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Women’s Weapon, Women’s Work: The Oracle Glass and the Affair of the Poisons

Poison is frequently referred to as “a woman’s weapon” because it allows murder to be committed from a distance and often requires subterfuge to deploy, which is probably why it doesn’t come as a surprise that women were at the heart of the so-called Affair of the Poisons that plagued Louis XIV’s court from 1677 to 1682. [1] Both men and women of the court sought out supernatural means to win Louis’s favor. The king’s longtime mistress, Madame de Montespan, was accused of resorting to love spells to keep his affection after childbirth had changed her figure.

montespan
Madame de Montespan

The unravelling began with the execution of Madame de Brinvilliers, who was charged with poisoning her father and brothers in order to inherit their estates. She and her accomplice, the Chevalier de Sainte Croix, were alleged to have used Aqua Tofana, a poison that originated in Italy and was sold primarily to women who desired to be rid of their husbands, although other sources point to arsenic being the poison of choice. [1] de Brinvilliers was executed in 1676 by beheading and burning at the stake.

de brinvilliers
The execution of de Brinvilliers

It’s been written that in her final moments, de Brinvilliers implicated “half the people in town.” [2] Deaths of courtiers that previously seemed unfortunate but not suspicious were now looked at from a new perspective, jumpstarting an inquiry that would last for years and end in the execution of over thirty people.

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley is loosely based on this time period and straddles the line between historical fiction and fantasy fiction. The story is narrated by Genevieve Pasquiers, who later becomes the famed (and fictitious) Marquise de Morville. She describes herself as “an ugly girl who can’t walk right” [3]. Her father educates her in classical languages and philosophy, instruction which leads her to view herself as a woman of logic.

la voisin
La Voisin

Genevieve’s mother is based on the infamous Madame de Brinvilliers. It was purported that de Brinvilliers and her lover, de Sainte Croix, tested their poisons for the thrill of it, and much like them, Madame de Pasquiers is depicted as poisoning under the guise of charity. de Pasquiers and the woman she’s based upon are arguably psychopaths, as they need little encouragement to take a life beyond the prospect of their own pleasure.

When Genevieve’s mother poisons her husband and mother-in-law, Genevieve’s uncle assaults her in an effort to take her inheritance. Genevieve vows to avenge herself and her father, runs away, and crosses paths with La Voisin, a historical figure and, supposedly, a witch. La Voisin promises Genevieve, who can truly see the future by looking in an orb of water, to make her “strong enough to destroy” her uncle and transforms her into the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortune teller. [3] Fortune-telling allows Genevieve to support herself as well as repay La Voisin for the education. Although Genevieve focuses on fortune-telling and leaves the poisoning to La Voisin, she’s also determined to get revenge on her uncle, and she can’t escape getting caught up in the Affair of the Poisons.

oracle glassAs a doctor treats Genevieve for a broken arm, he correctly guesses she’d been injured by a man and says, “If it had been one of your witches, now, you wouldn’t have lived out the week, and there wouldn’t be a mark to show.” [3] The implication is that patience, thought to be one of women’s primary virtues, can also aid in immorality, for women are patient enough to wait for an opportune time to slip poison into a drink, to wait for a note covered in poison to be delivered, to wait for poison to take effect.

The Oracle Glass presents a variety of women who murder for a variety of reasons—for personal pleasure, for societal advancement, for money, for revenge. In real life, these women intrigue us because they’re statistically less likely to commit murder than men. Fiction allows us to explore the motivations behind such crimes and offers a means of coping with the fact that, in real life, there are often no easy answers.


[1] Frost, Natasha. “The Scandalous Witch Hunt That Poisoned 17th-Century France.” Atlas Obscura, 05 Oct. 2017. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/affair-of-the-poisons-france-witch-hunt-occult

[2] Duramy, Benedetta F. “Catherine La Voison: Poisons and Magic at the Royal Court of Louis XIV.” Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Philip Wexler. Academic Press, London, UK. 2017. 135-140.

[3] Riley, Judith Merkle. The Oracle Glass. Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2012.

Medea: The Power of Progeneration

By Ava de Cenizas

For Jason, she betrays her father, kills her own brother, and abandons her home of Colchis. In Corinth, she murders her sons as vengeance against Jason and then escapes in a serpent-drawn chariot sent by the sun-god Helios. King Aegeus of Athens grants her sanctuary. But when she nearly tricks Aegeus into poisoning his own son, Theseus, she flees again. In this final flight, Medea breaks free of Greek mythology, unconquered to the last.

