I’m featuring on here an overview of another recent BBC series, ‘Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage and Death’ by Helen Castor, who presented the series ‘She Wolves’, based on her book of the same title last year. The miniseries, as the title suggests is based around the three rites of passage, and the way they were ‘done’ in the Middle Ages.
Personally, I’m glad to see a female Medievalist who knows her stuff, and isn’t just chosen for her looks expounding history with an engaging passion. So Dr Castor is now ranked among some of my favourite historians, and might even be in danger of becoming something of a role model. Furthermore, the subject matter is one that doesn’t necessarily receive much treatment. So without further ado I will to begin at the beginning with:
Episode One: A Good Birth.
Birth was almost exclusively female affair, which meant that the modern way of having the father present just wasn’t done. The only time a man might be present would be if a priest was sent for if if the mother’s life was in danger- and such was not uncommon. Birth was a ‘the greatest danger’ and medieval woman ‘might ever encounter’. One woman who did survive giving birth at the tender age of 14 was never able to have another child despite three further marriages, and living to see her grandchildren. That woman was Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, who would eventually take the throne of England as Henry VII.
Margaret it seems had always been small in stature, and was married at the age of 12. Technically, that was the lowest permissible age for a proper marriage (i.e one that could be consummated), but it would appear that the husbands of many child brides waited- not so in Margaret’s case. Even for the time, the notion of Edmund Tudor making his 13 year old bride pregnant seems to have been rather shocking.
When the time for birth was approaching, a Medieval woman would enter what was known as her ‘confinement’, meant in a very literal sense in which the woman might enter a room or set of ‘chambers’ kept ‘warm’ darkened, enclosed’ and altogether womb like. She would also be attended only by women- men were not welcome in the birthing chamber (except perhaps priests) , and a midwife rather than a male doctor would preferably perform the delivery. Midwives, Dr Castor states has something of an unusual position- they could actually baptize in infant that was likely to die, and so appear to have been the only women officially allowed to perform this vitally important religious ritual.
An intriguing artifact was also produced, a wide shallow bowl of jet, believed to have been part of the midwife’s ‘kit’ because of the special properties the mineral was believed to imbue, including the ability to ‘ease a woman’s pain in childbirth’. They might also make use of other materials like coral and amber. Contrary perhaps to popular belief, such would not have ended up getting the unfortunate midwife accused of witchcraft, in fact as is stated in would probably have been seen as quite acceptable. Minerals and plants were God’s creation, so there was nothing wrong with using them to bring healing and comfort.
Episode 2: A Good Marriage
Of course marriage was an essential prerequisite to procreation in the Medieval Era, but again modern conceptions may be awry where this rite of passage in concerned too. As Dr Castor states, consent was required for marriage, so whilst parents might wish their respective offspring to marry, and could ‘bring them together, they could not force them to marry”. Equating arranged marriage with forced marriage would seem to be a modern misnomer, especially considering that the church actually banned the latter in the late 1100s.
This was not the only difficulty posed by the church when seeking to regulate marriage, however, as the medieval what constituted marriage in the Medieval period could be broad to say the least. Technically, all that was required was a verbal contract between two parties, and witnesses to attest to the validity thereof. So it seems people were getting married in the pub, or only had to ‘get away for half an hour’ for a clandestine ceremony- as Romeo and Juliet’s nuptials. This could result in other abuses, like men ‘marrying’ women just to go to bed with them, and perhaps repudiating them afterwards, as may have been the case with the alleged pre-contract ‘marriage’ of Edward IV, resulting ultimately in the deposition of Edward V and the ascension of Richard III.
It would seem the proverb, quoted at the beginning of each episode ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ has particular relevance to the Medieval approach to great rites of passage, as Castor and other demonstrate. These may may seem to a modern mindset strange, alien, backwards and even absurd, yet it would also seem that in examining them some preconceptions and misconceptions about the lives, beliefs and practices of out Medieval forbears are revealed and proved wrong. In my view, that is no bad thing.
To watch the first episode, see the video below.