Fertility in the Early Middle Ages: The Dangers of Folklore

What did an early medieval bishop see when he looked up at the stars? In tenth-century Italy Atto of Vercelli saw divine fingerprints.

God had arranged constellations in the heavens, he explained in a sermon, for our benefit on earth. Stars help us to mark the passing of time, to map journeys over sea or land. When Atto looked back down from heavenly bodies to those who gazed at them, however, he glimpsed a more troubling spectacle. Astrologers claimed to predict the future through the stars. They could foretell births and arrange suitable marriages. Countless couples carefully attuned their sex lives to the rhythms of stars and other signs in the hope of conceiving a child. Or so Atto said. His real point was to discredit such ideas. Was anyone really claiming, he asked sarcastically, to have gotten a child by observing the stars?

Perhaps coordinating moments of intimacy with the movements of the immense night sky formed part of fertility lore in the early middle ages. Scattered across an array of early medieval texts are what look like other tiny glimpses into this lore: fertility boosting herbs administered in drinks or pessaries; amulets, charms and prayers for conceiving children; special sites, from shrines to springs, tinged with the aura of fecundity; and much else besides.

In the Etymologies, a hugely popular proto-encyclopaedia widely read for centuries, Isidore of Seville (d. 636) wrote of waters in Campania which cured infertile women and insane men, and two springs in Sicily which rendered, respectively, the sterile fertile and the fertile sterile. (Anyone interested in tracking down the Greek fountain in Boeotia which boosts memory should beware; another fountain there induces forgetfulness). A more unusual Old English text in an eleventh-century manuscript carefully described omens in pregnancy. Want to find out if a child will be a boy or girl? A pregnant woman should be offered a lily and a rose. If she takes the lily, she will bear a boy; and if she takes the rose, she will bear a girl. And no nuts or acorns or fresh fruit from the fourth month or the child could end up being ‘foolish’. And so on.

It is tempting to scour texts for these references and to gather them into a compendium of early medieval folk beliefs and practices surrounding reproduction. The constellations of fertility lore would make for quite a spectacle. But the panoramic view is misleading. It smudges the boundaries of place and time. Taking small snippets from everywhere amounts to a bigger picture of nowhere in particular. This is one of the dangers of folklore.

Those small snippets merit closer inspection. At first sight, they may not yield much. Take Atto’s sermon. Retrieving any further details on how childless couples used stars and other signs in the quest for conception is impossible. Literally. Here, we can almost claim the dog ate our homework. The sole surviving manuscript of Atto’s sermon is mutilated – who’d have predicted? – right in the middle of the sentence on childless couples resorting to stars and signs. (It’s not even an intriguingly deliberate mutilation, which sometimes happens when later readers of manuscripts don’t like what they read; other chunks of text are missing in a disappointingly random pattern).

But, if we can’t find anything to add about childless couples at Vercelli, we can at least say a little more about who was preaching to them. In the early middle ages, authors of sermons and other pastoral texts plagiarised with abandon. They borrowed and recycled formulaic condemnations of all sorts of practices like augury, divination, astrology, use of amulets and charms, and more. As the sheer scale of repetition has become clearer and clearer historians have become increasingly wary of regarding preachers’ manuals as clear windows onto the beliefs and practices of their congregations.

This is why Atto’s sermon is intriguing. It is both typical and atypical. Not all authors of sermons leaned quite so heavily on older material. Atto’s critical dissection of fertility lore does not look like wholesale recycling of older tropes. There is little by way of precedent. In all likelihood, as a historian has recently (and, I think, rightly) concluded, Atto was addressing what some of his contemporaries thought and did.

More precisely, distorting and exaggerating what they did. Needless to say, the likes of Atto were not impartial observers who dutifully tell us about early medieval society as it really was. For example, in our sermon Atto sneeringly attributed belief in star signs to what he called rustici, country bumpkins. It may be tempting to conclude that it was rural peasants who tended to believe in this sort of stuff. Perhaps they did. But preachers often resorted to these smears precisely when their audience was anything but rustic. In preaching, the rustici label was often a rhetorical strategy specifically designed for criticising an urban (and even urbane) audience. Earlier in the sermon Atto outlined an intellectual genealogy of astrological beliefs originating in the imaginings of ‘ancients and pagans’. Superstitiones formed part of the preacher’s vocabulary and one literal meaning was survivals. To dress contemporary practices up as ancient aberrations which were now resurfacing was a preaching reflex conditioned for centuries before Atto spoke to his congregation in Vercelli.

