- Abortion in the Early Middle Ages, c. 500–900 by Zubin Mistry
This book provides a creative and revisionist approach to the subject of abortion. Reacting to the impulse of earlier scholars to impose the Augustinian-inflected decretals of the high Middle Ages back on an earlier period, Mistry challenges previous assumptions that early Christianity emphatically opposed the classical world’s tolerance for abortion. The result is a much less categorical analysis—one not so much concerned [End Page 226] with finding an “answer” to whether abortion was permissible than with drawing a nuanced picture.
Mistry’s approach is avowedly inspired by Peter Biller’s The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought (New York, 2001) in its focus on what medieval people thought about population, as opposed to what scholars think about medieval demography. By the same token, Mistry aspires to tell “the history of how individuals and communities, ecclesiastical and secular authorities, construed abortion as a social, religious, and political problem . . . and the neglected variety of their responses” (3). Thus, he takes “the worm’s eye view rather than the bird’s eye view” (14)—a method that also accommodates the neglected areas of gender and social status. The end result is a productive ambiance of ambiguity.
Mistry’s analysis is characterized by careful and adroit readings of an unusually wide variety of sources. For instance, in his discussion of classical and late antique society (Chapter 1), one of the most memorable testimonies is from the Christian Tertullian and his shocking description of late-term abortion with its tacit acknowledgement of the possible need for such a procedure. The penitentials’ new-found concern about abortion among the regular and secular clergy (Chapter 4) is complemented by the suggestive appearance of the hagiographic trope of the errant nun whose pregnancy “miraculously” disappears. In Mistry’s hands, Hincmar of Rheims’ famous intervention in the divorce of Lothar II and Theutberga receives novel treatment as a case study of abortion (Chapter 6). The final chapter (Chapter 7) focuses on abortivi (aborted fetuses)—their possible standing in the resurrection and their association with a wide array of mostly negative symbols. Throughout the work, the life of St. Germanus of Paris is used as a leitmotif. The saintly fetus had miraculously resisted its mother’s efforts to terminate her pregnancy through an ingested abortifacient. Mistry’s analysis illuminates subsequent hagiographical efforts to “abort” the miracle itself.
Despite the indeterminacy that necessarily arises from the emphasis on multiple voices, Mistry remains attentive to the important question of change over time. He assesses how perceptions of abortion morphed from a female offense to one that is more gender-inclusive, and he traces the evolution in the motives commonly attributed to abortion—starting with an attempt to conceal sexual transgression or preserve beauty and progressing to a mutual decision by spouses, a clerical avoidance of scandal, and a last resort forced by poverty. He is also sensitive to how the early conflation between contraception and abortion eventually gave way to the ninth-century treatment of contraception as an offense in its own right.
This book is both learned and thought-provoking. The fact that it raises many more questions than it can possibly answer is all to the good. [End Page 227]