Originally posted 14th March 2024

Childbirth in the middle ages was a dangerous business; pregnant women were advised to make their confessions before they went into labour just in case. However, this did not mean that women at the time were entirely helpless in the face of that danger. For a start, there were religious precautions: an Anglo-Saxon charm dating to the 1000s called on the names of the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, notable mothers from the New Testament, and the Virgin Mary’s girdle was said to be helpful (though it was guarded in Westminster Abbey and only available to royalty). A woman in labour could also call on Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth.

There were also medical texts such as Bald’s Leechbook, our primary surviving source for Anglo-Saxon medicine, which contained dietary and lifestyle recommendations that might still sound familiar today: among other things, a pregnant woman should not drink to intoxication or ride too much on horseback. After the Norman conquest, as medicine developed, more manuals appeared, including a work called The Sickness of Women which contained details of potential complications and advice to midwives on how to deal with them.

Childbirth was the province of women; a noblewoman would go into seclusion with only female attendants, including a wet nurse for the baby. This was likely to be impractical for a lower-class woman, but even so she would generally be surrounded only by female friends and relatives as well as the midwife. The fact that men were not generally present for the birth is underlined by the fact that the midwife could baptise the baby in an emergency: a role normally reserved for priests.

Originally posted 21st March 2024

It is widely believed that women of the middle ages were universally uneducated and illiterate, even more so than is assumed for men since women could not even be priests. However, throughout the middle ages education of women seems to have been commonplace among the middle and upper classes, as well as among women living religious lives, many of them also from wealthy and powerful backgrounds that gave them access to an education. Many early missionaries were women noted for their learning and the association between women and education was underlined by an association between literacy and the Virgin Mary, first appearing in the 1300s.

Even before this time, there was an association between royal women and reading: according to Asser’s Life of Alfred, Alfred the Great’s interest in literacy was awakened when his mother read a book to him and his brothers and promised the book to whichever of them could learn the poems in it, and Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I, was highly educated and ensured the same could be said of her daughters. Princess Eleanora went on to learn to write as well as read: something even her father may not have managed.

Earlier still, in Anglo-saxon England, women appear to have taken to eduction with much more enthusiasm than men. Excavations at the double monastery of Anglo-saxon Whitby Abbey have found evidence of scriptoria where nuns would have copied manuscripts and it’s possible that England’s earliest native book telling the story of a saint’s life - in this case, Pope Gregory - was written by a nun at Whitby. However, Whitby and its highly-educated abbess Hilda were not unique; in the early 600s in Wessex a girl named Leoba was sent to become a nun at Wimborne and was noted for her voracious learning. She would go on to be sent to what is now Germany to join St Boniface in his mission work, where she became so well-known as a scholar of the Bible and church history that the local royalty, nobility, and bishops would go out of their way to discuss religious and church matters with her.

More prosaically, education was also important and encouraged for secular women because a wife might be called on to run her husband’s estates in his absence or after his death. Writing in the early 1400s, Christine de Pizan - notable as a female author writing for a female audience - said very little about the education of girls she wrote at length about women’s involvement in estate management, covering revenue and expenditure, appointment and dismissal of servants, and knowledge of the law and local customs as well as war and defence and all aspects of farming. Evidence suggests that medieval women showed significant ability in estate management and its attendant knowledge and skills, sometimes more so than their husbands.

Originally posted 28th March 2024

Today, one of the best-known parts of the Easter celebration is the Easter egg. There are many theories on how and when eggs became associated with Easter, some of which have more basis than others. It appears that decorated eggs may have been used in celebrations of spring in the ancient middle east (though contrary to internet rumour they were not a symbol of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar) and the early Christians of Mesopotamia in the rough area of modern Iraq may have been the first to connect decorated eggs with the Christian festival of Easter, drawing on common Indo-european symbolism that connects eggs with life and resurrection.

Another more prosaic explanation may lie in the fact that during the Lent fast Christians across medieval Europe were forbidden to eat a variety of foods including eggs, leading both to the development of recipes for mock eggs made out of materials such as almond paste and to a surplus of eggs at Easter, since hens did not stop laying during Lent. The eggs would be hard-boiled to preserve them and may have been decorated as part of the Easter feast; a cheap and easy decoration would be to boil them with onions, staining the shells gold. Tenants would also bring gifts of eggs to their lords and people would collect them to be brought to the church as Good Friday offerings, possibly to be distributed among the poor. In medieval Durham, fees due to the church were paid in eggs, known as “eggsilver”.

A definite early reference to decorated eggs comes from King Edward I’s household accounts for 1290, when he ordered 450 eggs at Easter to be dyed and covered in gold leaf at a cost of 18 pence, then distributed them around his household. Henry VIII also received an Easter egg: an egg in a silver case, sent by the Pope before Henry split the English church from Rome.

The origins of Easter egg hunts and the Easter bunny are also obscure. One theory is that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther organised egg hunts for his congregation in the late 1500s: men hid eggs for the women and children to find in a nod to the Biblical story of the resurrection, in which women were the first to find Jesus’ empty tomb. The first written reference to an Easter hare is later, in 1682, but rabbits have long been associated with fertility and spring, as well as with the Virgin Mary; they sometimes appeared in paintings of Mary with Baby Jesus.