We spoke to historian Helen Castor about her new television series examining how people in the Middle Ages handled the most fundamental moments of transition in life – birth, marriage and death.
Looking back at a time before antiseptics or anesthetics, when death stalked the moment of birth, Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death will reveal how labour was one of the most dangerous moments a medieval woman would ever encounter.
The series will also see the historian and author explore the rite of passage that was medieval marriage, before investigating how people in the Middle Ages had a mutual interest in helping their peers to have “a good death”.
Castor, who earlier this year presented She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens, told us more about the three-part Medieval Lives series, which first airs on Wednesday 9 October.
Q: How did you come to be involved in this series about medieval lives?
A: We used the Paston family as a starting point. Some years ago I wrote a biography of the Pastons – a 15th-century gentry family living in north Norfolk.
They were a family as interesting as any other, but what’s unique about them is that many of their letters still survive. Their letters are the earliest collection of private correspondence in English.
So you can write a biography of the Paston family in a way you cannot for anyone else in the 15th century. You get more of a glimpse of the private experience of life, including birth, marriage and death.
Those events are the architecture of our lives – they were then, and they are now.
We used the Paston family as a starting point, but we wanted to show the differences in experiences up and down the social hierarchy.
We’ve told stories from the perspective of the royal family, and others from people at village level, trying to work out how these rituals were played out.
We wanted to see the continuities, and understand where the differences came in.
Q: What struck you most about your findings?
A: What struck me was how birth and death were so close together. Giving birth was a situation where death could appear at any moment, so the reality of the next world would weigh heavy on people’s perceptions of this world.
When filming the birth episode, it really was a case of part detective work and part journey of exploration, because birth was such a private experience.
It was women’s work; it happened behind closed doors. Men wrote history then, so there were very few records kept.
But today, we watch it on TV – you have One Born Every Minute and The Midwives – and we give birth in public buildings. It’s a very different way of thinking about things.
Also, doctors were men, so they did not go into the birthing room. So we have a gulf between medical theory and practical experience.
And there was the overriding importance of a baptism saving the soul. You were considered born in a state of original sin, so if a baby was dying in labour the midwife could perform a baptism there and then.
Women were not allowed to perform such rituals in any other aspect of life.
And going back to the closeness between life and death – when we visited the bone crypt in Rothwell, where there are two small rooms full of the remains of 1,500 people, I was struck by how the dead were part of the community of the faithful.
The living needed to be aware of the dead.
It was very powerful being there. When you look at a room full of skulls you begin to see faces, as they are all different. It was a privilege to be there.
Q: There seem to be a number of differences between how people in the Middle Ages dealt with birth, marriage and death, compared to now. Can we draw any parallels?
A: Yes, certainly. Marriage was a huge rite of passage because it was society’s way of managing sex and establishing the building blocks of society.
It presented a fascinating challenge to society, and we are still going through this now. It’s a current issue, as we think about who should be allowed to marry.
And the medieval marriage ceremony is absolutely recognisable today. And there’s still a debate about whether, and in what circumstances, marriage should be allowed to end.
The church taught that all that was needed for a marriage was two people making vows to one another. You didn’t need a priest or witnesses. But marriage was absolutely undissolvable.
If you wanted to separate from your husband and wife, the best way was to argue you had never been married in the first place.
Or a marriage could be annulled if the husband was impotent, if partners had been married before, or if you could claim one of the partners was mad.
What you get through these technical legalities is a snapshot of the palpably human experience.
Also, like today there were age restrictions on marriage. The age of consent was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy.
There is a resonance in how we cope with new life and with the loss of life. But I was left feeling that we, as a society, don’t know how to cope with death anymore.
In the Middle Ages you had ritual and collective understanding. Death was a supported and shared experience.
Everyone had an interest in helping people to have ‘a good death’, because they hoped they in turn would be helped also.
You didn’t have the isolation and denial we feel in relation to death today.
But I think you find more points of contact than you at first might think. People in the Middle Ages can feel so far away, and you can think they were remote and full of superstition, but when you find traces of their emotions, they are instantly recognisable.
Q: The series promises to explore how religion affected the way people dealt with birth, marriage and death. How did it, exactly?
A: Religion was a framework within which life and death were understood. But the Reformation changed that framework a great deal.
The idea of death was centred around purgatory – ie that all repentant sinners would spend time in purgatory, but people would be praying for them on Earth and they would not remain there forever.
But purgatory was effectively ‘removed’ by Protestants. The whole architecture of provision for the dead changed, and those changes reached the birthing room too.
Holy objects that were used to help women in labour were outlawed by the Reformation.
Relics were destroyed and prayers deemed superstitious – overnight, these things were not allowed anymore.
One could argue the Protestant world view was, in its plainness and rigour, bereft of comfort.
The first episode of Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death airs on Wednesday 9 October at 9pm. To find out more, click here.
Castor is the author of Blood & Roses: The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century, published in paperback by Faber.