I’ve got a post about my new project brewing, but I’m going to jump right in with this one, which I was turning over in my mind last night while I was watching the first episode of Helen Castor’s brilliant documentary ‘Medieval Lives’. It’s still up on iplayer, and well worth a watch.
Castor’s documentary looks at medieval childbirth, and she explores the state of medical knowledge, as well as the social attitudes and practices surrounding pregnancy and labour. The manuscripts she looked at include some fascinating medical textbooks, which show how medieval doctors imagined babies might be positioned in the womb.
I wanted to think about another side of childbirth in medieval England, that is, about the stories people told and the fears and hopes these stories reflected. I look at Middle English romances, which were the popular fiction of late-medieval England. Bringing together drama and fantasy with sensationalism, sex, misogyny and racism, these stories are packed with information about cultural stereotypes and attitudes towards women.
The King of Tars tells a story familiar to medieval readers, in which a woman encounters the evils lurking in the world beyond Christendom. The Christian daughter of the King of Tars marries her father’s enemy, the Muslim Sultan of Damascus, hoping to convert him to Christianity. She becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth, the child is not a healthy baby, but a grotesque ‘lump-child’, a bundle of flesh without limbs or features. The narrator dwells on the horror of the scene:
“lim no hadde it non … In chaumber it lay hem bifore/ Withouten blod & bon. … it hadde noither nose no eye,/ Bot lay ded as any ston.”
(“It had no limbs … It lay before them in the birth-chamber,/ Without blood or bones … It had neither nose nor eyes,/ But lay dead as any stone.”)
The gruesome birth appalls and enrages the Sultan, who initially blames his wife. She, however, convinces him to let her have the baby baptised, and the act of baptism restores the ‘lump-child’ to a normal human baby who begins to cry. Convinced by this concrete proof, he converts to Christianity.
It’s easy to get caught up in the shocking aspects of this story – the extreme Islamophobia, the miraculous transformation of the baptism. But the description of the deformed, lifeless baby, the angry husband and the distraught new mother makes this story an unsettling one.
The Sultan’s initial anger towards his wife draws on a tradition of medieval men who were repelled by, and fearful of, the female processes of pregnancy and childbirth. St Jerome, noted medieval misogynist, declares ‘Women with child present a revolting spectacle’. Writing to a thirteen-year-old girl, he rants about the disgusting physical effects of pregnancy, the swelling of the belly, and the use of medicines to bring about abortions. This disgust and distrust of pregnant women extended to men’s attitudes towards the mothers of babies born with ‘deformities’. The Bible itself said ‘women in their uncleanness will bear monsters’.
Set against these powerful misogynistic messages, the miraculous conclusion of the romance seems flimsy and inadequate. How did medieval women listening to this story respond to its descriptions? Did they think of their own experiences of childbirth – or those of their mothers, sisters, or daughters? Was the mother of the story, who proves herself innocent of blame as well as true in her Christian faith, a source of inspiration, or a focus of pity?