It is a unique fate for a woman who murders her sons. Greek mythology is not so kind to

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Figure 1

its heroes. They do not die peacefully with past glories dancing in their head. Wine had soured in Jason’s mouth when a rotted spar from his ship Argos strikes him, the unfaithful husband, dead. King Aegeus throws himself from the high acropolis of Athens, believing Theseus defeated. Theseus lives long enough to see his beloved wife and son into their graves. Hercules burns himself on his own funeral pyre, accidently poisoned by his wife, before Zeus allows him into the stars. Odysseus’s son murders him; Oedipus is blinded; and Antigone, hounded into insanity.

Medea is no heroine, but neither is she a Minotaur to be vanquished. Instead, she is elemental – a wind that drives demi-gods to victory or to the bottom of the sea. What element she signifies is revealed by the men around her, the men who use Medea. When she enters the stage, Medea is ruled by her heart from the first. Jason wields that love to achieve his goal: stealing the golden fleece from Medea’s father. Without Medea’s power, Jason will not succeed. She tells him how to defeat each of her father’s traps, and when the lovers escape Colchis, it is Medea who dismembers her brother to prevent the King from following.

And Jason uses Medea as much as he can. He marries Medea and asks that she regenerate his aging father into a full vibrant life. Medea gives Jason healthy sons. Having borne him two legitimate heirs, though, Jason considers Medea a spent force to be cavalierly disposed once she is no longer useful. He throws Medea over for the daughter of the King of Corinth. The King of Corinth, at least, has the sense to banish Medea; Jason never considers that the power he used to capture the golden fleece and his future might take it from him.

Medea laments the position of a wife, forced aside, but she is not powerless. She strikes a deal with King Aegeus to save herself: She will give him sons. Aegeus sees Medea as the power through which he can ensure his dynasty continues. Medea fulfills her end of the bargain, a bargain Aegeus revokes when his own long-lost son, Theseus, arrives. Like Jason, though, Aegeus cannot end Medea – she escapes with their son.

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Figure 2

While Medea is “passion” and an “anti-mother,” this simplifies her. She is the power of progeneration. She promises a future. Her fire protects Jason and regenerates his father to good health. She grants Jason two male heirs, a precious gift when children were not certain to survive to adulthood.  She gives the same to King Aegeus. When Medea seeks to destroy, she cuts off that same future, beginning in Colchis. Medea kills her brother, her father’s heir. She kills Jason’s sons. She kills the King of Corinth’s daughter. She tries to destroy Theseus as well, so that her children with Aegeus are the future.

And here lies the genesis of her immortality. As dangerous as she may be, without Medea – without the power to progenerate – there is no future for kings or paupers. Jason and Aegeus used Medea to advance their cause, conscious that same power could destroy it. The power itself, though, one might try and tame the wind.

 

References

Figure 1: Medea by Alphonse Mucha, 1898. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

Figure 2: Here, Medea saves Jason’s father Aeson. By Girolamo Macchietti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=154202. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

Featured Image: Medea by Artemisia Gentileschi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54717055

This article is drawn from the following sources:

“Medea,” Encyclopedia Mythica. Encyclopedia Mythica, 3 Mar. 1997. Web. 14 May 2018.

Worthington, Ian. “The Ending of Euripides’ ‘Medea,’” Hermes, 118 Bd. H. 4 (1990), pp. 502-505. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4476790).

Flory, Stewart. “Medea’s Right Hand: Promises and Revenge,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 108 (1978), pp. 64-74.

(http://www.jstor.org/stable/284236).

 

Blood Monster: When the Serial Killer is a Woman

by K.P. Kulski

When Charlize Theron depicted Aileen Wuornos in the movie 2003 Monster, it was to critical acclaim, eventually winning Theron an Academy Award. Certainly, Theron’s role was a riveting portrayal, but the true story of not only the murders but Wuornos herself is complex, twisted and well… rivetting. We’ve seen the real and made-up faces of male serial killers, but 170px-Monster_moviefew times have we seen a female one. We didn’t know what to expect. There was a nationwide gasp when the beautiful Theron transformed herself into the physicality of Wuornos through the help of make-up, but also through something more, a dark vulnerability.

But Wuornos was the not the first female serial killer, any quick Google search will come up with lists that span the centuries with crimes that will turn your stomach. Ever present on those lists is the infamous Hungarian noble, Elizabeth Bathory of the 17th century, often proclaimed as the most prolific female serial killer in history or romanticized in popular imaginations as a supernatural creature,

220px-Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos

thirsting for blood. The flourish of storytelling that has evolved with time has helped create this image, as well from the relative proximity of the infamous Vlad the Impaler of Romania, later popularized by Bram Stoker as Dracula.

The story of Bathory is much more complex and while you may find Wuornos’s method of murder less heinous, the two woman share the same dark vulnerability despite from being from vastly different time periods, cultures and socio-economic classes.

But why?

Why did they kill?

