Women beware midwives

Tom Shippey

  • The Medieval Woman by Edith Ennan, translated by Edmund Jephcott
    Blackwell, 327 pp, £32.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 631 16166 X
  • Not of woman born: Representations of Caesarean Birth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
    Cornell, 204 pp, $27.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 8014 2292 2
  • Childhood in the Middle Ages by Shulamith Shahar
    Routledge, 342 pp, £35.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 415 02624 5
  • Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The Viaticum and its Commentaries by Mary Wack
    Pennsylvania, 354 pp, $39.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 8122 8142 X
  • Barbarolexis: Medieval Writing and Sexuality by Alexandre Leupin, translated by Kate Cooper
    Harvard, 261 pp, £27.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 674 06170 5

Powerful books have been written, and will continue to be written, on feminism and Medieval studies, but Edith Ennen’s The Medieval Woman is not among them. It is full of information, especially on matters towards the end of her period of study, and much of the information cannot help being amusing or thought-provoking, on an anecdotal level: how uniquely contemptuous it was to make the prostitutes of Cologne give sixpence a week each to the town executioner, the man responsible for flogging or hanging them if they defaulted! How strange it is that the famous ius primae noctis, great horror of the Middle Ages to such as Mark Twain, should have been recorded only among the aggressively democratic Swiss cantons round Zürich (perhaps proving that nobody ever meant it seriously). But these accidental virtues are too often spoilt by a strange and generalising vagueness. ‘The German expected absolute moral purity from his wives and daughters,’ we are told. When early Germanic women were captured, ‘as prisoners and slaves they bore their fate with dignity and honour.’ What, all of them? How do we know? Professor Ennen does start catching herself towards the end, as when she qualifies her remark that ‘women clearly live on a more emotional level than men and have a strong religious need’ with ‘At least, this is true of many women.’ But that does not repair the damage. She should have remembered her own dictum that ‘the historian is concerned with the sober reality.’ It may not be true, and there is much to be said for the imaginative speculation, but facts on their own would be better than stereotypes.

And there are plenty of sober facts to be collected in this area which can stir the dullest spirit. I have to confess that before reading Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski’s Not of Woman Born, I had never thought about what lay behind the story of Caesar, of Caesarean birth, and of Macduff ‘from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripp’d’. What I had failed to realise – though one realises as soon as one thinks for a moment about it – is that, in complete contradiction to modern experience, no Medieval woman was ever expected to live through a Kaiserschnitt. How could she? You have to open not only the abdominal wall but also the uterus, with no anaesthetics, no antisepsis and no practice. It caused a good deal of comment in the Middle Ages that although Caesar was called a caeso matris utero, ‘from the cut womb of his mother’, Suetonius remarked that Caesar’s mother died much later, during her son’s Gallic wars. Clearly this could not be true; women did not survive this operation.

