Medieval Penitentials on Childbirth and Abortion

Once again, I find myself apologising for a long posting hiatus. Whoops. I promise the radio silence over the past three months hasn’t been in vain… I’ve spent the time outlining a PhD thesis, writing a tiny bit of a chapter, reading everything I could wrap my brain around, and learning loads of cool things to share with you.

Such as some interesting papers at the Generation and Reproduction in Medieval Europe conference at King’s College, Cambridge. The conference opened up with a lecture on “What the ‘Small Print’ in the Early Medieval Latin Pentitentials Tells us about Abortion”, presented by Marianne Elsakkers, which discussed the attitude of penitentials (manuals to help priests determine the punishment for sins) to childbirth and abortion.

Drawings of foetal position in BL MS Sloane 249 f 197

Drawings of foetal position in BL MS Sloane 249 f 197

One of the things Elsakkers discussed is the idea of ‘ensoulment’ – that the soul only enters a foetus after a period of 40 days, when the foetus becomes alive. In my last post, I mentioned an Anglo-Saxon chidbirth charm to ensure a healthy pregnancy and birth. Marie Nelson and L. M. C. Weston have argued that as the mother in the charm steps over a grave and then her husband, she is symbolically carrying her child over this liminal barrier of ‘ensoulment’, when the child transitions from ‘dead’ to ‘living’.

The Birth of Caesar from BL MS Royal 16 G VII f.219

The Birth of Caesar from BL MS Royal 16 G VII f.219

Those who watched the US election are probably already thinking about the natural corrollary, abortion. Most interesting, and most relevant to the modern-day debate, are ideas about abortion following rape. Elsakkers found four mentions of rape in the penitentials, and while women who aborted the products of a rape were forced to do penance, it was also considered an ‘exceptional circumstance’ (see, for example, P. Merseburgense A, 8th-9th C.) and punished with a shorter and lighter penance than in the case of other motivations. These penitentials did, however, still label the mother as ‘guilty’, though leaving the implications of that label unclear.

It should be noted that ‘rape’ had a different connotation in the medieval context than it does today. The Latin rapio, rapere means ‘to seize and carry off, to snatch, tear, drag, draw, or hurry away’ (Lewis & Short), and placed emphasis on the abduction of a woman, particularly in the context of ‘stealing’ her from her father or husband, along with the implications for lineage and inheritance, rather than on sexual violation, though the act was, necessarily, still considered.

If you’re interested in reading more on this, Elsakkers’ dissertation seems to be available online at the University of Amsterdam’s Digital Repository.

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One Response to Medieval Penitentials on Childbirth and Abortion

  1. Futurus Essay says:

    Reblogged this on Futurus Essay and commented:
    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one looking at attitudes toward unborn children prior to the early modern period!

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