Wuornos who occasionally worked as a prostitute, targeted men. The calculation behind the murders is uncertain, but she claims to have shot them after they attempted to sexually assault her. Unlike Bathory, we have clearer history of Wuornos’s childhood, one that seemed filled with her experiences of both physical and sexual violence perpetrated by men in her life.

Bathory’s childhood is less certain other than she spent those years mostly the family estate of Ecsed. Rumors abound on the mental health and sexual deviance of her family Bathory Unboundmembers, but there is no definitive evidence to prove them. She married young to Ferenc Nàdasdy. Shortly before at age thirteen, she gave birth to a child most likely fathered by a male of a lower social class, possibly even a servant. It is no surprise that the child was sent away immediately after birth. Bathory was considered a beauty in her time and following the birth of her first child, got into line with social expectations and often capitalizing on them. If anything, she seemed to become acutely aware of appearances.

Wuornos experienced a life where sex was a twisted commodity that both created the “monster” she became, but also provided money and goods. Bathory, as were so many women of her time and of the noble class, was subject to the requirements of propriety and strategic work of creating heirs. Along with that came the work of household management and the growth and/or protection of family power.

When Wuornos shot and killed seven men, most likely actual or potential johns, it was in reaction to either a real or imaged threat of sexual violence. A type of violence she had been, since childhood much too experienced with and familiar.

There is no record of Bathory consuming or bathing in the blood of her victims, but some

Elizabeth_Bathory_Portrait
Elizabeth Bathory

accounts suggest that she often tortured and murdered after social events that required her to maintain a high level of appearance. Her victims were all girls and young women, some as young as ten, but mostly those at the age of puberty, at or near sexual maturity.

In reaction to societal stressors, both killers seemed driven to take extreme actions that resulted in rebellion. What is particularly striking about these two examples of killers, is that they were not driven to murder only out of sexual deviation or some latent sociopathic fascination. They murdered because they were women, because they had experienced life as women, despite the time period and socio-economic differences.

Whatever psychosis they most likely had before they experienced the worst of life, it was the worst of their female experiences that they were reacting. Feeling sympathy for figures like these is dangerous and their crimes are very real. Particularly, in the case of Bathory, the crimes were brutal, horrid and filled with the unimaginable, which harnessed a vile concentrated form of rage at some of the darkest parts of the female existence.

Of Hope and Expectation

“Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, hail our life our sweetness and our hope. To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.”~ Salve Regina (Roman Catholic Marian Prayer)

by E.J. Lawrence

In the first two posts for this month, K.P. touched on how the Christianization of Europe affected modern views of motherhood. It became a far more exalted office, in large part due to the Church’s exaltation of Mary, the mother of Christ. The “Madonna and child” became a popular theme for literature, music, and art, rejoicing not just in Jesus, but in his mother, as well.

But the question arises–why such a fascination with the mother? After all, the medieval Church did not hold that Mary was divine. And yet she receives such praise as being called “Holy” or “the Queen of Heaven.”

To answer this question, we must take a look at basic story structure. (Wait–what? Story structure? How did this blog on motherhood turn into a writing lesson all of a sudden?)

Goldilocks_1912
Goldilocks Runs from the Three Bears (Thompson, 1912)

“Bear” with me a moment.

Imagine a story–Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Goldilocks who found a house in a forest. She was cold, so she went inside to see three chairs by a warm fireplace. She sat in the first chair, but it was too big. So she sat in the second chair, but it was also too big. The third chair was just right, so she warmed herself by the fire.

Presently, she began to grow hungry, so she went in the kitchen and saw three bowls of porridge. She tried the first bowl, but it was too hot. So, she tried the second, but it was too cold. The third bowl of porridge was just right, so she ate it all up.

All that food and warmth made her very sleepy, so she went upstairs to find three beds. The first bed was too hard. The second bed was too soft. The third bed was just right, so she fell sound asleep.

The End.

What? Were you expecting a bear to come back or something? Because that would be awfully disappointing to set you up expecting one thing and never actually deliver.

People generally do not like their expectations to go unfulfilled. We may not expect that it’s a family of bears, but we at least expect that this little thieving, house vandalizing girl will get some sort of comeuppance.

That’s the beauty of the fairy tale. We expect the ending, and yet…we don’t. (G.K. Chesterton has a terrific essay on this very topic here)

We expect the Prince to find Cinderella, but are pleasantly surprised when her stepsisters get their due, too. We expect the princess will kiss the frog; we don’t expect the frog to be a prince. The best stories are the ones where, at the ending, we say, “Ah ha! I knew half of it, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the rest!”

And so, the story of Mary does not begin in the New Testament, but in the Old. All the way back to the very beginning when Eve took a bite of fruit. That was the story “in the beginning.” The first woman–often called the “mother of mankind”–disobeyed God and ruined it for everybody (you can read that story here).

