In Middle English, the definition of pregnancy falls under two main categories: 1) pregnancy as a physical condition and 2) pregnancy as the act of childbearing. In its most general sense, pregnancy (“pregnacioun,” “conceivinge,” etc.) refers to the capacity of a woman to give birth to offspring. The condition of pregnancy is marked by certain physical symptoms , such as “groninge,” the vocal moaning of a woman undergoing pregnancy or childbirth (MED 1a) and “gretnesse,” the swelling of the stomach due to pregnancy (MED 1e). In some cases, the Middle English word “sik” may refer to the physiological state of pregnancy (MED 1a). Pregnancy as a condition connoted heaviness and confinement for the woman, whose delivery would release her “o bende,” as described in the Middle English poem “The King of Tars”. In Middle English, “bende” denotes devices for physical binding, such as shackles and chains (MED 1a), but it also describes “imprisonment of the soul within the body” (MED 2a). Hence, to “bringen (out) of bende” is to free a woman from “confinement in childbearing” (MED 2b).
The term “child-beringe” refers to the literal act of giving birth (MED 1b), but it may also refer to the figurative act of producing spiritual progeny (MED 1d) or to fertility, fruitfulness, and abundance (OED 4a). In the Middle Ages, pregnancy and fertility was much valued over barrenness (“barainnesse,” etc.), which connotes both sterility (MED 1) and spiritual emptiness (MED 3). Thus, measures were often taken to protect the sanctity of the child, sometimes at the expense of the mother.
Although pregnancy in the Middle Ages was inflected with religious undertones due to the prevalence of Marian imagery in medieval art and culture, the secular concerns of childbirth were just as central to treatment of the mother and her womb as were religious ones. Medieval law in particular focused on the patriarchal concerns of inheritance and succession rather than the well-being of the mother. In general, steps were taken to protect the health of the fetus, not the woman, and as a result, pregnancy became a physical condition that could be both advantageous for the father and harmful to the mother.
In secular medieval culture, one of the primary aims of pregnancy, at least for the male impregnators, was begetting a male heir. Narrative portrayals of pregnancy, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Marie de France’s Le Fresne, often focus on the genealogical concerns of childbearing rather than medical or religious concerns. In Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, one of Januarie’s main concerns when he decides to seek out a bride is ensuring that he will have an heir. Although the story never depicts pregnancy nor even confirms that Januarie’s wife May becomes pregnant, the importance of inheritance resonates throughout: Januarie takes potions and herbs to make himself more potent, May puts her “wombe” on display for Januarie to touch. Januarie ultimately becomes complicit in May’s adultery: he cannot cause the pregnancy himself and will therefore save face by claiming the child of May’s lover.
In the Clerk’s Tale, Marquis Walter similarly marries to beget a male heir. When his peasant wife Grisilde bears a daughter rather than a son, Walter views this as a setback and sends the child away. When she finally does bear a “knave child,” he is also taken away, due to his possessing peasant blood. As Walter’s insistence on a “knave child” shows, the birth of a male child was much more valued than the birth of a female child, but moreover, the birth of a male child with good blood, i.e. non-peasant blood, was the best way to establish a powerful and respected family line.
Patriarchal concerns also figure prominently in one of Marie de France’s lais, Le Fresne. Pregnancy becomes a weapon that turns on the wielder when a woman, jealous of her neighbor’s twin sons, declares that bearing twins means the mother was impregnated by two men, a slanderous accusation, and then goes on to give birth to twin girls. By casting doubt on the legitimacy of her neighbor’s sons, she then implies infidelity in her own conception, which would be cause for her own disinheritance as well as her children’s. The accuser thus has to give up one of her children, the one called Le Fresne. A lord Gurun falls in love with Le Fresne, but his knights convince him to marry a noblewoman, La Codre, so that he can carry on his lineage. Here, identity and inheritance are directly linked to pregnancy and its result. It functions as a stabilizing force, one that enables the passage of property and the continuation of a family line. But its value is contingent on its circumstances—outside of wedlock, pregnancy becomes a destabilizer and disinheritor. As a result, the appearance of legitimate paternity was sometimes more important than the actual child itself.
