Content Warning: discussion of pregnancy loss and infant remains
Over on twitter, Erik Wade (@erik_kaars) just shared a sequence of absolutely wonderful medieval images of Nature doing what Nature does – which, for a medieval Christian, is, erm … hammering out babies in her forge. I first came across this fabulous visual metaphor for creation during my Masters, and remember thinking they were great fun. A female image of creation, a woman gleefully girding up her fancy dress to get down and dirty with a thoroughly macho form of making: what’s not to like? The fact that the act of hammering a baby into shape has none of the gentle, nurturing qualities typically understood to circulate between women and infants, just seemed an excellent bonus. Here was a woman not taking the passive, receptive, gentle role I expected, but boldly taking on creative power – with a massive hammer to help her.
But what’s disturbing about the image, as Erik points out in his thread, is that this isn’t just about creation. Look down to Nature’s side: what is this pile of stuff? Those are discarded babies. Presumably, Nature’s early work, which didn’t make the cut. This gives us a neat explanation of ‘faults’ in creation, which is a problem issue for medieval Christians (for all theistic religions, really). After all, if something can go ‘wrong’ in the universe – if some created begins are less perfect than others; if babies can be born with missing limbs – how can we believe in a merciful God, who could prevent such things and did not? This deeply disablist view recurs across Christian theology, and has become part of the stock-in-trade of popular atheism on the internet, so most people have probably heard it before. What’s neat about this particular genre of Natre images, theologically, is that they reinforce the idea that it is Nature (not incidentally, female) who makes the errors and discards some of the products, not God. This begins to look rather less cheerfully proto-feminist, and raises rather more chilling questions about the implicit association between discarded incomplete infants, and macho women hammering away at human bodies.
But there’s a third piece of this puzzle to add to this increasingly unsettling picture of Nature, as imagined by a host of medieval artists. The text that accompanies this particular image (and it is found elsewhere) is a copy of the great French poem Le Roman de la Rose: the Romance of the Rose, which was written by Guillaume de Lorris and his successor Jean de Meun, concluding some time in the later part of the thirteenth century. The Roman is a dream vision, a huge influence on subsequent poetry and debate. It is part of a larger, rambling medieval conversation about the relationships between men and women, and the God-given order of the world. Amongst the many characters in the poem is Genius (who features in a very early post on this blog), and who is a frequently-cited figure in books about medieval views of gender and sexuality, because of his notorious rant against men who engage in unnatural sex, avoiding proper procreative intercourse with women. His rhetoric is pretty standard medieval stuff, looking back to an earlier rant by Alan of Lille, who laments the awful failures of Nature he sees around him daily:
‘Man is made woman … The hammer deforms its own anvil … The ploughshare ploughs the sterile beach’.
These wonderfully overblown images are commonly understood to refer to some form of perverse sex or sodomy, a medieval category that’s much more excitingly inclusive than the modern world would give us to understand. In much medieval understanding, sodomy is not so much to do with penetrative intercourse between men, though it can mean that, but rather, it’s to do with the disruption of the ‘natural’ relation between men and women. Men, medieval writers tell us, should be active and penetrative: their job is to inseminate. In the act of conception, men give the foetus its form and shape. By contrast, women should be passive and receptive: their job is to conceive, and to nourish the already-shaped foetus until the time comes for its birth.
It is this binary relationship that underpins medieval Christian views of human fertility, and the creative functioning of the world as a whole.
Many scholars have pointed out that this presents medieval authors with a slightly embarrassing problem when they come to envisage Nature, the female creator who hammers out babies on her anvil. Isn’t Nature taking an active role there? Isn’t her hammer a rather worryingly, well, phallic attribute, especially when she uses it to form the unborn foetus? In short, goddess Nature at her forge is disconcertingly close the the medieval stereotype of the virago-like women who appropriated masculine sexual roles and attributes in order to satisfy themselves and their female companions. A lesbian, no less.
With this in mind, we can return to look at that pile of discarded babies that lie beside Nature’s forge. On the one hand, we can read these, as I have done above, as a visual explanation of why imperfection can exist in the world: the incomplete babies are the result of Nature, not God. On the other hand, though, these incomplete and discarded infants stand as a nightmarish warning of the dangers of sexual perversity, including the deformation of good heterosex into lesbian creativity. In men, sodomy might be exemplified by the ‘sterile’ activities Alan describes, such as ploughing into barren land. In women, though sodomy might look more like what an English Lollard author of the early fifteenth century described: a situation where women who engage in perverse sexual activities are exactly the same women who would ‘slay children ere they be christened’ through ‘abortion’.
As so often, this medieval illumination holds several possibilities in tension. At a glance, it is delightfully energetic image of female creativity, or, read more carefully, a wise Christian warning against blaming the defects of Nature on God. Yet it also sneaks in a more nastily misogynistic hint about women who take on masculine roles and their complicity in (even, their responsibility for) reproductive dysfunction.
Given that medieval women were obviously quite familiar with the sight of stillborn and miscarried foetuses, this seems especially cruel. Medieval medical manuals frequently discuss what must be done when a baby dies in utero, and do not scruple to recommend that it be dismembered in order to save the mother; miracle stories equally often tell us about babies born in conditions quite similar what we see here. The image thus carries a deeply misogynistic connotation buried beneath its seeming celebration of raw female creative power: an insistent reminder that it is nature (or Nature) that made women the perverse sex, the sex at whose door all the blame for human pain and suffering may be laid. Lost a baby? It’s probably your fault for your innate perversion.
There are many, many scholars whose thinking has influenced this post. For work on medieval views of gender and sexuality, see this bibliography. For work on medieval birth and miracle stories about babies born with what we would now understand as congenital abnormalities, I have in mind particularly the work of Anne E. Bailey.
Content Warning: discussion of pregnancy loss and infant remains