Alienated from the womb: abortion in the early medieval West, c.500-900

Medieval abortion
Medieval abortion
Medieval abortion

Alienated from the womb: abortion in the early medieval West, c.500-900

Zubin Mistry

University College London: PhD Dissertation (2011)


This thesis is primarily a cultural history of abortion in the early medieval West. It is a historical study of perceptions, rather than the practice, of abortion. The span covered ranges from the sixth century, when certain localised ecclesiastical initiatives in the form of councils and sermons addressed abortion, through to the ninth century, when some of these initiatives were integrated into pastoral texts produced in altogether different locales. The thesis uses a range of predominantly ecclesiastical texts – canonical collections, penitentials, sermons, hagiography, scriptural commentaries, but also law-codes – to bring to light the multiple ways in which abortion was construed, experienced and responded to as a moral and social problem.

Although there is a concerted focus upon the ecclesiastical tradition on abortion, a focus which ultimately questions how such a tradition ought to be understood, the thesis also explores the broader cultural significance of abortion. Early medieval churchmen, rulers, and jurists saw multiple things in abortion and there were multiple perspectives upon abortion. The thesis illuminates the manifold and, occasionally, surprising ways in which abortion was perceived in relation to gender, sexuality, politics, theology and the church.

The history of early medieval abortion has been largely underwritten. Moreover, it has been inadequately historicised. Early medieval abortion has been rendered strangely familiar because it has been approached through alien concepts and assumptions, whether pre-medieval, later medieval or modern. Through vigilance against conceptual dangers, a thoroughgoing and sometimes microscopic approach to reading and contextualising early medieval sources, and an interest in bringing the history of abortion into conversation with other areas of early medieval historiography, the thesis seeks to historicise perceptions of and responses to abortion in the early medieval West.

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