A recent article on sexuality and childbirth in early medieval Ireland reveals some surprising attitudes towards abortion held among the Christians during this period, and that hagiographical texts recount four Irish saints performing abortions.
Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials, by Maeve Callan, appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality. Callan examines a wide range of hagiographical works and other sources from medieval Ireland. She writes, “these accounts celebrate saints who perform abortions, restore female fornicators to a virginal state, contemplate infanticide, and result from incest and other ‘illegitimate’ sexual unions. Moreover, the texts themselves generally reflect a remarkably permissive attitude toward these traditionally taboo acts, an attitude also found in Irish penitentials and law codes.”
The saints who took part in these abortions were Ciarán of Saigir, Áed mac Bricc, Cainnech of Aghaboe, and Brigid of Kildare – who are thought to have lived during the fifth and sixth centuries. In Ciarán of Saigir Life, it is explained that a beautiful nun named Bruinnech had been raped by a local king. The story continues: “Ciarán, despising the enormity of such a crime and wishing to apply a cure, went to the house of sacrilege to seek the girl from there.” After learning “that she was pregnant. Then the man of God, led by the zeal of justice, not wishing the serpent’s seed to quicken, pressed down on her womb with the sign of the cross and forced her womb to be emptied.”
In later texts this story was changed to where Saint Ciarán simply blessed Bruinnech’s womb with the sign of the cross and the fetus disappeared. In the other saints’ lives this was the same way that Ireland’s three other saints had put an end to pregnancies.
Callan adds, “Saints were not the only ones performing abortions in early Ireland. The sixth-century Penitential of Finnian, the seventh-century Irish Canons, and the eighth-century Old Irish Penitential include abortion among the sins to be repented. Comparatively speaking, it was a low-ranking sin. For Finnian, its atonement required less than half the time assigned to penance for childbirth.”
Meanwhile, in the Old Irish Penitential, the punishment for abortion depended on what stage the fetus had developed to: “A woman who causes miscarriage of that which she has conceived after it has become established in the womb, three years and a half of penance. If the flesh has formed, it is seven years. If the soul has entered it, fourteen years’ penance.”
Callan, an assistant professor at Simpson College in Iowa, notes that the concept of abortionist saints is unique to Ireland, with no similar stories appearing in other European hagiographical texts. These Irish sources also offer interesting accounts related to sexuality, virginity and infanticide during the medieval period.
Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials appears in Volume 21, Number 2 of the Journal of the History of Sexuality (May 2012). It is part of a special issue on Approaches to Childbirth in the Middle Ages, which include articles dealing with pregnancy and childbirth in the Carolingian era, Viking Sweden and twelfth- and thirteenth-Century England and France.
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