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Material Culture and Space in Medieval Childbirth: The Agency of Illuminated Manuscripts

Comstock, Emma Jo
Material culture has received an increasing amount of scholarly attention in the historical discipline. Social historians have begun to take notice and account of the life stories of objects to which people in the past attached meaning. The realization that things hold key information about how these people perceived their world and their place within it is crucial to our understanding of past societies. As Roberta Gilchrist points out, objects in the medieval world were often assigned broader, more intimate meanings when they were utilized in life-course rituals like marriage, childbirth, and baptism. This study is concerned with the material culture of medieval childbirth – the physical things that occupied this intensely emotional space. There are few specific studies of medieval parturient women and the objects they relied upon during childbirth. In a recent work completed in 2016 by Katherine French, French discusses a range of objects, broadening her scope beyond the process of childbirth itself to include stages in the child’s life afterwards. Granted, French takes interest in objects that would have been accessible to women outside of the upper classes, but missing within her study are illuminated manuscripts and their pertinent links to the birth room, saints, and the sacred. Medieval history is saturated with the beauty of manuscripts which were created in the scriptoria of monasteries. Wealthy, literate medieval people often commissioned books and added to their personal libraries or used them to educate their daughters. It is important to remember that medieval women – queens, mothers, parturient women – used books too. In her pioneering study of women and their usage of Books of Hours, Susan Groag Bell notes that the Book of Hours became the most popular type of book that lay people commissioned. Illuminations have the ability to show contemporary scholars what the birth room looked like, as Christopher Mielke briefly notes. Books were also used in pleas for fertility, as Jitske Jasperse shows, in addition to their fascinating purposes in the birth room. Literary material of the birth room – like many other medieval objects – were believed to contain powers that transferred over into the user; the powers and protections of saints included within the bindings of books acted in this way. Accordingly, commissioners frequently dedicated them to or included the lives of saints on whom they relied. This paper is particularly interested in Saint Margaret of Antioch, her legend, and her intercessory powers as the patron saint of childbirth. Using extant books of hours and prayer rolls held in the catalogs of the British Library and the Bodleian Library, the lives and qualities of Christian saints, iconography, and symbolism, it is my aim to study the medieval lying-in space and how women within this space interacted with bound and written material culture.
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University of Wyoming. Libraries
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women's studies,medieval history,hagiography,Saint Margaret,childbirth,material culture studies,illuminated manuscripts
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