By Becky R. Lee
Florilegium, Vol. 14 (1995-6)
Introduction: In the second quarter of the thirteenth century Bishop Roger Niger found it necessary to issue a statute in the archdeaconry of London regarding the rite known as the Purification of Women after Childbirth, more commonly spoken of today as churching. This blessing of a recently delivered mother took place at the church door and usually marked her first appearance in church since her confinement. It had come to the bishop’s attention that women were seeking this sacramental in parishes other than their own. They were fleeing their home parishes out of “hatred or fear of the curate, or in order to avoid injury or scandal” after having become pregnant.
A case that might have engendered such hatred and fear is cited by Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln Diocese in a statute issued in 1239. Apparently in that diocese some priests were extorting funds from new mothers who were reputed to have engaged in sexual intercourse before their purification by forcing them to “bring an offering to the altar” at all the purifications that occurred in the parish. This must have been both costly and degrading for the women involved, yet Grosseteste cites it as an example of priestly greed apparently unmindful of the implications of such actions for the lives of the women involved.
These statutes suggest a complex interaction between male clerical perceptions of the rite of post-partal purification and women’s own perceptions. It is those perceptions I wish to explore here.