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The ‘Miracle of Childbirth’: The Portrayal of Parturient Women in Medieval Miracle Narratives

The ‘Miracle of Childbirth’: The Portrayal of Parturient Women in Medieval Miracle Narratives

By Hilary Powell

Social History of Medicine, Vo.25:2 (2012)

14th century birth scene, from British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 48
14th century birth scene, from British Library Royal 2 B VII f. 48

Abstract: This paper explores how tales of difficult births found in medieval miracle narratives can contribute to our understanding of the experience of pregnancy and childbirth in twelfth-century England. While rare in the early collections, pregnant and parturient women are increasingly visible in the miracula from the later twelfth century.

This paper seeks to explain why childbirth miracles began to appear more frequently and became more medical in character. The discussion centres on the two miracle collections belonging to St Thomas of Canterbury, written by Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury in the 1170s. Explanations for the more frequent appearance of childbirth miracles are found, not in the changing relationship between humans and saintly intercessors, nor in the contemporary interest in the maternity of the Virgin Mary but in the specific context of the cult of St Thomas and the new emphasis given to lay testimony.

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Introduction: In her 2008 volume Making Women’s Medicine Masculine, Monica Green argued that male involvement with women’s medicine, both medical and surgical, increased substantially between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries and that, far from being a ‘modern’ transformation, the masculinisation of women’s medicine was a medieval phenomenon. To argue her case Green drew almost exclusively upon the evidence of surviving obstetric and gynaecological texts. In her preface however, she proclaimed that, ‘A history of medieval women’s healthcare could, no doubt, be written entirely from saints’ lives or canonisation proceedings, culling from these documents … tales of difficult birth, incurable diseases, and various attempts to seek out relief.’

This article sets out to do as Green suggests, to explore how tales of difficult births found in twelfth-century English miracle collections can contribute to a history of medieval women’s health care and, in particular, their experience of pregnancy and childbirth.

medieval-mag-40On closer inspection, however, this seemingly straightforward project proves far more difficult. Surprisingly few miracle narratives feature parturient women. Moreover, not only are women in the throes of labour missing, but those having trouble conceiving, or suffering difficult pregnancies or experiencing post-partum complications are equally noticeable by their absence. The twelfth century was the heyday of hagiographical writing. Accounts of saints’ Lives and records of their posthumous miracles proliferated.

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