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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.
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
Inspired by Levi’s call for Leeds and Kalamazoo papers on the blog a few weeks ago I thought I’d post one of my own for Leeds 2019…
I’m currently in the process of putting together a session (or two, if there’s a lot of interest) on Fertility and Infertility for next year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. I’ve been working on a long-term project on medieval attitudes to infertility for some time, and have written about it on the blog before. Infertility and childlessness crop up in a wide range of medieval texts and my sense, from discussing the subject informally with other medievalists over several years, is that quite a few people are now working on this and related topics from a variety of angles, building on what is now a large and sophisticated body of work from historians of medicine in particular. It would be nice to bring some of these scholars together and think about future directions for the field.
So, if you’re working on medieval fertility/infertility/reproduction related topics and would be interested in giving a paper, please get in touch with me by 15th September – firstname.lastname@example.org. Papers that approach the subject from any angle or source base are welcome, and could include people working on history of medicine, literature, demography, marriage, etc. And if you are more organized than me and have already made your Leeds plans but would be willing to chair a session, please also get in touch.
Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History
A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday 17th March, a few staff in the Centre had a stall at the University’s Community Day to showcase some of the research we do relating to Exeter Cathedral. We had interest from people of all ages, asking questions about our projects, the pictures and maps we were showing, and about life in medieval Exeter more generally. Here is a short taster of the research by Sarah Hamilton, Oliver Creighton and me that was on display. We’re also in the early stages of planning a larger scale project which looks at the history, archaeology and manuscripts of Exeter Cathedral, and if you’d be interested in hearing more please feel free to get in touch with me.
Exeter Cathedral and its World: Sarah Hamilton focused on Cathedral MS 3518, a liturgical manuscript which lists, among other things, the saints commemorated by the Cathedral community each day. This includes the major Christian saints as one would expect but it also includes a number of more local saints from the South West of England, such as Nectan of Hartland and Petroc of Bodmin. Looking at these saints is one way to understand how the medieval clergy of Exeter Cathedral thought about their local history, and people had fun trying to spot the saints’ names in the images of the manuscript (surprisingly tricky: I never did find Rumon of Tavistock…).
Medieval Medicine in Exeter Manuscripts: I was looking at Cathedral MS 3519, a collection of medical treatises and recipes from the early fifteenth century, particularly some of the ones relating to pregnancy and fertility. Recipes like these are often striking for their weirdness (at least to modern eyes) – eating animals’ reproductive organs to stimulate men’s and women’s fertility, for example – but they are also a fascinating way to think about medieval people’s health concerns.
What Lies Beneath? A Geophysical Survey of Cathedral Green, Exeter: Oliver Creighton contributed some images from a geophysical survey of the Cathedral Green that he undertook last year with other staff and students from Archaeology. This was probably the most popular part of our stall, as people tried to interpret the black and white images and work out if there was a Roman road underneath the cloisters.
And if anyone wants to hear more about one of Exeter Cathedral’s most famous manuscripts, the Cathedral is holding an afternoon event celebrating the Exon Domesday on 17th April: see their website here for more details and to book.
Senior Lecturer in History
At the end of January I went to a workshop at the University of Cologne, run by a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities and expertly organized by Eva-Maria Cersovsky and Ursula Giessmann. It focused on ‘Gender(ed) Histories of Health, Healing and the Body, 1250-1550’.
I’ve long been interested in this area, which is important for my own research on medieval infertility, although thanks to other commitments in the last few years I am not as up to date on the scholarship as I would like to be. The workshop brought together a small group of scholars from the USA, Canada, the UK and Hungary as well as Germany, and it was good to hear about the work being done in these countries, as well as to gain feedback on some of my own work in progress on infertility, gender and old age in the Middle Ages.
