, but certainly William was not the only cleric to give advice relating to the health of pregnant women and their unborn children. Three thirteenth-century preachers, Jacques de Vitry, Guibert of Tournai, and Stephen of Bourbon also did so. In addition to preaching themselves, all three put together long collections of sermons and exempla, short moral stories which preachers could use to make moral points in an entertaining way, and scholars have long used these stories as sources for a wide range of aspects of medieval life, including popular belief, marriage, magic, and more.

These stories often focus on the dire consequences of bad behaviour, as a dramatic way of making the point that certain activities were sinful. Thus in the case of pregnancy they tend to emphasize the safety of the unborn child, but when they do so their purpose is often to make wider points about correct behaviour in marriage.  Thus Jacques includes in a sermon on marriage an exemplum about a man who hit his pregnant wife while he was drunk, causing her to miscarry (Sermones ad status, Paris, BN MS lat. 17609, f. 134r). Jacques included this story in order in order to stress the evils of marital discord and show how alcohol could make this worse, but there is also a message here about the appropriate treatment of pregnant women, as an especially vulnerable group.

Another topic that interested both preachers was sex in pregnancy. As scholars such as Dyan Elliott have shown this topic was debated by theologians, because it offered a case study for discussing the acceptable limits of sexual activity within marriage. Both Jacques and Guibert (quoting Jacques’ story) criticised men who insisted on having sex with their wives in late pregnancy. According to Jacques:

‘I have heard of certain men who harassed their pregnant wives, who were close to giving birth, because they did not wish to abstain for a moderate amount of time. Nor did they spare the pregnant women, because the child was killed in its mother’s womb and deprived of baptism. This lust is cursed, which denies God the soul of his child.’ (BN MS lat. 17509, f. 135v)

But both Jacques and Stephen of Bourbon also give happier information about cravings in pregnancy. They take it for granted that the audience will know of these and so they use them as a way of illustrating an unrelated point about prayer. People who dislike praying, Stephen says, are ‘like a pregnant woman who is disgusted by sweet things and loves to taste bitter things.’

These comments are patchy and without more research it’s not clear what they add up to, but they do show that medieval preachers were willing to discuss pregnancy and give advice and information. It’s also interesting that much of that advice focuses on men’s behaviour (at least in the case of men who behaved very badly towards pregnant wives) rather than women’s. At any rate there is more here to investigate.

Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History


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