Conference Agenda

10B: Spiritual Mothers: Medieval Discourses of Medicine, Religion and Reproduction
Friday, 10/Sept/2021:
3:00pm - 4:15pm

Session Chair: Lydia Rose Shahan, Harvard University


Spiritual Mothers: Medieval Discourses of Medicine, Religion and Reproduction

Chair(s): Shahan, Lydia Rose (Harvard University, United States of America)

Medieval Christian texts often treat pregnancy and parturition as purely theological themes, focusing on Christ’s incarnation and virgin birth or on the spiritual birth of the Godhead within the individual’s soul. However, metaphors of labour and their use within mystical and religious texts are also in dialogue with contemporaneous medical theories of obstetrics and gynecology, as well as with lived experiences of childbirth. The three papers in this panel bring together theological, medical and devotional writings from the later Middle Ages to reveal how multifaceted understandings of both somatic and spiritual birth influenced medieval conceptions of gender, sanctity and sin.


Presentations of the Symposium


Eve as Sexual Sinner, and as Fertile Redeemer: Images of the First Woman in Hildegard of Bingen’s Theology and Medicine

Cole, Lauren
Independent Scholar

In twelfth-century theology, such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux, it is common to find Eve's sexuality depicted as the root of original sin. Her fertile nature is forever tainted, such that women are cursed with immense pain in order to reproduce. Within this context, Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179) wrote her great trilogy of visionary theology, as well as two medical texts which have only recently been released in critical edition. While her theology may align with her male contemporaries, her medicine certainly does not. In the medical work Causae et curae, Hildegard describes Eve as “mother of the human race”, using the word mater (mother), a term almost exclusively reserved for Mary in her theology. This indicates a much more positive view of Eve’s reproductive nature than purely as the cause of original sin. Indeed Hildegard writes that original sin is passed down through the generations by “the pollution of semen”, flipping contemporary theology on its head to cast Adam’s reproductive nature as the root of original sin. From this basis, Hildegard discusses the reproductive process from the compatibility of partners and conception to pregnancy and birth. This paper examines how Hildegard constructed the image of Eve’s reproductive nature in a way that departs so dramatically from mainstream theology. It considers her use of different types of knowledge, such as visionary knowledge and humoral theory. Finally it suggests that the medical genre enabled Hildegard to frame herself not as divine amanuensis, but as author in her own right.


Proof of Pregnancy: Discernment and Diagnosis of Spiritual Pregnancy in Later Medieval Hagiography*

Shahan, Lydia
Harvard University

This paper considers the phenomenon of spiritual and mystical pregnancy in later medieval saints’ lives, revealing the intersection between religious and medical modes of discernment and evaluation. In her hagiography, Ida of Leuven, a holy woman in thirteenth-century Flanders, is described as experiencing bodily swelling and internal movements that mimic the appearance and sensations of pregnancy and precede a mystical vision of the Christ child. This was a common manifestation of divine favor for holy women (and some men) in the later Middle Ages. On one occasion, however, a Dominican friar suspects that Ida has literally become pregnant by another friar and dispatches a Dominican medical expert to evaluate her condition. This friar claims to be able to determine whether a woman is pregnant by evaluating her eyes, a diagnostic indicator found in Hippocrates’ Superfetation, as well as in other medieval treatises on conception. When the friar inspects Ida’s eyes, he discovers that she is not pregnant. As a reward for the tribulation of suspected pregnancy, Ida again receives a vision of the infant Christ. This paper discusses how women’s embodied experiences of mystical pregnancy were evaluated and “proven” by male confessors and hagiographers. In addition to Ida’s Vita, it considers the accounts of Birgitta of Sweden’s (d.1373) experiences of spiritual pregnancy provided during her canonization process; her male confessor recorded his ocular observation of her spiritual pregnancy. As with Ida, the twin perspectives of spiritual discernment and medical diagnosis are required to construct the cult of a saint.


Mary as Mater Dolorosa: Childbirth, Motherhood, Loss and Trauma in The Book of Margery Kempe

Klafter, Einat
Tel Aviv University

Throughout the Book of Margery Kempe, the eponymous protagonist voices a strong desire to present herself as a chaste maiden by dressing in white clothing. However, when it comes to fashioning herself as a holy woman, this late-medieval English mystic draws upon her own experiences of motherhood. Her exemplars are not virgin saints, but holy wives and mothers, ranging from the Virgin Mary to St. Bridget of Sweden, who functions as the main role model for constructing her own sainthood. More specifically, Kempe draws upon the pain, trauma and sorrow associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, with which she was intimately acquainted. The joys and rewards of motherhood do not feature prominently, or at all, in The Book, in an approach that significantly diverges from the example set by Bridget. This paper argues that this is a by-product of the different experiences of childbirth that the two mystics report, with St. Bridget recounting the miracle of painless childbirth, while Kempe experienced a difficult first pregnancy and traumatic labour that left her ill for months. This paper argues that the differences in how the two mystics experienced childbirth impacted how they viewed the Nativity, connected with the Virgin, and conceptualized their imitato Mariae. Additionally, this paper will explore how maternal pain and the dangers of childbirth are employed in Kempe’s attempts to establish herself as a holy woman, either by recounting her own experiences or in caring for women who, like herself, have suffered traumatic childbirths.