For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.
Shadow 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. 
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.” 
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.”  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 bearing 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.”  Her identity as a mother, particularly the mother of a future ruler, outweighs all else.
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.”  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 the 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.”  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.
 Bracewell, Patricia. Shadow on the Crown. Harper, 2014.
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 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. 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.
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.
But 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 to 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
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.
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.”
Simultaneously, we see a rise of iconography in glorification of Mary, particularly in
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.
A woman gives birth in the Roman Empire. It is in the pagan era that has only seen the light touches of the religion known as Christianity, just enough for the foreign religion to seem odd and at times annoying. Some people whisper that Christians hold meals where they dine on flesh and drink blood.
This Roman woman doesn’t care much for those things, especially now, she’s crossed the threshold into motherhood. Perhaps she’s thought of herself as a mother a bit too soon. She looks toward the midwife as the woman inspects the newborn, pulling at the red limbs, feeling for strength and signs of illness. Did he cry loud enough? The midwife nods to herself and brings the child to her, where the woman performs her own amateur inspection.
The structure of the Roman family surrounded a male head – the paterfamilias. This man literally held the power of life and death over members of his family. When an infant was born to the household, he often relied on the expertise and report of the midwife to determine if the child would be accepted into the family at all. Rejection meant the infant would be exposed and would ultimately die. If the child was lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective, he/she would be found and picked up to be raised as a slave.
There were several things that went into this decision, the most obvious being the infant’s health and form. A child that appeared sickly or weak, or was born malformed was likely rejected by the paterfamilias and left exposed to the elements and wild animals. This practice, cruel to modern audiences, was a sensible act in the perspective of Roman society, which greatly valued accomplishment and success over potential.
The paterfamilias also had to consider the family’s resources as well as the planning of
inheritances. If the family would be financially challenged or the addition of another child could disrupt an already well-distributed and portioned inheritance among the current members of the family, he may also choose to order the infant to be left to exposure. Mothers had little legal say in such decisions.
As a modern audience, this system is horrifying. Yet to Romans, while it could be difficult, it was part of the weight the paterfamilias was expected to bear. Even adult family members could be, in extreme situations legally executed. In one source, we are given the perspective of a paterfamilias on such decisions.
“For when in my Garden I prune and cut off the lower branches which grow about the Lettice, the mother and root of them is so farre from being grieved threat, that she flourishes the better, and becometh both fairer and sweeter.”
For Western civilizations, whose cultures have been reshaped by the evolution of primogeniture and Christianity, it is difficult to understand the cultural perspectives of Roman society. Modern Western culture greatly values potential. We see abilities as innate and present from birth, we often celebrate natural-born talents over accomplishments. We particularly hail intelligence, something the individual has no control over. The Romans thought well enough of intelligence, but it was like finding a wad of fine clay, a raw material and its final form unpredictable.
For the Romans, potential held little value. The process of becoming something was not particularly important, instead the arrival, the achievement of success was the defining factor of value. Infants are the epitome of undefined potential. There is much possibility as well as the possibility of nothing at all, either from infant and child death or simply
lack of ability or some character flaw. The Roman story of a daughter Pero, who breastfed her father Cimon jail is a great example. Despite the creepy imagery, to the Romans this story was a celebration of Pero’s dedication and loyalty to her father—the paterfamilias. For anyone who knows about milk production, we have to understand that she would have nursed her father at the expense of her infant.
Another part of the weak value system surrounding infants was the fluidity of familial relations in terms of birthright—in that the station of birth did not determine ownership of the inheritance of titles or wealth. Blood relation was not absolute. For example, it would have been ludicrous for an exposed infant to somehow survive and grow to adulthood and attempt to return to claim connection or inheritance from their birth family. That sort of thing was an element of fantastic stories instead of daily realities. Additionally, Romans frequently practiced adoption of both children and adults. Adoption was the cementation of clan affiliation and loyalty, a binding as close as family ties. These arrangements had less to do with charity, but more often the loyalty and demonstrated capabilities of the adoptee who would often become a designated heir. Or the establishment of a heir in the absence of children.
To a lesser degree, but still important, these bonds could also be created through marriage. However, marriages were broken relatively easily, especially among the elite for more advantageous matches, there was little care if there had been children from the previous marriage. The first emperor of Rome, Augustus had Livia’s marriage dissolved so he could marry her himself while she was still pregnant with her then-husband’s child. The inheritance of property or titles did not necessarily follow family lines, but instead, clan loyalty and could be designated and re-designated by the paterfamilias at will. Neither was there any particular hierarchy based on birth order.
