The Implications of Exclusion: The Regulation of Churching in Medieval Northern France
Rieder, Paula M.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (1998)
Bishop Nicholas Gellent of Angers included the following instructions to his parish clergy in his diocesan statutes of 1270:
We understand that not only the women kept away [from church] by the stubborn disobedience of their husbands who stand excommunicated but also many women who, having given birth by fornication, adultery, or other illicit couplings, desiring purification after birth, are secretly or clandestinely coming into church after the priests have begun solemn mass and so by this improvisation having themselves purified by the priest. On account of this we order and prohibit any woman from being admitted to her mass of purification after childbirth unless through sure messenger, either on that day by early morning before the church bells ring for mass or on the day before, she makes known to the priest that she wants to come for purification so that the priests, having considered [the matter], may admit those who should be admitted and turn away those who should be turned away.
Apparently, the bishop was having some trouble controlling who was being churched in his diocese. He clearly expected his clergy to know whom they were churching and insisted that they use this knowledge and their authority to ensure that only the proper women were being admitted for purification. In this case, Nicholas meant only wives who were under no ecclesiastical prohibition and had borne a legitimate child. Already in the early twentieth century scholars noted the fact that French diocesan statutes made churching, the ritual purification of a woman at her first visit to church after the birth of a child, a privilege reserved for legitimately married women, but no effort was made to explore the development or implications of this legislation. In fact, even though churching was a widespread custom in medieval Europe and a unique ritual, being the only ecclesiastical rite that specifi- cally addressed the needs and concerns of lay women, it has drawn little scholarly attention until recently.