Advice Concerning Pregnancy and Health in Late Medieval Europe: Peasant Women’s Wisdom in The Distaff Gospels
By Kathleen Garay and Madeleine Jeay
Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vol.24:1 (2007)
Abstract: This paper explores an area which has proven difficult for scholars to penetrate: women’s popular wisdom concerning medical matters in the later medieval period. Contextualized within an examination of medieval medical texts both by and about women, our discussion focuses on a later 15th-century French work, The Distaff Gospels. This text, published recently in English for the first time since 1510, consists of more than 200 pieces of advice or “gospels,” ostensibly conveyed to one another by a group of women who met together during the long winter evenings to spin. A significant portion of the advice might be considered “medical” in nature; it is grouped into two broad categories: pregnancy and health. We conclude that although our text is male mediated, it provides a reliable and valuable guide to peasant women’s medical lore during this period.
Introduction: “To be cured of continuous fever, you must write the first three words of the Our Father on a sage leaf, locally grown, and eat it in the morning. Do this for three days and then you will be cured”(VI:7). “Young women should never be given hare’s heads to eat for fear they might think about it later, once they are married, especially while they are pregnant; in that case, for sure, their children would have split lips”(I:8). Of the more than 200 pieces of advice contained in The Distaff Gospels, a mid-15th-century Old French collection of women’s lore recently available for the first time in modern English, almost half concern aspects of health: pregnancy, predicting the sex of the foetus and ensuring the future wellbeing of the child, as well as practices to avoid sickness and cures for various ailments.
The main text is framed as a series of storytelling evenings in which women accompany their work of spinning by taking turns to serve as the main conveyor of the sessions’ “gospels.” The names of three male authors are associated with the shorter Chantilly manuscript, the earliest compilation, while in the more developed and anonymous Paris version the six evenings are introduced and linked by the persona of a male secretary who records the oral discourse of the spinsters’ meetings. However, despite these male associations, both literal and literary, it is clear that the wisdom conveyed in the Distaff Gospels springs, at least in part, from popular beliefs and practices which have a predominantly female origin and a primarily female focus, and the texts provide a rare glimpse into the beliefs of peasant women in the later Middle Ages.
While this work is familiar to French scholars, it has received only occasional notice from scholars working in English and there has been no attention paid in either language to its role as a compendium of popular wisdom as it relates to aspects of pregnancy and health. As we will demonstrate, The Distaff Gospels presents a series of conjunctions, points of contact and connection between elite and popular learning, medical practices based on both theoretical and empirical traditions, and healing practices based on both spiritual and secular beliefs. Before exploring the text further, we will consider something of the wider context of medical knowledge in the medieval period.