Women’s Reproductive Dysfunctions: Miscarriage, Abortion, Stillbirth and Infertility in Medieval England

Cecily Heron

Cecily Heron pregnant. Drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1526-7. Royal Collection.

In October 2019, I began an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellowship, based in the Department of History at Trinity College, Dublin. My project focuses on medieval women’s reproductive dysfunctions*: the spectrum of experiences from infertility, to abortion, to miscarriage and stillbirth, to pregnancy complications and perinatal death. These are histories often hidden and unspoken; often, shame and blame cloud records and are reflected in legal rulings and religious mandates, leaving us with little sense of how women thought, felt, and spoke about what happened to them and their bodies. Many historians have studied medieval women’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, but this work typically treats motherhood as the organising principle, so that the ongoing experiences of pregnancy loss, termination, and ‘barrenness’ remain incidental, implicitly examples of aberrations from that expected ending.

Yet they are not aberrations. Recent history shows that the line between a missed miscarriage and an abortion may be tragically uncertain (as in the case of Savita Halappanvar); that the distinctions between stillbirth and perinatal death may be manipulated to suit hospital records; that infertility can be ongoing, overlapping with pregnancy and repeatedly ending in miscarriage. Even today, perhaps as many as 1 in 3 pregnancies do not result in live births, and both abortion and infertility remain controversial and difficult topics. In both academic research and popular culture, the spectrum of experiences through which a woman does not end up with a living baby are considered piecemeal – a footnote here and there about miscarriage in studies of pregnancy; a couple of mentions of infertility in celebratory articles about achieving motherhood at last. This fragmentary approach perpetuates the isolation and silencing of women, and the erasure of their lived experience from the historical record and cultural memory.

Meanwhile, the language of pregnancy loss remains locked in a medieval past imagined as a violently misogynistic, religiously punitive, medically deprived era. We still use the Middle English terminology of ‘miscarriage’ or ‘stillbirth’; women describing traumatic deliveries use the term ‘medieval’ to refer to implements such as forceps or to unregulated pain. When gynaecological treatment or care fails, it is coded as a relic of the medieval past. Nor is this retrogressive emphasis without reason: as medical science progresses and develops, women’s experiences of reproduction are, globally, subject to a worrying lack of improvement. In particular, the survival rates of women of colour and women in poverty are, in some cases, actually falling, while legal protections are eroded or under threat in many parts of the world. It is crucial to gain an accurate picture of the past, instead of relying on a myth of medieval brutality that works to imply that we should be thankful for modern-day ‘progressiveness’. I hope that, by recovering this history of women’s experiences, we can find new ways to break through silences and take ownership of our own contemporary narratives of loss, struggle, and recovery.

*It is hard to know what term to use here. There is a pervasive objection to terminology that perpetuates blame of a woman’s body (eg., ‘miscarriage’) for ‘failing’ in its apparent duty to carry a healthy baby to term. However, terminology such as ‘pregnancy loss’ does not incorporate experiences of infertility or perinatal death; nor is it unproblematically used to refer to elective abortions. One reason I use ‘reproductive dysfunction’ as a term is, therefore, as an imperfect best fit. However, women who do not follow a social trajectory towards motherhood disrupt social expectations; those who speak out about experiences such as infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion, likewise. In this context, I use the term ‘dysfunction’ to spark thoughts as to why women who do not become mothers to living babies – and women who give voice to these experiences – have such potential to disrupt, unsettle, and disconcert.