Because a successful birth would ensure a healthy heir, medieval laws were concerned with caring for the fetus by protecting mother’s womb. In French and English law, codes were written to prevent abortive measures by men and women alike. Fiona Harris-Stoertz discusses these laws in relation to male control over female childbirth, which became more prevalent as such codes increased in number. Penalties were often put in place to protect the sanctity of the fetus: damage to the fetus by striking or killing the mother could result in heavy fines against the accused, and fines were often heavier if the child was killed rather than the mother. Generally speaking, less attention was paid to the health and well-being of the woman. In fact, men tended to be more suspicious of women than supportive. Law codes portrayed women as untrustworthy, ready and willing to falsify pregnancies, abort the child, or take advantage of the father. (Harris-Stoertz 2012)
Medieval pregnant women were also expected to follow certain dietary regimens, as outlined in medieval English, Latin, and Arabic texts. Such texts laid out guidelines for the amount of food, air, exercise, and rest the pregnant woman should receive as well as recommendations as to how to regulate stress. The pregnancy regimen contained within Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, for example, advises that “roasted, fried, and fragrant” foods should feature prominently in the expectant mother’s diet. Such regimens served as a form of preventative medicine that would protect the child in utero. (Weiss-Amer 1993)
Where inheritance was concerned, even religious practices entered into the secular realm of pregnancy and childbirth. In 1540, Thomas Raynalde published the first English book about pregnancy and female anatomy. Despite Raynalde’s attempt to medicalize pregnancy, notions about conception and childbirth were still greatly influenced by religious reformers who encouraged pregnant women to identify with the Virgin Mary. In the late medieval period, these women prayed to the Virgin Mary and carried saints’ relics to ensure a safe and healthy delivery. Like medieval laws and dietary regimens, these practices served to guarantee a Christian child and healthy heir. (“Reforming the Body” OUP)
The Woman’s Burden
In trying to produce an heir, medieval men placed high demands on women’s bodies, to the point where pregnancy became a burden as well as a health hazard. Ruth B. Bottigheimer argues that in medieval literature, pregnancy constituted a moral and mortal threat to the bodies of women. Pregnancy was sometimes the product of rape and young marriage, and in a world where women had little access to birth control, pregnancy was not only an expectation but an inevitability. (Van De Walle and Bottigheimer 2001)
The Book of Margery Kempe provides an excellent example of how pregnancy disabled women in the Middle Ages. Early in the narrative, Margery tells of the physical and emotional suffering she experienced during and after the birth of her first child. She spends six months chained in a storeroom because her pregnancy-induced mental state causes others to view her as a threat to herself and those around her. Although Margery eventually recovers, the pregnancy results in a fundamental change in her personality and spiritual outlook, spurring the quest for salvation that drives the rest of the narrative.
Margery’s story shows two important aspects of how pregnancy functioned in her community: it is a potentially disabling, life-threatening condition, but it is also an imperative for women. Pregnancy represents an interesting double standard for women in this period: a woman who could not bear a child was often represented as disabled (as being “baraine”), but childbearing was also in and of itself disabling.
Blamires, Alcuin. “May in January’s Tree: Genealogical Configuration in the Merchant’s Tale. The Chaucer Review 45.1 (2010): 106-117. Web.
Bruckner, Matilda T. “Le Fresne’s Model for Twinning in the Lais of Marie De France.” MLN 121.5 (2006): 946-60. Web.
Harris-Stoertz, Fiona. “Pregnancy and Childbirth in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century French and English Law.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 21.2 (2012): 263-281. Web.
Pearman, Tory Vandeventer. “(Dis)pleasure and (Dis)ability: The Topos of Reproduction in Dame Sirith and ‘The Merchant’s Tale.’” Women and Disability in Medieval Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 19-44. Print.
“Reforming the Body.” Oxford University Press. Oxford University Press. 14-52. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. http://fds.oup.com/www.oup.co.uk/pdf/0-19-926988-2.pdf
Weiss-Amer, Melitta. “Medieval Women’s Guides to Food During Pregnancy: Origins, Texts, and Traditions.” Canada Bulletin of Medical History 10 (1993): 5-23. Web.
Van De Walle, Etienne, and Ruth B. Bottigheimer. “A Comment on Fertility Control and the Fairy-Tale Heroine [With Reply].” Marvel & Tales 15.1 (2001): 128-34. Web.
Jessica Chace, Sumayyah Daud, and Elisa Valero, The George Washington University