And so, to the early Church spreading across Europe, Eve became “the temptress.” She

Lucas_Cranach_(I)_-_Adam_and_Eve-Paradise_-_Kunsthistorisches_Museum_-_Detail_Tree_of_Knowledge
Paradise (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 16th century)

was a representation of womanhood left unchecked.1

But the much of the rest of the Old Testament (in the canonized Bible) contains, in storytelling terms, foreshadowing about a Messiah. There is an expectation that the conflict will be resolved in a way that is both expected and yet unexpected.

Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

I mean, every author will say foreshadowing can’t get more blatant than that.

So when it comes Mary’s moment to enter the story, a really long time has passed between Eve, Isaiah, and Mary. Maybe it’s like expecting a friend to come over, and the friend said she be there “noon-ish,” but it’s already nine p.m., and you’re tired and want to go to bed. The expectation has gone unfulfilled for so long you’ve given up on expecting it.

Until Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth and tells her she’s–expecting! (Come on…you had to know the pun was coming…)

(I would also like to pause and give a shout out to this moment of two excited cousins sharing their pregnancies with each other–which goes to show the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

To the early Church, Mary was hailed as the “new Eve.” The fault committed by the “mother of mankind” was undone by the “mother of God.”2 The symmetry is poetic.

But it also speaks to the story’s purpose to begin with. What Eve created (according to some scholars–we can debate Adam’s role in the whole thing at another time) was a hopeless situation; the child Mary bore restored the hope that was lost. That hope came, not through some divine warrior sent hurtling down to earth; not from a mysterious basket left lying in the woods with unknown parentage; nor from the planet Krypton.

Rather, it came from a teenage girl and her baby.

That’s a pretty…unexpected twist. Even with all the foreshadowing.

Yet, as K.P. pointed out, the Christianization of Europe began to exalt motherhood because Mary was exalted as a mother, and prize infants because an infant became for them the hope of the world. We see remnants of this play out in the modern world as we listen to celebrities sing that “children are our future” or call out the refrain “think of the children!”

While the romanticization of children came a bit later (thanks, Romantics!), children became prized in Europe as inheritors, but also as the “hope for the future.” Practices such as exposing unwanted infants became anathema, and the status of mothers increased, as these women were responsible for producing the future.

Of course, this caused other problems such as allowing women to become prized only for what they could produce, but that is a topic for another time. Since our theme this month is motherhood, we can at least address the important role mothers played in Europe in the Middle Ages and understand their status increased, in large part, because they were seen as bearers of hope. In some (hotly contested) theologies, motherhood was even seen as a way to “escape” Eve’s curse.

Which brings us back to our quote for this month’s theme–“hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope” says the prayer, and it is addressed from the “banished children of Eve.” The banished children who remain banished no longer.

Tree_of_life_with_virgin_and_eve
Tree of Life with Virgin and Eve — shows the duality of the two women, with “death” on the right with Eve, and “hope” on the left with Mary (Furtmeyr, 15th cent.)

 

Somewhat unrelated (but kind of not), I thought I would put in a shameless plug for one of my favorite poems on the hope of a new life from early feminist (and Mary Wollstonecraft rival) Anna Letitia Barbauld:

 

To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible

 

Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow

For many a moon their full perfection wait,—

Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go

Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.

 

What powers lie folded in thy curious frame,—

Senses from objects locked, and mind from thought!

How little canst thou guess thy lofty claim

To grasp at all the worlds the Almighty wrought!

 

And see, the genial season’s warmth to share,

Fresh younglings shoot, and opening roses glow!

Swarms of new life exulting fill the air,—

Haste, infant bud of being, haste to blow!

 

For thee the nurse prepares her lulling songs,

The eager matrons count the lingering day;

But far the most thy anxious parent longs

On thy soft cheek a mother’s kiss to lay.

 

She only asks to lay her burden down,

That her glad arms that burden may resume;

And nature’s sharpest pangs her wishes crown,

That free thee living from thy living tomb.

 

She longs to fold to her maternal breast

Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;

To see and to salute the stranger guest,

Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.

 

Come, reap thy rich inheritance of love!

Bask in the fondness of a Mother’s eye!

Nor wit nor eloquence her heart shall move

Like the first accents of thy feeble cry.

 

Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors!

Launch on the living world, and spring to light!

Nature for thee displays her various stores,

Opens her thousand inlets of delight.

 

If charmed verse or muttered prayers had power,

With favouring spells to speed thee on thy way,

Anxious I’d bid my beads each passing hour,

Till thy wished smile thy mother’s pangs o’erpay.