All of these factors contributed to small importance placed on a family to produce children, as well as a low emphasis on motherhood, especially when attached to a woman’s identity and societal expectations. While women held limited formal legal and political power, they were not seen as mere vessels of childbirth and had access to education and freedom of movement. When it came to education, the real factor was wealth. In government, women were not at all invisible and were often figures of significant influence. They held roles that could vary, as wives and mothers, but also serving time in religious life or the pursuit of education. Most upper class women hired wet nurses to provide milk for their infants, choosing to free themselves from the duty. There is some evidence that points to the possible existence of a wet-nurse marketplace, where potential women to fill the role could be interviewed and hired.
Certainly, there were differences in families on how much say a woman held over the acceptance or rejection of her newborn into the family and therefore life. Depending on the paterfamilias some women most likely were allowed to make that decision, or heavily influenced a decision. There were women who likely agonized over a malformed child, fought the decisions of their paterfamilias and others who were more accepting over it. The way Romans saw infants seems to indicate that they may have viewed infant exposure as equal to a late stage abortion or even an act of mercy for a sick infant or a household with financial constraints.
Before the popular spread of Christianity, Roman women enjoyed greater value as part of the Empire for their family connections and individual demonstrated capabilities. Small esteem was placed on women as mothers comparatively and even less on an infant’s life.
The importance of these roles would be reshaped with the spread of Christianity. The Western European world would create a system that depended on blood-relations and the birth of heirs. As a result, women lost significant personal freedoms, gained singular value as mothers and the birth of children would become of utmost importance.
In the next part of this series, I will discuss how these things changed, the effects on society and the new realities of exalted motherhood.
Winter is the cold, long dark. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, made popular by the Game Thrones television show has even thrust the phrase, “winter is coming,” into common use. Many people complain of the snow, ice and frigid temperatures, longing for the warmer seasons or to finally, “move somewhere tropical,” where they can escape the ache in their bones.
But ancient belief systems did not compartmentalize their experience of the year into good or bad categories. They were simply folded into seasons, times of particular purpose for either agricultural or pastoral peoples. Winter was indeed the cold, long dark. It was threatening and required preparation in order to survive. But it was also a time of rest, of slowed movement, kinship and fire.
Women’s lives and roles were much the same. The trajectory of marriage and motherhood as the singular destination of women was not popularized until Christianity took hold. Instead, women of the ancient world existed in multiple spheres, in many roles, sometimes in sequence, sometimes simultaneously. There wasn’t a common of locked-in fate or unalterable identity that was held for a lifetime. Certainly there were exceptions, just as there were exceptions to the marriage/motherhood role of Christian Europe. These were viewed as parts of a woman’s life. The ravages of disease, childbirth and violence most likely helped promote this, as women who survived could easily find themselves a mother or wife one moment and not the next. Since the emphasis on virginity and sexual faithfulness did not hold the strength it did in the Christian world, this additionally contributed to freedom of movement for women into many roles.
This is most clearly demonstrated in the myriad of identities held by female divinity. In last week’s article, E.J. articulated the many aspects that the Celtic goddess Brigid held. From prophetess, poetry, midwife to smithy, Brigid seemingly did it all. Some goddesses
seemed to embody aspects that were in conflict, such as the Norse Freyja who traditionally is attributed as the goddess of love, but whose roots are clearly in early fertility worship. She is not only the patron of love, but of lust and death, picking first from the glorious Viking dead to reside in Folkvangr, near her home.
The Hellenic stele inscription that serves as our theme for this month, also describes the life of woman who not only was a mother, but a priestess for multiple deities as well as serving as a patroness, possibly as a mentor. The multiple aspects of ancient goddesses reflected well the reality of a woman’s life—varied, often changing but all part of the same person.
Hailed in neo-pagan beliefs is the concept of the triple goddess, described as the “maiden, mother, crone.” This refers to three major phases of a woman’s life based on age and roles she may play. These aspects are derived from many examples of ancient divine figures, but more importantly the number three when referring to female roles. Ancient divinity abounds with triple aspect goddesses.
The Norns in Norse mythology held dominion over even the Viking pantheon. Loosely, they represented what has occurred, what is currently occurring and what will occur. The Ancient Greek mythos includes The Fates who oversee the thread of life, spinning, measuring and finally cutting the lives of mortals. Even the Celtic Brigid with her many identities is segmented into three aspects where she represents the maiden, mother and crone. The dark and often chilling Celtic goddess Morrigan is among those who play seemingly competing roles as she represents both war and fertility. Sometimes “Morrigan,” is instead a title that contains three goddesses: Badb, Macha, Nemain. These associations are varied as at times these aspects are depicted as sisters of Morrigan and in others they represent goddesses of war and death with hazy lines between their specific roles.
There are many arguments that could be made for social improvements that came along with the establishment of Christendom, or conversely the degeneration of society due to the loss of ideas from the pagan world. There is a fascinating relationship between the ebb of pagan beliefs, the rise of Christianity and the value of women (where value varies significantly on the role of wife and mother). However, to the credit of many ancient pagan societies, the female identity was originally fluid and changing. Ultimately acknowledging the realities of life and women’s place within a community, culture and in the great divine.