The papers covered such diverse topics as hospitals, royal and aristocratic courts, saints’ cults, contraception, medicine, and pharmacology. One particular strand of discussion running through a number of the papers, which perhaps takes its cue from similar work on the early modern period, focused on how scholars can get at medieval women’s medical knowledge and the ways in which they provided healthcare. As the American historian Monica Green showed back in the 1980s, very few medieval women are formally designated as medical practitioners in our sources, using terms such as ‘medica’, surgeon, or even midwife. However, the majority of medieval healthcare happened in the home, and it seems likely that much of this work was done by women. By the end of the period we can see elite women who clearly had some expertise in medicine. Thus the keynote lecture, by Sharon Strocchia, described the medical knowledge of women at the sixteenth-century Medici court, and showed that these elite women were concerned with a variety of medical issues in their households and were clearly well informed in their dealings with court physicians. This kind of information is harder to come by for earlier centuries but papers on a range of source materials including miracle narratives, medical recipes, images of miraculous healings and hospital records suggested some possibilities.
I still need to think about how to work all of this into my own research but the conference got me thinking much harder about the role of gender in my sources: in particular, who knew what about reproductive disorders in the Middle Ages, and who offered what kinds of medical and healthcare advice relating to fertility?
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
I’m on research leave this term and working on an ongoing project which looks at attitudes to infertility and childlessness in medieval England. Although there has been a great deal of work in recent decades on topics such as marriage, family structures, childhood and reproductive medicine in the Middle Ages (and in other periods) less attention has been paid to what happened if a married couple did not have children. This could have serious repercussions: children were often needed as heirs and as a means of support in old age, as well as wanted for the pleasure they brought. Not surprisingly, then, infertility is mentioned in a wide range of medieval sources. They include medical treatises and recipes which gave advice to help a woman to conceive or a man to beget a child, and which have received some attention from scholars such as Monica Green, as well as from me. Less well studied are the religious texts which mention infertility, such as Bible commentaries, sermons, and saints’ lives. These works discussed a type of story that recurs several times in the Bible and in hagiography, when a previously infertile woman miraculously gives birth to a special child late in life. Women who fell into this category included the biblical Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, as well as the apocryphal St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary.
I’m currently in the process of picking up the threads of my research after a longish break and I’ve been thinking about the two questions that people ask me most often when I say I’m working on medieval infertilty.
1. They always blamed it on the woman, didn’t they?
This does seem often to have been the case, but things were not always that simple. The stories of miraculous children from the Bible onwards did tend to talk about women, specifically, as infertile. The medical texts were more nuanced. The widely copied twelfth-century medical compendium Trotula, for example, emphasized that could be impeded ‘as much by the fault of the man as by the fault of the woman,’ although it devoted more space to women’s infertility than men’s. However, because we have so few records which describe the experiences of sick people in the Middle Ages it is difficult to know whether men or women were more likely to seek treatment for reproductive problems in practice.
I’m still working out exactly where the balance of attitudes lay, and how significant male infertility was thought to be.
2. Did they see it as a punishment or judgement from God?
Here the answer is complicated. Medical writers tended, unsurprisingly, to focus on the physical causes of infertility, such as imbalances of the humours or serious deformities in the reproductive organs. They may have believed that God was behind these physical problems but if so, they do not say so.
Rather more surprisingly, religious texts also shied away from presenting infertility as a judgement of God. Indeed, some writers went out of their way to say that this was not the case: the thirteenth-century compendium of saints’ lives, The Golden Legend, emphasized when it retold the story of the conception of the Virgin Mary that God might cause temporary infertility in order to allow a child to be born miraculously later on. The fact that they emphasized this so strongly may suggest they were arguing against a common opinion – but it is hard to be sure.
I’m still working out what all this means. What was the range of views and who held them? Which ideas were widely shared in the sources, and which were the unusual views held by only one or two writers? My plan over the next few months is to put together a journal article exploring the religious sources so I’m hoping to know more soon.
Dr Catherine Rider, Lecturer in Medieval History