By Ken Mondschein
One of the most resounding signs of the pessimism of the current generation is that fertility in most industrialized nations has dropped below replacement rates. Perhaps not coincidentally, an “anti-natalist” school of thought led by the South African philosopher David Benatar has argued that since existence is unavoidable suffering, it is better to have never been born. Benatar is, however, only the intellectual avant-garde of a “childfree” movement of people who, for individual reasons ranging from economic hardship to concern for the environment to the desire to maintain their personal freedom, have made the conscious decision not to reproduce.
Since we are always looking to the past for “useful histories” to justify our current practices, one might also ask if we can find antecedents to either philosophical anti-natalism or the more practical stance of child freedom. While we can see inklings of these ideas in nineteenth-century philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, were there any intellectual arguments against having children in the Middle Ages, and were there medieval equivalents to “childfree” individuals?
To be sure, this is a bit of a stretch. In an age before birth control, being “anti-natalist” or “childfree” meant not just refraining from having children, but abstaining from sex (and therefore marriage) altogether. The assumption was that most people would have children. For instance, the medieval gynecological manual known as the Trotula only gives physical inability to safely give birth as a reason for not having children and gives a variety of magical contraceptives such for those women who cannot remain continent but still wish to avoid getting pregnant.
Then, as now, the decision to marry (and thus have children) was linked to economic realities: While today people delay or forego parenthood because of increasing material prosperity and education, as well as relative inequality of income within our otherwise wealthy societies, in the preindustrial past, marriage was a means of creating alliances and consolidating property. Likewise, for most people, children were the best insurance for old age. Nonetheless, if we look hard enough, we can find some inklings of anti-natalist thought.
Most of this was rooted in Christianity, as there is no shortage of skepticism towards marriage and having children in the New Testament. Early Christians, perhaps inspired by world-renouncing Gnostic sects, had strong antipathy to sex and reproduction and we find numerous passages skeptical of having children both the gospels (i.e., Matthew 19:11–12 and Luke 20:34–36 and 23:27–29) and in later writings such as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Monasticism thus became established early on.
However, in mainstream Christianity, denying the flesh was always for the few—spiritual athletes committed to renouncing the world. In apocryphal writings, however, we can find evidence of the existence of even more radically world-renouncing early sects. (“Apocryphal” refers to a text that was not accepted into the “canonical” Bible by later editors.) For instance, the fourth-century Acts of Philip portrays a celibate Christian community where women held spiritual authority. Another example is the Encratites (from the Greek for “continent”). The apocryphal Gospel of the Egyptians, which we know from its refutation by the second/third century Church Father Clement of Alexandria, reads as follows:
When Salome asked “how long will death prevail?” the Lord said, “As long as ye women bear children, for I have come to destroy the function of women.” And Salome said to him, “Did I not well then in not bearing children?” And the Lord answered and said, “Eat of every herb, but do not eat of that which is bitter.”
This pessimism towards reproduction was a real break from both Christianity’s Jewish roots and the Greco-Roman philosophical legacy. While Plato, whose ideas of transcendental truth strongly influenced Christian theology, famously favored non-sexual love, Socrates was married and had children, and Aristotle was also married and fathered a daughter. Aristotle does have some hints of anti-natalism in his Eudemus, but that work survives only in fragments and was almost unknown in the Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, without marrying and having children, a man cannot be considered a good Jew, at least in the traditional sense (the command is not extended to women.) In the ever-present spirit of argument, there is a hint of anti-natalism in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b), but it is immediately walked back: The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed whether it is better for humans to have not been created than to be created. They concluded it was better not to be created, but now that we are here, we must do the best we can to live upstanding lives. Similarly, since there always has to be a dissenter, the second-century sage Simeon ben Azzai is the only classical Jewish teacher who remained unmarried—though even he himself preached against celibacy. Thus, while there were dissident sects such as the Essenes who were influential on the nascent Christian movement, family life has always been the essence of mainstream Judaism.
Christianity is a very different story. Besides figures such as St. Paul, early saints’ lives give us numerous exemplars of those who refused marriage and childbearing. Women such as St. Barbara and St. Catherine chose virginity and martyrdom over family life. Even St. Perpetua, who was married and had a child (both perhaps against her will), displays a startling ambivalence towards family life, as she weans her infant and chooses martyrdom over returning to her husband.
All of these saints, however, belonged to the early Christian era. After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, female saints shift from heroic virgins to charitable (and married) queens. This, in turn, represents the ways in which the religion had to adapt to meet the needs of people who wielded power, owned property, and expected to pass both of these on to their children. (The dignity of celibacy was for the leadership, as male saints in this period tended to be ecclesiastical figures.)
