By Kate Phillips
The Haverford Journal, Vol.3:1 (2007)
Introduction: Though birth is a rite of passage common to every living being, little of its ritual history has been preserved. In the Middle Ages, the event of childbirth was a process witnessed and experienced almost exclusively by women, as the birthing chamber was the only secular space from which men were systematically absent. Giving birth, therefore, was the essential difference between men and women not only in the biological realm, but also in the cultural realm.
The birthing ritual was also a practice rife with tensions from conflicting powers. Regarding childbirth and female sexuality in general, women received varying messages from the Church, medical practitioners, lawmakers, and fellow women. These incompatible voices led to an increasing marginalization of women within the context of the physical ritual and created an ambiguous societal attitude toward birth itself.
Images of childbirth convey how men and women dealt with conflict. For instance, doctrine taught that women ought to be fruitful, yet it also stated that pain from childbirth was God’s original punishment to women for failing to ignore temptation. Additionally, women received pressure both to reproduce abundantly and to remain chaste. Both the tensions around childbirth and the related marginalization of women are evident in images of secular and religious births, medieval medical writings, and biblical texts.