In our broad-brush panorama of fertility lore, details from Atto’s sermon blend nicely into the warm pastel colours of beliefs as old as fields and forests. But, on closer inspection, perhaps we are being seduced by rhetoric. My point is not to endorse uber-scepticism over sounding out any beliefs and practices whatsoever beyond those of the loud minority that authored our texts. But if we can sound out beliefs and practices from Atto’s sermon, they might well be the beliefs and practices of the well-heeled in an Italian town, not peasants in the countryside. Atto does not offer us an internal perspective designed to explain astrology and its uses by the childless, but an external perspective designed to debunk. That’s why he associated it with rustici and ancient pagans. This, then, is another danger of folklore. Beneath the label folklore lie beliefs and practices that are distorted in the written record because authors deemed them dangerous or delusional, and many authors were more skilled at what they did than first meets the eye.

Historians and their different intellectual frameworks produce other distortions. Ancient and later medieval medicine produced treatises that theorized the causes of sterility and barrenness. Early medieval medicine did not. The dearth of theory makes early medieval medicine look rough and ready in comparison with what came before and after – and, indeed, in comparison with contemporary medicine further east in Byzantine and Islamic societies. This is one reason why few historians brave this field and why the best introduction to it is an article entitled ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’. It may also be a reason why early medieval medicine is so much more susceptible to being interpreted in terms of folklore.

Several medieval manuscripts contain a short gynaecological text listing pessaries and other remedies for women. Some of these remedies made use of plants like artemisia (incidentally, the plant also used to produce absinthe) or myrtle ‘so that a woman can conceive’. Another remedy took a different approach:

 

So that a woman conceives even if she has never conceived. After a she-goat has given birth, before her kid … begins to suckle, milk [her] and make a small cheese from this and bind it in a small cloth hung from her left arm so the woman can carry it. But if she wants to go into a bath, she should carefully leave it at home. She should keep it with her at all other hours.

Until not that long ago, this is the kind of detail that made a certain kind of medical historian fidgety. They would instinctively speak of primitivism and superstition, and voice disappointment that medicine, once vigorous and healthy in classical antiquity, had now been contaminated with new strains of folk medicine. Putting a more positive spin on it, perhaps we can try to imagine how such a remedy, an attempt to rub off animal fertility on humans, might have emanated from ordinary folk in a largely agrarian society.

Ironically, whether meant positively or negatively, this reading misconstrues learned culture for folk belief. The remedy originated in a work composed in late antiquity, a work which drew on older, classical medical traditions. (A possible Greek influence on its author recommended that goat’s milk should be the first thing a newborn sups on after recovering from birth). Nor, then, is the remedy early medieval; in fact, it mainly survives in later medieval manuscripts. Perhaps ideas found in texts such as these informed beliefs and practices outside learned circles. A recent study of medieval ideas surrounding impotence has highlighted various moments when learned authors tapped into popular culture. The interfaces between learned culture and folk practice deserve much more attention. But, far from giving us a direct glimpse of folk medicine in the early middle ages, the goat’s cheese remedy represents learned medical traditions across a longer time span.

In early medieval history, there is always a risk of setting the bar too high. That is, of assuming that the disgust or disinterest of sources largely written by elites creates a vast, unbridgeable distance from beliefs and practices of the non-elite. But there is also a risk of setting the bar too low. In trying to retrieve these beliefs and practices, the distortions of elitist texts can easily be mistaken for the real thing when refracted through the label ‘folklore’. If we want to begin to try to imagine how ordinary people made sense of their world, then we need to read the likes of Atto every bit as suspiciously as they read the beliefs and practices of their contemporaries.

Image: Judy Schmidt


Bibliography

Barney, Stephen (trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge, 2010).
Horden, Peregrine, ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’, Social History of Medicine, 24 (2011), pp.5-25.
Liuzza, Roy, Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: An Edition and Translation of Texts from London British Library, Ms Cotton Tiberius A.III (Cambridge, 2010).
Meens, Rob, ‘A preaching bishop: Atto of Vercelli and his sermon collection’, in M. Diesenberger et al. (eds), Sermo Doctorum: Compilers, Preachers, and their Audiences in the Early Medieval West (Turnhout, 2013), pp. 263-82.
Rider, Catherine, Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Rose, Valentin (ed.), Sorani Gynaeciorum vetus translatio Latina (Leipzig, 1893).