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Childbearing and Infancy in the Carolingian World

From: Journal of the History of Sexuality
Volume 21, Number 2, May 2012
pp. 208-244 | 10.1353/sex.2012.0033

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The historical study of pregnancy and childbearing began only relatively recently and has been hindered by the relative scarcity of records concerning these particular female experiences. The problem of sources is especially acute for the early Middle Ages; as a result, many studies of pregnancy, childbearing, and even early childhood skim over the period. Few studies of early medieval Europe have addressed the history of reproduction, and none have focused on pregnancy and childbearing in the Carolingian Empire, perhaps the greatest of all the early medieval kingdoms.

This empire, whose most famous ruler was Charlemagne (d. 814), stretched from the northern Iberian and Italian peninsulas to the North Sea and from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the Slavic borderlands east of the Danube and Elbe Rivers. After the death of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious (d. 840) and a civil war, however, Louis’s sons divided the empire in 843. Subsequent Carolingian kings continued to take the imperial title until the early tenth century, when other royal families took over former Carolingian realms. In attempting to build a unified Christian empire north of the Alps, Charlemagne and his descendants worked to standardize religious and legal practices throughout their territories.1 Clerics under royal patronage wrote various texts and helped to formulate laws at ecclesiastical and secular councils meant to bring about increased consistency in Christian practice and belief.2 The reformers concerned themselves with issues ranging from prohibitions of work on Sundays and holidays to the regulation of marriage, from rules for the religious life to mandatory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and Creed by the laity, and from chastisements for immoral behavior by priests, monks, nuns, and laypersons to attempts to improve clerical education.3

Because of the Christian reform and learning that Carolingian rulers encouraged as well as the wide geographical expanse of their empire, a relatively large corpus of texts survives from this era, and some provide information concerning female reproduction. These Carolingian sources must be approached with care, however. Extant references to pregnancy, childbirth, and care of infants come mainly from miraculous and hagiographical accounts, other religious tracts, annals, histories, and legal texts. These sources all followed their own literary conventions and served purposes other than explaining reproduction. Almost all the available texts also reflect only the experience of the elite, with the exception of accounts of extraordinary deliveries of babies to poor parents in saints’ lives; unfortunately, information on the experience of childbearing for the vast majority of women is absent from the historical record of the period. All but a handful of the sources for these topics were penned by male clerics, who presented material from an ecclesiastical viewpoint, and it is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to determine the perspectives of laymen, let alone laywomen. These clerics used the Bible and Latin texts inherited from antiquity, and they applied these texts to their own society, whose needs and perspectives may have been quite different from those of individuals living in those earlier eras. For example, most Carolingian medical texts containing information on gynecology and obstetrics drew from Byzantine and late ancient Latin renditions and commentaries of classical Greek works such as Hippocrates; all existing manuscripts were preserved in monasteries, where they were studied by men with little opportunity for comparing theory with biological fact.4 These manuscripts therefore reveal far more about the history of medicine within monastic intellectual traditions than about the experiences of women.

Examining ideas concerning childbirth and infants necessitates the use of a variety of sources from Carolingian lands in the eighth, ninth, and early tenth centuries, most of which contain only scattered mentions of these subjects. Polyptychs, estate inventories of religious institutions whose listings included workers and the goods and labor they owed, provide some information concerning demography and nutrition pertinent to this study. Utilizing these data demands caution, since these documents survive only from select Carolingian monasteries, and they generally concern only low-status individuals. Polyptychs therefore provide a valuable but limited view of rural life in the Carolingian Empire. Narrative sources were subject to their own textual conventions. For example, among the earlier texts Carolingian clerics considered authoritative were Isidore of Seville...

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