 

 

  1. Alexander, Flora. “Women as Lovers in Early English Romance.” Women and Literature in Britain: 1150-1500. Ed. Carol M. Meale. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  2. “Death by Eve, life by Mary” — Saint Jerome (Epistle 22)
  3. Harlow, Mary. Images of Motherhood in Late Antiquity. ProQuest, 1998, p 67. https://lra.le.ac.uk/bitstream/2381/30817/1/U105213.pdf
  4. Featured Image: Madonna and Child by Bianca Maria Visconti, 15th century

 

Under Tawaret’s Protection: Childbirth in Ancient Egypt

by Jennifer Della’Zanna

To detail any customs in Ancient Egypt is difficult because the dynastic period of this ancient civilization starts in roughly 3100 BCE and ends with the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE, and known predynastic history goes back to 5000 BCE [1]. Within this context, two separate kingdoms often existed within Egypt, sometimes ruled by foreign leaders.

Tawaret 1
Tawaret (Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Religion, cultural norms, and governmental regulations, all of which can affect the role of mothers and children in a society, underwent sometimes tumultuous changes that affected all or parts of the country in those millennia. Therefore, anybody who makes sweeping generalizations about childbirth, motherhood, and the role of women in ancient Egyptian society can expect to face harsh criticism. Yet, the dearth of knowledge about women’s matters in any patriarchal society is really at the heart of generalization, and we can only go with evidence we have. As far as medical papyri go, the most extensive date to about 1500–1600 BCE, although one that holds several details about childbirth may date as far back as 2000 BCE. Still, a 500-year span of medical knowledge in such a long history is a rather narrow slice of information about a people –especially considering parts of the older papyri have clearly been copied into later ones [2]. That said, the basics of childbirth haven’t changed that much in humankind’s history.

While medical papyri have given us insight into treatments for women’s conditions and diseases, there is not a whole lot of information about the usual, uncomplicated birthing process. This is because it was not considered a medical condition. The Egyptian physicians were not generally present for most birthing episodes. There is also no known word for “midwife,” as we know it today, which many people consider as the historical alternative to having a doctor present. Most likely, women who had been through the process acted as assistants during birth, and the number present, as well as their experience levels, would have risen with the status of the expectant mother.

It is widely believed that Egyptian mothers gave birth in a squatting position, as some still do around the world. In 2001, archeologists uncovered a 3700-year-old birthing brick, which confirmed what they’d seen in paintings and drawings, and is similar to those used in communities that still practice this type of birthing technique, such as in this picture from the Basti region of India [3],[4].

JDZ1
(Image ©Janet Chawla)

Childbirth, like much of daily life in ancient Egypt, was a largely religious experience. Perhaps most telling about the importance of this event, and fertility in general, is the number of deities whose influence was attached to it. Meskhenet, whose pictograph is literally a birthing brick with a human head on it, was one of the important childbirth deities, who also was called upon to read the destiny of the newborn and is often shown accompanying the newly dead when their souls are weighed against Ma’at, perhaps to indicate their birth into the afterlife [5]. Others included Hathor, Isis, Osiris, Tefnut, and Heqet. Bes is also often associated with childbirth, although this dwarf god (not goddess), is a deity of war. His association with childbirth came about mainly because he is considered a protector of women and children. So, he may have been invoked more often after the birth to protect both new mother and child from the many harms that could arise in the early months after delivery. However, the one called upon most frequently seems to be Tawaret, who was thought to help women with sexuality and pregnancy, but was specifically protective of laboring women. It is Tawaret, often depicted as an upright, pregnant hippopotamus, who is featured prominently on apotropaic wands and knives that were used as talismans during the birth process. As with Meskhenet, Tawaret appears again at the end of life, guarding the mountains in the west, which stood at the edge of the land of the dead.

JDZ2
(Image ©Glencairn Museum)

The medical papyri give us details about recipes used for treatments in cases of difficult births, ways to determine the sex of a baby and whether a woman was fertile, and even for methods for contraception, but they also reveal the magical spells used during childbirth. It is here that we see many of the gods and goddesses called upon at once to help with difficulties common to women of the time. The beliefs in the papyri about childbirth are sometimes astoundingly insightful. In modern times, we count 282 days from the time of the last menstrual cycle as the number of days of gestation. Egyptians estimated anywhere from 271–294 days. They also believed that the menstrual cycle ceased because the blood was being used to sustain the embryo [6].

Although rituals and traditions change from culture to culture, and over time, childbirth is one time in our lives where they continue to be practiced. Stories from women who are already mothers are passed down, activities that help with one aspect or another of childbirth, and even talismans continue to be important parts of bringing our children into this world. We shouldn’t be surprised that the experience was similar 3500 years ago, and we shouldn’t expect that it will change all that much in the future.

