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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.
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
Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Rachel Rose Reid, Part 2
In my previous post for the Centre for Medieval Studies blog, I promised a much-needed follow-up to my interview with the storyteller Rachel Rose Reid, whose retelling of the medieval French Roman de Silence is currently touring around the country. This week, we’ll be talking about some of the more challenging questions raised by the text, and their impact on how she has interpreted the text and devised her own piece.
Returning to your interpretation of Silence, I was struck by the way in which you begin Part 1 of the story. Why did you start your retelling of Silence by recounting your own story — that is, the story of how you came across this wonderful text?
There were a couple of reasons: firstly, Heldris (the narrator-figure in Silence) doesn’t ‘start the story with the story’ either! Instead, we have this intriguing prologue that offers an invective against avarice. While I don’t begin my retelling in quite the same way, I do think that my own introduction serves a similar purpose — that is, to involve the audience in my storytelling, and to begin ‘weaving’, together with them, the world of the story. Immersion isn’t everything: whenever I come back to moments of honesty like this one, where I tell my own story, I’m being authentically present with the audience. There’s something in that interaction which means that people follow you: they trust you, and you’re able to ‘catch’ them if you feel that they need to be brought back into the story.
… and, of course, Heldris does this throughout their own story, interacting — or at least presenting an interaction — with his own audience. There are points where he’s very direct about this: just before he reaches Silence’s birth, Heldris promises the audience (in the English translation) ‘a lively tale without any further fuss or ado’!
… and this itself raises a fascinating question: why does the story (as Heldris tells it) start so far beforehand? Heldris could easily have started the story with the birth of Silence, but chooses not to: instead, there’s a focus on this question of inheritance, which makes up a large part of the first part of Silence. On a personal level, the inheritance question — which of course ‘sets up’ the motive for Silence to present as a different gender later in the story — is something that I’m very interested in. I’m part of a collective called Three Acres and a Cow, which has really opened my eyes to the different relationships that people have had to land over the centuries; it seems that, although we’re many generations down the line from the world of Silence, there’s still very much a legacy there, and the attitudes towards land and inheritance that Silence documents are still evident in the present day. A few years ago, I visited several Cornish towns with a story about suffrage, and people told us that their own aunts had missed out on inheritances for this same reason: it had gone to particular male relatives, in this case just before changes were made to inheritance law. I’m fascinated by the cultural landscape that informs tales such as Silence, by what it would mean to hear about changes to the law such as these; and by whether Evan’s actions would have been considered provocative or commonplace.
And yet, modern academic work on Silence – with some exceptions – really hasn’t shown the same interest in the inheritance question. One particularly dry description of the opening conflict between the counts sees it as nothing more than a ‘debate over primogeniture’, and in general, it’s the questions of gender that have dominated scholarship, with Simon Gaunt noting (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Silence ‘appears to engage deliberately with problems that interest modern theorists.’
Questions surrounding gender are more ‘front-and-centre’ in Part 2 of my retelling, of course, but the two ideas about inheritance and women are of course intimately connected. I’m interested in both questions: about who would have listened to this story, and how contentious the material about land ownership would have been. It’s been really satisfying to work with medievalists, including medievalists who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Roman de Silence itself, but who work on the general period during which it was produced. Even if the insights that come out of these conversations don’t make it into my retelling every night, it’s really fun talking to academics who can help to inform my telling of the story, answering some of the more esoteric questions. One question that’s intriguing me at the moment is that of what Cornwall would have meant to the audience of Silence: would it simply have been ‘somewhere far away’, or would it have had a more concrete opening?
That’s a tricky question to answer, but there has increasingly been a tendency in research to stress the ‘connectedness’ of the medieval world, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the audience of Silence to be aware of Cornwall, at least in the context of a lot of the Arthurian material that locates Arthur in this area. The very fact that the manuscript of Silence has survived in Britain at all is testament to cross-Channel movement: it is, after all, written in a dialect of French that shows relatively little Anglo-Norman influence, with far more of a Picard ‘feel’ to it. One theory suggests that the manuscript was composed around the late 13th century as part of a marriage dowry, only reaching England as a piece of plunder late in the Hundred Years’ War.1 Histories of manuscript provenance are, in the end, personal stories — much like the stories that you bring alive in your retelling.
For me, Silence is very much a story about how humans — whether the characters in Silence, or the owners of the manuscript — try to structure the world. Each of us has ways in which we try to structure our world in order to make everything okay; in the case of the characters in Silence, it’s society that has trapped people into certain ways of being. That’s one of the reasons why I try to present Eufeme (King Evan’s Queen, who fulfills the ‘Potiphar’s wife’ trope) as a more rounded character. Heldris might try to give us some understanding of her motivations, but there’s more to be said here: Eufeme might seem to be terrible, but if you look at how she got to be where she is, the only place where she can enact real change is in the personal realm. Only Merlin sits apart from this, and his laughter — which I’ve always read as cosmic, not cruel — seems to me to be saying, ‘look at all these humans, who think they can control and set up these structures.’
Working with Rachel has been an absolute privilege, and it’s been wonderful to re-acquaint myself with the Roman de Silence after a few years, particularly in the form of a retelling as lively, engaging, and powerful as hers. Rachel has transformed a story whose characters are often read as ciphers — ‘Silence’, ‘Euphemie’, ‘Eupheme’ — into an intensely human tale, while preserving its focus on questions that connect the medieval and the modern.
