This year, I have been reading a lot of medieval Nativity plays. I’m searching in the gaps and silences, really, because what I want to know about is not Christ’s birth, but ordinary women’s thoughts and feelings, which are almost impossible to recover. Medieval midwifery texts are often written by men, confidently proclaiming treatments from a careful distance from the birthing chamber; actual women in labour all but disappear from sight. In the narrative of Christ’s birth, ordinary childbirth is mentioned only to provide a negative example. Writers dwell upon anguish and gore, upon fluids and bloods and groans of agony, in order to emphasise the contrasting miracle of Christ’s entry into the world. Silent and painless, calm and serene, the Virgin’s labour is as unlike normal childbirth as anything could be. More and more, I wanted to think about how women exposed to this narrative felt about Mary’s labour. It might seem (and it’s often argued) that when medieval writers represent childbirth as agonising, horrific and bloody, they reveal a misogynistic and pejorative view of women’s bodies, as compared to the impossible perfection of Mary. Where is the space in this narrative of perfect childbirth for women who suffered and bled, and whose children were not always born into joyful life?
The Nativity is a strange moment in medieval drama. The emphasis upon Mary’s still, quiet, calm labour puts medieval dramatists in the peculiar position of having to dramatise something that is inherently lacking in drama, a birth defined by its absence of fuss and flap. On the whole, medieval dramatists love a spectacle – any excuse for dazzling the audience with pyrotechnics or flamboyant costumes or elaborate props. But staging silence is powerful, too. Spectacle invites audiences to marvel, to gaze, to listen and look, but silence demands their trust. Standing in the audience, you hold your breath. Will someone cough, or laugh? Are you still, or do you need to shift, to move? Will someone hear? Silence repositions an audience’s attention from the scene on stage to each person’s own listening, watching body. In this sudden moment of bodily awareness, the audience becomes part of the play.
Thinking about this silence and staging of Christ’s birth, I began to imagine how medieval Nativity plays might provide spaces for ordinary women – midwives, but also their patients – to reflect on their own childbirths as they witnessed what happened on stage. In what follows I have made some leaps in terms of the way I imagined a medieval stage, although even experts in medieval drama (which I am not) still do not know as much as we would like about how these plays were cast or performed. We think boys played women’s parts (as, a couple of generations later, they would for Shakespeare); I have no particular evidence for thinking that a medieval midwife might be recognised by her bag of medicines (like an Edwardian doctor), but I liked the idea. Writing this, I tried to think how the scene of the Nativity might include, and join together, the women who saw it performed onstage. Medieval plays were performed well into the sixteenth century, and so I set my scene in 1510. The Spanish queen I mention is Catherine of Aragon, who on January 31st would give birth to a stillborn daughter, her first child.
Backstage during the Play of the Nativity, 1510
The day they set up the plays was the coldest day of the winter. Overnight, the thick pine boards of the play wagon had locked into place. Their breath rose white as they yanked and tugged each board into position. The frost deadened the smell of the sawdust that hung in the air.
In the dusty space behind the play wagon, sound is muted. The lines of the actors float past like lines of the liturgy suddenly rising above rood screen in church. One of the Kings leans indolently against the prop box, picking his teeth. In his other hand he holds a beautiful large pomegranate with its stiff rose-pink crown, a substitute for gold in honour of the little Spanish queen who, even now, is preparing to withdraw from the festivities at Greenwich Palace to enter into her first confinement at Richmond. The prop box is made up of packing crates repurposed, by your leave, from the Worshipful Company of Grocers, so it smells of mace, pepper, cinnamon, figs, cloves, lemons,
and setewale, which is sometimes called turmeric.
These are, too, the contents of the little leather pouches that lie beside her on the prop table. Fennel for breastmilk. Juniper and ginger to bring on contractions. Mastic, pounded with cumin and cinnamon, to stop the haemorrhages of blood.
Empty of its medicines, her midwife’s bag sits across the knees of two fourteen-year-old boys in wimples and aprons, knocking their heels against the makeshift box seats as they await their cue.
Here are entrances and exits. The actor playing Joseph bustles off stage, calling back his intention to search for midwives to attend his labouring wife. The prop Infant is handed forward, clumsily hand to hand, and pushed onto stage.
The boy midwives trot forward, swinging her bag between them. Now let me touch and feel by hand, if ye have need of medicine!
Onstage, the boy playing Mary declares the miraculous birth. In this fair birth I feel no pain! Touch with your hand and see!
There is a hush. Through a crack in the curtain she sees one boy actor lay three light fingers across the pad of white linen, bound in place with swaddling cloths, that is strapped beneath the slim ribcage of the actor playing Mary. Such a light touch. Unseen, involuntary, her fingers flex. Looking past the stage to the audience crowded in the street, she sees one, two, ten or a dozen women unconsciously adopt the same posture, hand over womb. She remembers one, two, ten and a dozen childbirths. She feels the unspoken, unspeaking community of women join together for a moment, one body. And the miracle on the stage is eclipsed by the miracle of ordinary women watching.
A child is born.