Yet people (women as well as men) kept doing it. Why? Sometimes, if the mother had died, in a desperate attempt to baptise the child before it died too. The Council of Trèves in 1310 said that if a woman died in childbirth she must be opened immediately and the child baptised if alive. If it was dead, it could not be buried in a cemetery. But if it had died inside its mother’s body, then both should be buried in consecrated ground. The grisly thought arises that it must all have demanded split-second timing – especially as in some areas no excuses were accepted from dilatory midwives. If they did not operate they faced a death sentence themselves. A Medieval midwife, then, kept a razor handy – that was the operating instrument – and had to be braced to use it the instant death could be certified: but not, of course, an instant before. Not even if the mother asked her to. Yet that clearly happened too. Many mothers, says a German statute of the 15th century, ask the midwife to operate for the sake of the child, when they feel they are dying. Again, a lightning decision had to be made, and over some wretched woman’s conscious body. In these circumstances one comes with relief on stories claiming, as time went by, that the operation had been performed successfully, both mother and child surviving. A desperate Swiss father whose wife had been in labour for days performed the feat in 1500. His name was Jacob Nufer, and he was (probably not coincidentally) a pig-gelder by trade. He got permission from the authorities, got two midwives to assist (11 refused) and opened the uterus with a single deep cut, ‘as if operating on a pig’, extracting the child on the first try and sewing his wife up just as he did with his animals. It sounds brutal, but in this case a brutal trade which gave the man experience of operating swiftly and decisively was the woman’s best hope. It was centuries before similar results could be achieved regularly.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski’s book takes up several associated themes, such as the increasing ‘marginalisation of women in obstetrics’ – midwives were thrust out of the way by doctors, not with particularly happy results, a process of course repeated if in less dire fashion in this country over the last couple of decades – and the presentation of Caesarean birth in drawings, illuminations and in stories both saintly and Satanic (for it was believed that Antichrist, too, would be born by Caesarean section). Yet in a sense the raw fascination of the theme overpowers questions of art. One cannot help thinking of the hundreds of poor women who died under the razor when the midwife mistimed it. The thought adds extra horror to Chaucer’s lines in the Knight’s Tale on the woman in labour calling on Diana: ‘But for hir child so longe was unborn’. It wasn’t just the pain that was making her call. She knew what would happen if things went on too long.

Successful birth, of course, was not the end of a mother’s worries. Philippe Ariès suggested thirty years ago that because of demographic conditions in the Middle Ages, parents learnt not to invest too much emotional capital in their children before it became clear that they stood a fair chance of reaching useful adult status: in essence, he argues, the Middle Ages had no separate conception of childhood. Shulamith Shahar challenges this thesis in Childhood in the Middle Ages, and has little difficulty in scoring a solid refutation. There is no doubt about the demographic conditions: between 1330 and 1479 over 30 per cent of children in English ducal families died before the age of five. The percentage among less important and unrecorded children was probably higher. No doubt many parents did react by cutting themselves off, especially (one might think) fathers who had lost wives in childbirth. Equally certainly many remained close and affectionate, whatever the risks. In the course of her very wide investigation Shahar finds a female saint (in a vision) playing ‘splashy-splashy’ in the bath with baby Jesus; a man in a Windsor carving playing ‘horsey’ with a small child; and William the Marshal, handed over as a hostage by his father at the age of six and then subject to execution when his father reneged, peacefully playing what I would call ‘bulliers’ with King Stephen, who hadn’t got the heart even to frighten him. Clearly childhood status was often recognised and appreciated.

It there was a difference between Medieval and modern conditions, one might expect it to come from the notion of the ‘higher love’ of God. Other female saints are praised for being so immersed in their devotions that they forget they ever had children. Strict writers might also insist that, for fear of arousing incipient sexuality, there should be no physical contact between mothers and children from the age of three. Child-beating may not have been much more common then than now, but then it had Biblical authority, and people who argued – as St Anselm did – that corporal punishment was wrong had to make out a case against known precedent. Did all this make a difference? Shahar deliberately rejects the tempting ground of explanations according to Freud, Piaget, or any other modern authority, but in an appendix she notes what looks like severe father/son hostility in many secular tales – perhaps a natural result of a world in which noble fathers in particular felt (maybe rightly) that it was their duty to separate sons from mothers and set their feet on a hard road. We are meant to think, says Shahar, that when Ugolino in Dante admits ‘fasting had more force than grief,’ he means he ate his sons. But some people might have thought he had the right to.

Noble fathers were dangerous people, as emerges also from Mary Wack’s Lovesickness in the Middle Ages, another work that draws quite unexpected interest out of a medico-sociological theme. Her first figure is a ‘Bronze statuette of an emaciated man’, first century AD. His left wrist is held up in a pulse-taking position, and his robe is labelled ‘Perdik’. Clearly this is Perdica, who was possessed by love for his mother, had his malady diagnosed by Hippocrates (who noticed the change in pulse-rate when his mother entered the room), but then hanged himself in despair after Hippocrates refused the case. Other doctors were more determined. The whole medical tradition in such cases stemmed from outside the Christian world, from Arab physicians who took a more utilitarian and less moralistic line than might have been expected. What was needed, some suggested, was ‘therapeutic coitus’, expressed with total lack of courtesy by Peter of Spain, who believed in applying ‘plasters or women to the testicles’. A good thrashing was Bernard de Gordon’s cure. Others had more civilised ideas.

