Abortion Medieval Style? Assaults on Pregnant Women in Later Medieval England
By Sara Butler
Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol.40:6 (2011)
Introduction: In the year 1304, Matilda Bonamy of Guernsey, a young woman from one of the Anglo-Norman island’s most established and affluent families, found herself in a predicament familiar to many of today’s youth. A liaison with Jordan Clouet, also from a family of long provenance in Guernsey if not as comfortable, had left her pregnant. To Matilda the solution to the problem was obvious: marriage. An exchange of vows before the birth of the child would avoid any stigma or legal impediment of bastardy. Clouet, however, was not compliant with her wishes. He steadfastly refused to marry her. Faced with the shameful prospect of single parenthood to an illegitimate child, Bonamy turned to the church in an effort to find support for her cause. Jordan’s obstinacy prevented the court from hearing the suit; he ignored repeated summonses to appear before the bishop. Given the church’s promarital stance, Jordan probably supposed the best strategy was non-appearance, in the hopes that the court could not conduct a proper case in his absence.
What he did not count on was being excommunicated. To offer Jordan added incentive to respond to the citation, the court awarded Matilda letters informing Jordan of his excommunication. When she met with Jordan to consider the matter, he was fuming, suddenly finding himself backed into a corner. Excommunication was a serious disability in fourteenth-century society: once announced, no good Christian might converse with him without risking excommunication themselves. An excommunicate was not only prohibited from enjoying the sacraments, but was ousted also from the protections of the common law—endangering the repayment of any debts Jordan had coming to him and making him an open target for anyone holding a grudge.
Moreover, he could remain excommunicate only 40 days; after that, the secular arm of the law was required to arrest and imprison him until he agreed to return to the church—at which point, Jordan would have to appear in court and risk being joined to a woman he did not wish to marry. Infuriated with the situation, Jordan lost all semblance of chivalrous behavior. He threw Matilda to the ground and snatched her purse where she kept the letters. His impulsive act had grave consequences; Matilda went into early labor. The child was stillborn and Matilda died giving birth.