Abortion in Medieval Ireland

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Gillian Kenny, a Research Associate at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Abortion (or the lack of it) is back in the news in Ireland again following reports that a woman who claimed to be suicidal was denied an abortion and instead gave birth by caesarean at 25 weeks. The roots of lay and clerical anti-abortionism in Ireland would appear to be a modern phenomenon as medieval sources indicate a country in which abortion could be seen as a less severe offence by clerics, for example, than bearing an unwanted child or committing ‘fornication’.[1] In the middle ages women commonly underwent abortions in Ireland and the fact that they did so is reflected in numerous sources. Enshrined in the medieval Irish legal code is that fact that a wife could be divorced if she had procured an abortion for herself. This prohibition is part of a long list of grounds for divorce which included infanticide, flagrant infidelity, infertility, and bad management.[2] Thus the circumstances in which a man could divorce his wife were obviously quite severe but even still the wife was allowed to receive her marriage-portion back (even after an abortion).

In medieval Ireland, unwanted pregnancies were a fact of life and abortion tales and provisions are woven into legal records, literature, penitentials and hagiography. Of course the Church officially condemned the practice, as Lisa Bitel has written; “Laws, canons, and penitentials all condemned contraception and abortion”.[3] However, in Ireland Saints’ Lives tell us of saints who colluded in abortion as evidenced in their hagiographies which may be, at times, problematic sources but they do provide insight into the societal attitudes of their times. Ireland has four saints who are recorded as openly and miraculously carrying out abortions, Ciarán of Saigir, Áed mac Bricc, Cainneach of Aghaboe and Brigid of Kildare.[4] The life of Saint Ciarán (c. 9th century) told the story of a young virgin, Bruinech, kidnapped by King Dimma who raped her, and she became pregnant. Bruinech appealed to Saint Ciarán, who miraculously aborted the fetus. Later, versions of this Life told of Ciarán making the fetus disappear rather than aborting it.[5] Áed blessed a nun who was pregnant and the fetus disappeared, similarly with Cainneach. Brigid was the only female saint to carry out abortions. She is also the premier female saint of medieval Ireland.

However those women who acted to end their pregnancies without the imprimatur of a saint were criticized for using maleficium (black magic). The Penitential of Finnian written c. 591 CE lists the punishment for women who abort

  • If a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived of somebody, she shall do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water, and abstain for two years from wine and meat and fast for the six forty-day periods with bread and water.[6]

It is worth noting here that the penance is quite a lenient one and was much less for example than the time assigned to penance for childbirth which demanded six years fasting on bread and water. These sanctions appear to indicate a society where women were certainly acquainted with reproductive choices, exerted agency in choosing to abort and in which the penalties for doing so were quite minor. How did they do it though? In Irish texts magic working by women is often associated with the creation of potions and charms to cause abortions as well as to kill love rivals and in the creation of love magic to make or break relationships and so on. Women’s magic is very much associated with sex and relationships by the clerics and it is highly likely that Irish women were using potions (plant based) possibly bolstered by spells to control their reproductive ability. It was happening elsewhere in Europe so why not here too and the various mentions of their magical abilities (often in connection with abortifacients) seems a clue that women did seek out and use contraceptive aids and abortifacients. Plants which have traditionally been associated in both the ancient and medieval world with these processes include; thyme, juniper, rue, death carrot, dill, pennyroyal, squirting cucumber, Queen Anne’s lace and tansy.[7] Knowledge of abortifacients must have been passed down through the (female) generations and were thus greatly feared by the (male) Establishment because “they subversively aimed the devious weapon of spells and potions at the patrilineal kin group, the community, and all orderly, congenial gender relations.”[8] Thus the killing of the fetus was not so much the issue at stake rather it was the power of the women who chose to do so (and had the means to do it) that was feared as it lay outside male knowledge. Making the link between a woman’s reproductive freedoms and witchcraft ranks as a severe challenge to female reproductive agency.

This magical female power over the self, explained as it only could be by their male counterparts – as magic and therefore an affront to the natural order – is expressed very well in ”The Deer’s Cry’, a prayer famously attributed to St Patrick himself in which he asks for protection from many things including the spells of women; powerful, hidden and deadly to this and to the next generation as those women chose them to be.

“I summon today all those powers between me and every cruel, merciless

power that may oppose my body and my soul…

against the spells of women and smiths and druids,

against every evil knowledge that is forbidden man’s body and soul…”


About the Author

Gillian Kenny

Dr Gillian Kenny is a specialist in the history of women in Ireland and Britain during the later medieval period. She has published widely on women’s lived experiences and, in particular, how cultural exchange affected both theirs and their children’s lives. Her book, Anglo-Irish and Gaelic women in Ireland c1170-1540, traces Gaelic and English women during that period. She is a Research Associate at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin where she has taught on magic and witchcraft as well as saints’ lives in medieval Ireland. She also teaches in the Department of Adult Education in University College Dublin. She is a regular contributor to television and radio history programmes.



[1]  Maeve B. Callan, ‘Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol 21, no. 2 (May 2012) (accessed 26.08.14 @14.30) p. 288

[2]        Donnchadh Ó Corráin, ‘Marriage in Early Ireland’ in Marriage in Ireland, ed. A. Cosgrove, (Dublin 1985), pp. 5-24. http://www.ucc.ie/celt/marriage_ei.html (accessed 24.08.14 @19.15)

[3]  Lisa Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (New York, 1998), p. 76

[4]  Callan, ‘Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again’, p. 289

[5]  Charles Plummer (ed.) Lives of the Irish Saints: Life of St Ciaran http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T201000F/text005.html (accessed 26.08.14 @17.35)

[6]  Translations from Ludwig Bieler, The Irish Penitentials, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10 (Dublin 1975) Bieler, 1975, p. 4

[7]        Oral Contraceptives and Early-Term Abortifacients during Classical Antiquity and the MiddleAgesAuthor(s): John M. RiddleReviewed work(s):Source: Past & Present, No. 132 (Aug., 1991), pp. 3-32

[8]        Bitel, Land of Women, p. 65


13 thoughts on “Abortion in Medieval Ireland

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  3. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Abortion is illegal in Ireland and has been for some time. Oddly enough, four medieval Irish saints were reported to have “colluded in abortion.” It is shocking considering that views of the Catholic Church that four individuals would have been made saints after performing “miraculous” abortions. Gillian Kenny has posted a brief article about these saints at the Perceptions of Pregnancy blog.

  4. I love Dr Kenny’s writings.

    What a shame we live in such a backward country – the only one to have grown more barbaric since medieval times!

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  6. Pingback: Happy St. Brigid’s day at Imbolc | Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland

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  8. Pingback: Abortion in Medieval Ireland – Irishwomenblog

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