Yet it was never at any time a very civilised area, for all its romantic associations. Wack concludes in the end, in independent corroboration of Shahar, that while lovesickness certainly existed, and was in the Middle Ages most commonly associated with men, its social origins ‘may be sought in circumstances where aristocratic men, already vulnerable to melancholia and lovesickness from precarious childhood ties, exerted an inordinate level of power over women, generating fears of reprisal’. In other words, Medieval sons of the nobility were normally taken away from their mothers very early, and accordingly grew up loveless and insecure. Once they reached power and maturity it was very possible for them to prey sexually on women of lower rank, and by doing so disgrace and humiliate their partners. As Alceste says in Chaucer, there are men

That al here lyf ne don nat but assayen
How manye wemen they may don a shame;
For in youre world that is now holden game.

The Middle English tale of ‘Dame Siriz’ is a perfectly obvious case of sexual harassment being treated as a joke, and having its foundation in lovesickness being feigned merely as a seducer’s ploy. Analogous examples are easy to come by: Wack cites the commentaries on Amnon in the Second Book of Kings, which alter a very plain case of lovesickness leading to rape till, in the Bible Moralisée, the whole thing has become the fault of the female victim. Much the same happens with Philomela in the Ovide Moralisée. And the end of the story, Wack suggests, is that men who knew how cruelly they had behaved to women were likely to fall ill of guilt, impotence or psychosomatic disorder, and then of course claim that they had been bewitched!

It’s a theory with which one could quarrel, or debate, in many cases, but it certainly casts a light both on literary texts and (again) on drawings and paintings. Furthermore Wack has provided eighty pages of little-known Latin text and facing-page translation, thrusting forward the evidence for anyone who wants to argue. And who can argue with the thought that ‘primary sources deserve to be better known’ because they shape the culture’s ‘sexual discourse’? The debate over ‘courtly love’ has gone on so long and proceeded so little largely because it took place in a space bare of cultural facts.

This last statement would almost certainly be repudiated, or viewed with indulgent scorn, by Professor Alexandre Leupin, whose Barbarolexis is very much the odd one out of the works reviewed here. Leupin sees at the start a distinction between ‘document’ and ‘monument’, and has little or no time for the former (i.e. for the merely historical document). He is also quick to point out the ‘impoverishment’, the ‘complacent positivism’ of the ‘old philological school’. He, in short, is a member of the theoretical school which insists that in essence everything, including Nature, is ‘first and foremost a text’, and that texts are to be read until they reveal their true ‘specularity’, the fact that they are all about the activity of reading or recovering text. It is easy to be blunt or dismissive about these views, especially for one trained in the pragmatic school of Anglo-Saxon philology, and especially after the experience of reading other works of Medieval studies so clearly about non-textual matters, like Wack’s or Blumenfeld-Koskinski’s. Yet it has to be said that Leupin, with all the odds against him, does make out a strong case, and even a strong linguistic case.

What does it mean, for instance, in the Vie de Saint Alexis, that Alexis’s father is called Eufemien? Could this have anything to do with the literary trope of euphemia or euphemism? One would think not, but then it is at least odd that the name of the saint himself is Alexis, which can be constructed as a + lexis, the latter meaning ‘word, God’s word’, the former an intensifier for ‘very strong’. The non-saintly father, then, shuns the word, the saintly son avoids it in speech, remaining totally silent and ‘alexic’ for years, but then communicates in writing – the skill which his father indeed had had him learn, though not for saintly purposes. Leupin draws a point even from the romance’s different forms for ‘father’, père, pedre and pedra. The second, he admits, could be one of those earlier or intermediate forms beloved of philologists. But what of the latter? Does it not have some connection with perdra or perdition, the fate to which the father is tending and to which he would like to drag his son?