The thinker who did most of the heavy lifting in transforming Christianity from a religion of spiritual athletes to a set of everyday dogmas was Augustine of Hippo (354–430). In his On the Good of Marriage (De Bono Conjugali) 10–11, Augustine refutes the idea that it would be better for all believers to speed the coming of Judgment Day by refusing to procreate: marriage has been created for the purpose of begetting, and therefore, if one does marry, one is obligated to have sex for the purpose of children. Again, celibacy was for the few; marriage for the many.
Following Augustine’s lead, the medieval church was most certainly pro-natalist. The thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, his great cornerstone of medieval theology, tackles the question of anti-natalism head-on. In Part II–II, Question 152, Article 2, he refutes the argument that by refusing to procreate (i.e., maintaining clerical virginity), one sin by ignoring the command to be “fruitful and multiply” and the naturally created purpose of our genitalia. He replies that “the command to procreate is intended for the collectivity of humanity, which needs not only to reproduce corporally but also to prosper spiritually.” Thus, it is enough that some people have children, while others can devote themselves to spiritual matters. Thus, while not remotely anti-natalist, Aquinas did keep a wedge in the door Augustine had opened.
Similarly, there are few philosophical defenses of celibacy or childlessness in the Muslim world. The notable exception was the blind, vegan poet Al-Ma’arri (973–1057), who held decidedly anti-natalist views. The epitaph he had placed on his tomb read, “This is my father’s crime against me, which I myself committed against none.” Yet, again, his was more than a minority view – it was unique.
Anti-natalism could even be considered heretical in Christianity. The most well-known medieval anti-natalists were the Cathars. Originating in what is now southern France, the Cathars believed that the world we see is a living hell and that we are imprisoned here in our bodies. Our task is to return to our original unity with God through renouncing the material world. To do this, Cathar “goodmen” and “goodwomen” renounced sex to such a degree that they would not partake of any animal food, such as meat, eggs, or milk, since it was produced by sexual acts. This extreme asceticism and denial of worldly pleasures gave rise to the accusation that Cathars expunged their sexual frustration by engaging in non-procreative same-sex acts instead of “lawful” intercourse. Heresy and homosexuality thus became inseparable in the medieval mind – but of course, even those who practiced accepted forms of celibacy could be suspect, and laypeople often accused monks of pederasty.
For women who found religious vocations, such as the mystic Julian of Norwich (1343–1416) or the abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), childlessness was a prerequisite, but what about laypeople? Cecilia Penifader (1295–1344) and Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438) are two examples of medieval Englishwomen who opted out of parenthood, or at least tried to opt-out of parenthood, in very different ways. Both, however, shared a goal of trying to enhance, or at least maintain their social positions.
Cecilia Penifader was a “singlewoman,” a woman who never married. In her case, she was a well-off peasant who refused to marry since she would have thereby lost control of her property. The mystic Margery Kempe, meanwhile, was married, but, aspiring to holiness, swore her husband to a chaste marriage. By emulating clerical celibacy, she sought to give herself an air of spiritual authority—as well as, it might be argued, spare herself the burdens of pregnancy and childrearing in order to go on pilgrimage and pursue the cultivation of her own soul.
Then we have the example of the Beguines and Beghards, laywomen and men in France and the Low Countries who, though they did not belong to formally recognized orders, came together in communities to live chaste lives of holy work. While the Beghards were often worn-out men who required some sort of social support, but the beguines were women of reproductive age who chose to live chaste lives in the world, often laboring in the textile industry. Being laywomen who lived independently of men, they were seen with suspicion and were actively persecuted by the Church. However, the last beguine communities lasted until the twentieth century, and the last traditional Beguine did not die until 2013.
Such unmarried people tended to be in northern Europe. In the “western European marriage pattern” noted by John Hajnal in the 1970s, not only did people tend to marry comparatively late in life, but also perhaps 10–20% of women never married. This had the effect of lowering overall fertility. Then, as now, decisions to marry, or not marry, were based on economic circumstances—that is, the ability to support a family.
Official Christian dogma was that though celibacy was a higher calling, the vast majority of the flock ought to marry. Yet, in the Middle Ages, there were still many, even outside formal religious orders, who chose to forego childbearing and all it entailed. Like today, people did so for a number of reasons, including the desire to keep one’s independence, the desire to pursue a vocation or fear of the medical consequences of pregnancy. However, then as now, the primary reason to not have children was economic.