 

References

[1] History.com staff. 2009. “Ancient Egypt.” http://www.history.com. Accessed April 15, 2018.

[2] World Research Foundation. n.d. “The Oldest Medical Books in the World.” World Research Foundation. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://www.wrf.org/ancient-medicine/oldest-medical-books.php.

[3] Chawla, Janet. 2012. “Birth Bricks Old and Older.” Matrika. June 5. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://janetchawla.blogspot.com/2012/06/birth-bricks-old-and-older.html.

[4] University of Pennsylvania. 2002. “Eurekalert.” Archaeologists uncover 3700-year-old ‘magical’ birth brick in Egypt. July 25. Accessed April 19, 2018. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-07/uop-au3072502.php.

[5] Seawright, Caroline. 2001. “Meskhenet, with Renenutet, Both in Human Form.” The Keep. May 7. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/meskhenet.html#.Wti734jwZhE.

[6] Parsons, Marie. 2011. “Childbirth and Children in Ancient Egypt.” Tour Egypt. August 4. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/mothers.htm.

 

Motherhood as Power: The Importance of Children to Viking Age Queens

by Carrie Gessner

Sshadowhadow on the Crown is the first book in Patricia Bracewell’s trilogy about the real-life Emma of Normandy, who was queen of England twice over. Emma was married off to King Æthelred of England in 1002 by her brother Richard, the duke of Normandy, to form an alliance they hope will keep the Danes away from their shores. Although Æthelred’s first wife was only a consort, Richard makes Emma’s crowning a requirement of the treaty.

In the context of the novel, men view women as having one purpose—to bear children. Kings, especially are in need of heirs. Before the news of her marriage, Emma overhears her brother speaking with Swein Forkbeard, the king of the Danes. She’s surprised that their conversation moves “from the breeding of horses to the breeding of children” so easily. [1]

Because men need women in order to further their own lines, in a way, childbirth is also where women’s power originates. Æthelred disrespects Emma and resents that her brother made crowning her part of the treaty. The one thing that would solidify her place as queen would be to give birth to a son. Before she sails for England, her mother tells her, “Never forget that your first and most important task is to bear a son. It is your son who will be your treasure and your protector, even while he is yet a babe. It is your son who will give you power, who will bind the king to you in a way that he can be bound to no other living woman.” [1]

In “Medieval Mothers Had to Marry and Murder to Get Their Way,” Carolyn Harris writes, “Queens were supposed to value their roles as both wives and mothers, but when forced to pick between the two, the children always came first.” [2] Like with Emma, there is a breaking point where queens who are both wives and mothers must choose to honor and elevate their husband or their children. Many choose their children because motherhood imparts greater power than mere wifehood.

If murder of edward by elfridabearing children confers power on women in general and on queens in particular, it’s a power that isn’t absolute. Æthelred’s first wife dies in childbirth, and Bracewell mentions that Emma’s own mother had lost three children in addition to giving birth to eight surviving ones. Emma’s rival for the king’s affections, Elgiva, knows that if Emma has a child, it will reinforce her standing as queen. When Emma becomes pregnant, Elgiva has her waiting woman slip poison into Emma’s wine to cause her to miscarry. There is no easily available source for Emma experiencing a miscarriage, so it’s safe to say this is a fictional part of historical fiction. However, the point stands. Forcing Emma to miscarry is a way for Elgiva to take Emma’s power away and to assert her own.

Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, allows authors more leeway with how they represent traditional relationships. While historical fiction should adhere to facts as thoroughly as possible, fantasy, though often based on history, has no obligation to history. In Shadow on the Crown, although Emma is a queen, her power is limited. In Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins presents a medieval-Norse-inspired fantasy world where women can take the throne and rule. Women are seen as more than simply vessels for bearing children, but that doesn’t mean they can always escape the importance of motherhood.

The book follows five sisters who are daughters of the king of Thyrsland. A few years prior, Rose, the second daughter, was married off to a neighboring king, Wengest, in order to promote peace. Her central conflict is tied to her motherhood. She’s given birth to a daughter, Rowan, but Rowan’s true father is Wengest’s nephew. The king himself seems to be barren, though he doesn’t yet suspect. Unlike her historical counterparts, Rose feels a lack of power in her situation. She wrestles with her duties as a mother and a queen as well as her desires as a woman. Ultimately, much like as the historical queenly mothers Harris writes about, Rose realizes that “[s]he was a mother before she was a lover.” [3] Her identity as a mother, particularly the mother of a future ruler, outweighs all else.daughters of the storm

The importance of family line comes into play with Bluebell’s story, too, even though she doesn’t have any children and expresses no desire to have any in the future. The oldest and already trained as a warrior, she’s the natural choice for her father’s heir. Wylm, the sisters’ stepbrother, is goaded by his mother into wanting his ailing stepfather’s crown. Consequently, he must come up with a plan to best Bluebell, who is said to be unkillable.