For more information about Silence, see the show’s website.
Rachel has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see silencespeaks.strikingly.com and rachelrosereid.com.
If you’re reading this shortly after publication, and happen to live near either Amsterdam or Birmingham, Rachel will be bringing Silence to you on 3rd and 8th November respectively!
Edward Mills, PhD Student
1 More recent work on the manuscript, however, has argued for an earlier dating of the early 13th century, based on an analysis of paratextual features such as illustration. See Alison Stones, ‘Two French Manuscripts: WLC/LM/6 and WLC/LM/7’, in Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (eds.), The Wollaton Medfieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 41-56.
Gender, Emotion, and a prize-winning Conference
Having recently passed the viva for my thesis ‘Painful Transformations: A Medical Approach to Experience, Life Cycle and Text in British Library, Additional MS 61823, The Book of Margery Kempe’, it seems like a timely moment to reflect on the past few months and years of my postgraduate study at Exeter. I am grateful to Professor Vincent Gillespie (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford) for being my external examiner, Elliot Kendall for being my internal examiner, Eddie Jones for being an ever-patient and supportive supervisor, Catherine Rider as my other, wonderful second supervisor, and James Clark for his encouragement and advice on all things postdoctoral. The Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter is such an exciting and dynamic environment and I am excited about all of the events that lie ahead.
It might also be an apt moment for me to remind colleagues about the Gender and Medieval Studies Group, which holds an annual, peripatetic conference. The steering committee, made up of medievalists including Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea) and Diane Watt (Surrey), ensures the continuation of this important, multidisciplinary event each year. The group, which has gathered each year since the 1980s and which seeks to further the study of gender in medieval culture, was organised this year by Daisy Black at the University of Hull, on the theme of Gender and Emotion.
The history of emotions is a topic of growing interest in the field of Medieval Studies, with projects such as Hearing the Voice at Durham University, the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions accelerating the prominence of such enquiry. The Royal Historical Society Postgraduate Speaker Series Conference, ‘Emotion and Evidence in the Late-Medieval and Early-Modern World’ (Cardiff, May 2016), at which I was fortunate to be presenting, also offered the opportunity for early career researchers and established scholars to exchange ideas, with a plenary from Professor Miri Rubin (Queen Mary).
Questions of gender, and the interplay with the history of emotions, made for a stimulating conference programme at the 2016 GMS. Notable papers included Amy L Morgan (Surrey), ‘“reueyd out of hir witt”: Extreme Emotion and Queer Responses in Sir Orfeo, and Jonah Coman (St Andrews), on ‘Grimestone’s book, Grimestone’s body: Freudian melancholy and creation of identity in the Advocates MS 18.7.21’. Linda E. Mitchell (Missouri), in considering the person as political in her paper, ‘“Give Me Back My Son!”: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Political Use of Emotion’, prompted fruitful discussion on the idea of queens as suffering mothers. The keynote lecture from Katharine Goodland (City University of New York), ‘Ghostly Presences: Mariological Mourning and the Search for Justice in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy’, took reference from several medieval mystery plays in considering the ghostly presence of the Virgin Mary and Kyd’s allusions to medieval depictions of Christ’s Passion.
As well as presenting my own paper on questions of emotion and melancholic woundedness in The Book of Margery Kempe, I was also honoured to be awarded with the annual GMS Graduate Student Essay Prize – an internationally-open competition. The prize was awarded for my essay ‘“Slayn for Godys Lofe”: Melancholia and Mourning in The Book of Margery Kempe’, and includes two years’ free GMS conference attendance. The article is now published in the peer-reviewed journal Medieval Feminist Forum. As I was applauded and congratulated, I felt some heartfelt emotion of my own, proud to be the recipient of the award.
I am now co-editing a volume arising from the conference: Gender and Emotion in Medieval Culture: Uses, Representations, Audiences, with Daisy Black and Amy L. Morgan (under consideration by Boydell and Brewer).
The GMS conference is a great opportunity to share research and make networking connections with other scholars who are interested in all questions of gender in the Middle Ages. It is hugely inclusive, and welcomes diverse approaches and cross-disciplinary papers from both postgraduates and established scholars. The graduate student essay prize is an excellent opportunity, and I encourage Exeter PGRs to enter a piece for the next round. I highly recommend becoming involved – perhaps at the next conference in beautiful Canterbury, in January 2017 – when Anthony Bale (Birkbeck) and Leonie Hicks (Canterbury Christ Church) will be giving keynotes. There is also a mailing list that you can join via the website to keep up to date on events.
This year’s conference closed with a riveting performance of ‘Bawdy Tales’ with Debs Newbold, a one-woman storyteller. Based on Boccacio’s Decameron, the tales were bawdy and comedic indeed, with plenty of audience participation and foolery, providing pathos and hilarity in equal measure. The show was a fitting emotional rollercoaster for what had been a conference of intellectual rigour and medieval felyng par excellence, and certainly one from which I returned with an unusually big smile on my face.
Researcher in medieval literature and medicine and Associate Tutor (English department, University of Exeter)