Medieval Theologians on Wanting and Having Children

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 earliest times to the present day. This week’s post is contributed by Dr Catherine Rider from the University of Exeter and explores what Medieval theologians had to say about wanting children. 

As a historian who works on the Middle Ages, it can be difficult to get at the experience of wanting or having a child in that period. For the period before around 1350, especially, most (but not all) of the surviving sources were written by men, and they were often written by clergy, who were on the whole expected to be celibate. There are exceptions: for example the letters written by the fourteenth-century Italian merchant Francesco Datini and his wife Margherita discuss, among other things, the couple’s inability to have a child and some of the infertility remedies that Margherita’s friends and family recommended to her (on this see Iris Origo’s study The Merchant of Prato). Another tantalising exception is the picture of a swaddled baby in a medical text now in the Wellcome Library (see image). However, sources like these are exceptional and it is often very difficult to get at the experience of pregnancy from first-hand accounts.

L0049302 Medical Recipe Collection Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Collection of medical recipes [written in the area of Worcestershire, first quarter of the 15th century]. Coloured drawings serve as extravagant decoration for the catchwords. Swaddled baby in cradle. (f.7v) 15th century Medical Recipe Collection, England, 15th Century Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Collection of medical recipes [written in the area of Worcestershire, first quarter of the 15th century]. Coloured drawings serve as extravagant decoration for the catchwords. Swaddled baby in cradle. 15th century Medical Recipe Collection, England, 15th

For this reason my research into the history of infertility in the Middle Ages has had to look at a wide range of sources, many of which may initially seem unpromising. Recently I have been looking at medieval theological treatises, which were written in very large numbers in universities from the twelfth century onwards. Medieval theologians were interested in a wide range of issues relevant to the world around them, and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they often discussed sexuality and marriage. They can therefore give us useful information about theologians’ perceptions of these things. (If you want to know more about this, Pierre J. Payer’s 1993 book The Bridling of Desire is a good starting point). It is here that we find scattered comments about why couples might want children, and about the experience of having children.

For example an influential work by the twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard noted that couples had various reasons for wanting children, some (from a religious point of view) better than others. He noted the importance of ‘hereditary succession, as when one desires to have heirs to one’s earthly possession,’ which must have been an important consideration for many couples and is well documented in the case of royalty. However, for Peter the best motivation for having children was because you wanted to bring them up as good Christians: ‘the hope and desire by which offspring are sought so that they may be formed in religion.’[1] Later writers sometimes added extra reasons: thus St Bonaventure, later the head of the Franciscan order of friars, noted that some people desired children in order to boost their own status and ‘appear glorious through the large number and beauty of their children’[2] – which he did not regard as a particularly good reason for having them.

More rarely, we also find comments about the experience of having children. An interesting, if rather negative, perspective comes from the fourteenth-century theologian Thomas of Strasbourg. ‘Although,’ he concedes, ‘it is useful for the conservation of the species for children to be generated and raised,’ this was not necessarily a good thing for the parents: ‘nevertheless from generating them parents suffer loss and damage in their bodies and from raising them they suffer damage in external things’.[3] Presumably he is referring to the pain and dangers of childbirth, and the expense of raising children – themes that also appear elsewhere in writing by and for celibate medieval clergy.

These comments are quite scattered and it is difficult to know how much their authors – celibate from an early age and living in the single-sex environment of the university – knew about the experience of infertility, pregnancy or having children. Nevertheless, medieval universities were not isolated from the world around them. Authors based in them did include information about things they claimed real people thought and did, as part of their academic discussions. Many of them also went on to hold high positions in the church which brought them into contact with married laypeople as bishops, preachers, and confessors. Their reflections on the experience of wanting and having children are therefore worth adding to what we can learn from other medieval sources.


unnamedCatherine Rider is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Exeter. In the past she has worked on the history of magic, lay religion, and reproductive disorders. Her publications include Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (2006) and Magic and Religion in Medieval England (2012). She is currently working on a book on infertility in medieval England.

[1] Peter Lombard, The Sentences, book 4, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto, 2010), pp. 179-80.

[2] Bonaventure, Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, in Bonaventure, Opera Omnia, vol. 4 (Quaracchi, 1889), p. 727; my translation.

[3] Thomas of Strasbourg, Commentaria in IIII Libros Sententiarum (Genoa, 1619), f. 159v; my translation.


One thought on “Medieval Theologians on Wanting and Having Children

  1. Pingback: History A'la Carte 2-11-16 - Random Bits of Fascination

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