Through a misunderstanding, Wylm comes to the mistaken belief that Bluebell has a child she’s kept secret. Wylm is able to persuade the boy, Eni, to accompany him and uses him as a hostage when he confronts Bluebell for the crown. When he finally sees his stepsister, he cries out, “Is he important to you, Bluebell? Do you love him? I find it hard to believe that there’s a heart inside you.” [3] His opinion of Bluebell is so low that even though he believes Eni to be her son, he seems to doubt she’d give up the crown to keep Eni safe.

Wylm believes Bluebell cannot be a mother figure as well as a warrior or ruler. He believes she must choose. Consequently, when Wylm tries to push Bluebell into the role of mother and use that seemingly compromised state to his advantage, she’s able to resist that push. She’s compassionate enough to give herself up so Eni will be safe, but she’s also strong and determined enough to best her stepbrother anyway. In this, Bluebell has managed to sidestep the usual expectations that women, especially women who would be queens, marry and bear children to further the royal lines.

The common thread in Shadow on the Crown and Daughters of the Storm is that the prospect of bearing children often imparts a certain amount of power upon women. While not universally true, women like Emma of Normandy who were able to seize and use one of tEmmaNormanskáhe few forms of power available to them can be inspiring to read about.

At one point in Daughters of the Storm, one of the sisters advises a dying woman afraid of leaving her son alone to tell herself “that, in him, you will live still. And in his children, and in their children.” [3] This doesn’t have to be limited to literal children, but rather legacies of any sort. Emma of Normandy lived a thousand years ago, and yet her legacy lived on through her children, and it lives on today through the stories we tell of her. So, you see, immortality is already within our reach.


Featured image: The Ordeal of Queen Emma, William Blake.

[1] Bracewell, Patricia. Shadow on the Crown. Harper, 2014.

[2] Harris, Carolyn. “Medieval Mothers Had to Marry and Murder to Get Their Way.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 May 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/medieval-mothers-had-marry-and-murder-get-their-way-180963282/.

[3] Wilkins, Kim. Daughters of the Storm. Del Rey, 2018.

 

Exalted Motherhood, Prized Infants: From Pagan Rome to Christianized Europe (Part 2)

by K.P. Kulski

When Constantine became Roman Emperor in 306 AD, it was to a transforming Empire. His official conversion to Christianity was reflective of the strong spread of the religion into Roman culture.

This form of Christianity held a strong Roman identity, the spread having first moved through the aristocratic classes. Remarkably, Constantine legalized the collection of exposed infants for the purpose of enslavement. While the option of slavery is potentially horrific, Constantine’s act of legalizing such activities is a significant shift in social perspectives on babies. He would later outlaw the practice of infant exposure altogether. What has become known as the Christmas story, glorifies the potentiality of the infant Jesus with associations of hope. Constantine’s ruling indicates that infant life is worth preserving, even in conditions of slavery without other options.

The Church would eventually equate infant-hood as the moment humanity was the Edict-of-Constantine-the-Great-by-Arrigo-Minerbi-closest to the divine, being newly emerged into the mortal world, theologically asserting that infants exemplified purity. By 787, we see the establishment of the first orphanages in Christianized regions of Italy. In Milan, the Archbishop had a special revolving cradle installed so women could anonymously leave children.[1] Interestingly, this acknowledges social stigmas surrounding women who either had children out of wedlock or were unable to care for their child. Clearly indicating that at this point, infant exposure was not generally practiced and the involvement of a male head of family in the decision to keep or reject a child, such as the paterfamilias was diminished or nonexistent. Further, the Church had developed authority in the matter and became particularly concerned with preserving new and unborn life. An Anglo-Saxon penitential dating from the late 7th century states:

Women who commit abortion before [the foetus] has life, shall do penance for one year or for the three forty-day periods or for forty days, according to the nature of the offence; and if later, that is, more than forty days after conception, they shall do penance as murderesses, that is for three years on Wednesdays and Fridays and in the three forty day periods. This according to canons is judged [punishable by] ten years.[2]

What we see here is a significant transformation. The Roman concept of abortion that essentially considered newborns in a late stage of fetal development and acceptance of infanticide changed to the Early Medieval belief that life began during pregnancy. This argument is quite familiar to the modern world, where political pundits frequently argue over the moment when life and therefore personhood occurs.

tumblr_m5we9n8Qkj1r3kvyio1_500But it wasn’t just a sense of heightened morality and compassion instituted by religious conversion that created these changes. After the failings of partible inheritance, primogeniture developed, a system of inheritance that depended on first-born children of the sovereign. This system was not only in the interest of the ruling family, but to the fiefdoms of early Medieval Europe who also practiced primogeniture in their own households. In the post-Roman world, hyper-localism reigned in order to maintain pockets of stability. Broken systems of inheritance or uncertain heirs often led to fractured support of the elite classes who contributed to military power. When this happened, the already tenuous balance would shift and ultimately led to grabs for power, conflict and war. The birth of heirs, became overwhelming stressed for the preservation of social and economic order.

