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Women ben purifyid of her childeryn, the purification of women after childbirth in medieval England
By Becky R. Lee
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1998
Abstract: This study of the purification of women after childbirth in medieval England undertakes two tasks. First, it recovers and documents the rite of post-partal purification, and the customs surrounding it, as it was practised in England, from the earliest extant references to it originating in the twelfth century, to the publication of the second Edwardian Book of Common Prayer published in 1552. It then examines the ways in which this rite both reflected the communities in which it was practiced, and contributed to the shaping of those communities.
In order to document the rite, the extant versions of the medieval rite of post-partal purification found in English liturgical books are presented and compared. A variety of non-liturgical sources provides information regarding the customs associated with this rite not recorded in the liturgical books.
Informed by three fields of study, the study of popular religion, ritual studies, and gender history, this study then identifies and examines the interactions between and among the various individuals and groups involved in the development and perpetuation of this rite, and the customs surrounding it. First, the relationship between the feast of the Purification and the rite of post-partal purification is examined, illuminating the role this rite played in the ritual life of the community.
Then the involvement and investment of various groups within the community is explored. The interaction between clerical perceptions of the rite of purification, and women’s own perceptions is examined. In England, not only women in recognised marriages, but the mothers of illegitimate children also participated in this rite. Their participation allows an examination of medieval attitudes towards them. Heads of households are also shown to have contributed towards, and benefited from, this rite and the customs surrounding it. Finally, this study returns to the community as a whole, examining the role the revenues generated by the rite of post-partal purification played in medieval English parish politics.
Nine appendices provide excerpts relating to the medieval English practice of post-partal purification from unpublished clerical accounts, churchwardens accounts, ecclesiastical court records, liturgical books, inquisitions post-mortem, and manuals of confession and pastoral care.