The moral of this vernacular beginning to the glories of French literature, Leupin suggests, is that ‘the paradise uniting all fictional protagonists is not a heavenly kingdom conceived by theology, but an infinitely more improper eternity created by the French language.’ I do not believe this – and if I did it would be chauvinistically tempting to explore the possibility of Alexis as an English work – but Barbarolexis does convey the seduction of such ideas better than almost any competition. It is amusing to find the tale of ‘L’enfant qui fut remis au soleil’, used not long ago in these pages, documentary-style, as proof about treatment of foundlings, cited instead in the version of Geoffroi de Vinsauf (another Englishman) as an example of the mise en abyme, of the search for origins in a ‘blank and founding emptiness’. It is more than amusing, remarkable, to see quite how many of the French fabliaux revolve around questions of language or of euphemism. There is the dame qui ne pooit oir parler de foutre, but who is of course extremely avid at seizing the thing without the name. There are the repeated stories of ladies who have to call various parts of the anatomy ‘squirrels’ or ‘piglets’, but who then insist on feeding their animals until their partners run out of wheat or nuts altogether. And there is the repeated play on the words ne ... rien, which mean that a taboo-object can be both ‘thing’ and ‘nothing’, depending on how the hearer chooses to take it. Are all these cases to be covered by the ‘complacent critical discourse’ of ‘realism’ pointed up by stylistic differentiation, Leupin asks; and it does in fact seem increasingly like an unambitious answer.

Moreover, as the eight chapters here move through their eight separate works, from Vinsauf to Montaigne, their embedded thesis about sexuality and language does (and this is not very common in radical surveys) gain a cumulative force. There is no doubt that Alan of Lille does talk about homosexuality in terms of grammar, complaining how discordant it is that one should be at the same time ‘subject and predicate’, actor and acted upon, the sodomite here extending ‘too far the laws of grammar’. Conversely, there is no doubt that Montaigne talks about French in terms of sex, complaining: Si vous allez tendu, vous sentez souvent qu’il languit soubs vous et fleschit – it ‘grows limp and gives way under you’, so that you have to resort to the greater masculinity of Latin or Greek. The continuous connection at least is clear, and Leupin has an elaborate theory to explain it – namely, that as language cannot name God, the object of desire, for theological reasons; nor the desire of climax (female climax, it seems), for either social or linguistic reasons, as in the fabliaux; so it has to turn from these two impossibilities to ‘affirmation of the desire to write’, falling back on itself for want of ability to break out of its own fictional space. All this may or may not prove convincing as a theory of the psyche. It does focus attention on the more doubtful frontiers of language, making it impossible to write ‘barbarolexis’ off as mere obscenity, euphemism or solecism.

Yet one might wish that Leupin, in Anglo-Saxon style, were a little more interested in things. At one point he gives an account of the viper’s mode of conception, female biting off male’s head at the moment of ejaculation and then giving birth through her own side, observing it is a perfect allegory of the birth of fiction. Women facing the midwife’s razor might have thought it was more immediate than that. Some of them, no doubt, would have liked to bite their partners’ heads off too, preferably before the moment of ejaculation. There is another meaning, too, in the fabliau of la dame escouillée, in which a man subjects his dominating mother-in-law to a feigned castration, pretending to pull out from her behind the coillons au tor, the bull’s testicles which have made her so masculine. There is no feigning, however, about the rasoir with which the surgeon/serjon/sergeant makes his half-foot incision; or, Leupin might say, there is, because the whole thing remains a fiction. It does. But some events must have happened outside a text, however Anglo-Saxon it is to say so. And in view of what some of them were, the ‘specularity’ of fiction seems less cosily secure. Cutting women open to get them to shut up: dear God, one reflects, there was an ‘interpretive community’ somewhere, somewhen, that actually used to laugh at this?