Additionally, the Church called for the spread of Christianity. The call came from a religious and spiritual motivation. But it also came from the intent to establish Western Europe as a region that essentially played by the same political rules. While the Roman Empire held the original authority to recognize claims of kingship to Western European kingdoms, in its absence that authority transferred to the Church in Rome. This resulted in the concept of “Christendom,” religiously described as a vision of God’s kingdom on Earth that politically bolstered the claims of kings and lords as well as preserved the Church itself. Church leader, Augustine intentionally promoted higher rates of childbirth in Christian marriages as part of building Christendom.

The value and role of motherhood rose greatly in prominence. Women continued to have limited legal rights, and due to the need to ensure the true stock of any children born toIsabela_richard2 her, women’s access to easy movement became limited. Power for elite women, was derived from her family, husband and particularly her position as mother of male heirs. Mothers were responsible for the basic indoctrination and instruction of their children into Christian values. Oddly enough, mothers became the backbone of the perpetuation of their own suppression, but also the elevation of children as important parts of the social order. Advanced education for boys, occurred after this period by male instructors.

So strong came the drive for the birth of male heirs, other children and mothers suffered. The Church recognized not only this struggle for women, but how the practice could diminish survivability of other children in a world where infant and child death were common place. Further, the Church noted that infants who were nursed by a healthy mother had greater chances for survival. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory I insisted that women should not only nurse their own children, but husbands should abstain from intercourse with their wives during that period. This reveals a basic understanding that nursing promotes infant health, but with new pregnancies, milk tends to dry-up.

Further, her husband ought not to cohabit with her till that which is brought forth be weaned. But an evil custom has arisen in the ways of married persons, that women scorn to nurse the children whom they bring forth, and deliver them to other women to be nursed. Which custom appears to have been devised for the sole

Nursing Madonna
Nursing Madonna 6th Century. From:   Corrington, Gail. “The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity.” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (Oct 1989): Plate 5.

cause of incontinency, in that, being unwilling to contain themselves, they think to scorn to suckle their offspring. Those women therefore who, after evil custom, deliver their children to others to be nursed ought not to have intercourse with their husbands unless the time of their purification has passed, seeing that even without the reason of childbirth, they are forbidden to have intercourse with their husbands while held of their accustomed sickness; so much so that the sacred law smites with death any man who shall go into a woman having her sickness.[3]

This statement from Pope Nicholas in the late 9th century echoes many of the same sentiments.

“A woman’s husband should not approach to lie with her until the infants, to whom she has given birth, have been weaned. But a depraved custom has arisen in the behavior of married people, that women despise nursing the children whom they have born and hand them over to be nursed by other women; and this seems to have happened solely because of incontinence, since those who refuse to restrain themselves, despise nursing those to whom they have given birth.”[4]

Simultaneously, we see a rise of iconography in glorification of Mary, particularly in

Nursing Madonna 2
Nursing Madonna 6th Century. From:   Corrington, Gail. “The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity.” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (Oct 1989): Plate 5.

the role of exalted motherhood. Resulting in the first popularization of the “Nursing Madonna,” which often enmeshing local pagan beliefs. This type of Marian depiction would continue well into the Renaissance. But if we look at its development with what would become secular law, we can see that Mary became not only revered, but an example for motherhood. Additionally, infants were no longer results of disposable fertility and that the relationship between women’s freedoms and the value of infants are interestingly linked, with often unexpected outcomes.

 

 

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[1] Donna Schneider et al. “Founding Asylums, Almhouses and Orphanages: Early Roots of Child Protection,” Middle States Geographer 35, (2002). 94. Accessed on April 3, 2014, http://geographyplanning.buffalostate.edu/MSG%202002/11_Schneider_Macey.pdf

[2] “XIV Penance for Special Irregularities in Marriage.” In Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook. Edited by Conor McCarthy. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 49.

[3] Gregory I. “To Augustine, Bishop of the Angli.” Book XI, letter 64. Catholic Encyclopedia: New Advent. Accessed April 4, 2018, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/360211064.htm

[4] “ The Responses of Pope Nicholas to the Questions of the Bulgars AD 866,” Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University, Accessed April 4, 2018, http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/basis/866nicholas-bulgar.asp