Lucy Allen looks at why all the best wombs are wearing misogyny gold this season.
I’ve seen several discussions of the medieval birth-chamber as a woman-only space recently, including Helen Castor’s documentary.
Castor claims that birth chambers were a space in which women were given extraordinary power in a habitually disempowering society – where midwives had the power to perform the sacrament of baptism, and so to encroach – startlingly – on the role of male clergy.
I love this point, and I think it’s important. But when I started thinking about medieval images and descriptions, I ended up with a few quibbles. Part of this goes back to what I was saying in a previous post, about medieval writers’ revulsion towards pregnancy and the pregnant body, which expresses the ingrained misogynistic attitudes towards women. While the birth chamber is associated with an unusual exercise of female power in a misogynistic world, it is also the target of a great deal of male distrust, and perhaps even fear.
Women’s bodies, and especially women’s wombs, were imagined as disgusting, subject to bleeding and swelling, symbolic of lust and temptation. With little knowledge of anatomy or gynaecology, people sometimes imagined that babies were gestated in amongst the bowels, or fed on menstrual blood in the womb. Medieval writers reassured themselves that, in every pregnancy, the woman was only a carrier, providing nutrients to the growing foetus, but not its essential form and spirit, which was provided by men. Jerome, once again, displays his habitual blend of innuendo and misogynistic censure, claiming:
“Women think only of their bellies … or those parts of the body closest to their bellies.”
The difficulty this cultural stereotype presented to medieval writers and artists was, that the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, was also (and necessarily!) female, with a female body and a procreative womb.
From early in the Christian tradition, writers had described Mary’s female body and especially her womb in such a way as to set her and her pregnancy apart from other human women and their experiences. Some versions of the story show a touchingly humane sympathy – for example, the writer who explains that Mary’s journey during her late pregnancy would not have been so stressful for her as for other pregnant women, because Jesus did not allow his mother to feel burdened by carrying him. But others are more complicated by a mixture of different emotions and prejudices.
As early as the third century, hymns and homilies had compared the Virgin to a gilded container – specifically, the Ark of the Convenant – because while in the Old Testament the Ark was used to contain the tablets of the Old Law, in the New Testament, the Virgin’s body carried the New Law, Christ himself. Mary’s body, wrote St. Gregory the Wonder Worker in the third century, was like a chest:
“wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary”
In the later middle ages, people began to make little statues – which I find frankly creepy – called ‘Vierge Ouvrante’ or ‘Open Virgin’ Statues, where the Virgin’s gilded body was fitted with a pair of tiny shutters, revealing the carved and glowering figure of Christ inside her womb.
The author of the Middle English poem ‘Purity’ comments approvingly that Mary’s labour involved none of the blood or afterbirth of a normal delivery, but only a shining cleanness. Even more bizarre extensions of the same idea come from two female visionaries, Gertrude of Helfta and Bridget of Sweden, who imagined the Virgin’s womb in great detail:
“immaculate … as transparent as the purest crystal, through which her internal organs, penetrated and filled with divinity, shone brightly …”
“the placenta, that the child was born with, lined all in white.”
These descriptions are supposed to be Gertrude and Bridget’s own visionary sightings, and they offer to male readers a glimpse of a process which, in its normal, human versions, was typically hidden within the woman-only space of the birth chamber. The male paranoia and fear of unknown female spaces that we see in Jerome’s writings is not completely exorcised by these oddly sanitised images, in which fertile female anatomy is transmuted into a whiteness uncomfortably suggestive of pallor and blood loss, as well as purity.
The anxiety that focuses on the aesthetics of this quintessentially female space, the womb, tells us something about the power of the male gaze even over women-only spaces in the medieval world.
I wrote this post while thinking about modern woman-only spaces, because this weekend a friend of mine attended the North-East Feminist Conference and her comments about it reminded me how important these woman-only spaces are, but also how much aggression, mockery and vitriol they show us that is targeted at women and their bodies.
In true, delusions-of-Christhood fashion, I can claim my life as a medievalist started with the Virgin Mary’s gold-plated womb. When I was doing my undergraduate dissertation, my supervisor was busy writing an article about this strange medieval tradition. She’s Jackie Tasioulas, and the article (which is fantastic) is ‘”Heaven and Earth in Little Space”: The Foetal Existence of Christ in Medieval Literature and Thought’, published in Medium Aevum 76:1 (2007): 24-48. I thoroughly recommend it, and I’m very grateful to her for giving me such an auspicious start.
Other than Jackie’s brilliant article – from which I’ve taken the references directly, so you are best to look at it if you can – you can find the primary sources at:
Gertrude of Helfta, Œuvres spirituelles, Le Heraut, ed. P. Doyere et al. Her work is quoted in Jeffrey Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval German.
Bridget of Sweden, The Liber celestis of St Bridget of Sweden, ed. Roger Ellis.
The best possible source of quotations like those from Jerome is the wonderfully-titled book, Jankyn’s Book of Wikkid Wyves, eds. Ralph Hanna and Traugott Lawler.