Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The three major transitions in life -- birth, marriage, and death -- have remained pivotal points in society throughout history.  Most of us probably don't have a very clear idea about how these milestones were acknowledged in the past.  The fascinating series Medieval Lives takes a look at these three important events and how people living in England at that time were impacted by them.

Dr. Helen Castor is the program's host.  She is a Cambridge professor, author and TV presenter who is an expert in medieval history.  In telling the stories of these three episodes, Dr. Castor relies on the letters from the Paston family that are housed in the British Library.  The "nouveau riche" Paston family, thank goodness, were so impressed by their own importance that they saved all of their correspondence.  Over 1000 letters spanning three generations form the collection, the earliest examples of private correspondence in the English language.  It's very interesting to hear about the marriage of Margaret Mautby and John Paston through their own words, nearly 600 years later.

Episode One, A Good Birth, discusses how children were brought into the world during the years of the Middle Ages.  Society was slowly changing, but at this time, the Catholic Church still dominated the lives of everyday people.  What you did in this life mattered, but it was all to prepare you for the next (more important) life you would enter after death.  At this time, of course, niceties such as antiseptic and pain relievers were many centuries away, so every birth was extremely dangerous for both mother and child.   Most women entered their "confinement" several weeks before the actual birth.  They would withdraw into a dark, quiet chamber to be attended only by women.  Male doctors were not allowed in the birthing room.  What little was written at the time about female anatomy and childbirth was written by celibate men of the church who had little actual medical knowledge, so there was a lot of erroneous information.

As well as discussing events from the lives of the Paston family, Dr. Castor also refers to the lives of royals, as they were the only people whose lives were chronicled in detail at this time.  Therefore we get to hear the tale of Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was married at age 12 and a mother before she was 14. Also the moving story of King Henry VIII is told.  He travelled to the shrine at Walsingham to give thanks for the birth of his son with Catherine of Aragon, only to be plunged into despair when the child died after only 10 days.  When Henry eventually broke with the Catholic church over his desire to obtain a divorce and re-marry, he also inadvertently deprived women of some of their few comforts from the birthing chamber.  Religious relics gave women in labor a sense of security and a feeling of a connection to God, but these were swept away in the name of religious reform.  The new church was soon dictating what midwives could and couldn't do in the birthing chamber.  So that Anne Boleyn has even more to answer for than we previously thought!

The second episode concerns the way marriages were conducted in this time period.  In medieval times, it was not uncommon for the families of the prospective couple to arrange the match.  Even so, families could not force the couple to marry if they were opposed to the idea -- but no doubt they could try to persuade reluctant partners to consent depending upon how advantageous the marriage would be.  Once a match was arranged, the family of the bride and groom would decide what would be given to the couple upon their marriage.  This way, each family was doing their best to ensure that the newlyweds would start their married life out on a secure footing.  Also at this time, marriage was somewhat of an informal affair.  The bride and groom need only hold hands and say their vows in order for their marriage to be considered valid.

The church saw marriage as the symbolic marriage of Christ and the Church. This meant that they saw the need to formalize and solemnize marriage with rituals.  These included "calling the bans" for three successive Sundays to ensure that both parties were eligible to marry (they weren't related, already married, insane, etc.).  The church also got involved in the sex lives of the new couples, declaring that sex outside marriage was forbidden, but inside marriage it was compulsory.  People who were charged with adultery were excommunicated and publicly whipped.

Although marriage remained fairly easy to arrange, divorce was almost impossible.  There were two kinds of law in the 14th-15th century:  King's law, which dealt with crime and property manners, and church law, which dealt with everything else.  Therefore, if you could no longer live with your spouse, you had to try to convince the church court that your marriage was invalid for some reason.  At least 1/3 of the church law cases at this time concerned marriage issues.  In very rare cases, a divorce was granted, but this just meant that the couple had permission to live apart -- they couldn't re-marry.  Still, I would imagine this would be good enough for people who were regretting hasty marriages!

The final episode concerns how death cast a shadow over the lives of people in medieval times.  Everyone
was concerned with preparing for the afterlife.  In the 12th century, the idea of Purgatory had become official church doctrine.  People went to Purgatory for a time before ascending to heaven, but their suffering could be lessened by prayers and masses said for them by the living.  The led to people leaving money in their wills for these intercessions to be held for them.  It turned out to be quite a money-maker for the church, which also contributed to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, as people were fed up with what they perceived to be corruption within the church.

Leprosy was also a threat during the Middle Ages
At the same time, death was all around.  In 1348 the plague came to England, and nearly 1/3 of the population was wiped out.  This meant that those who died didn't have the opportunity for last rites to be administered by a priest.  Because of this, people were advised to constantly follow church teachings, because death could come at any time and there might not be a priest nearby to help resolve any sins that might be on your conscience.

I enjoyed the way Dr. Castor used the letters from the Paston family to make history come alive.  It was easy to sympathize with the young Margaret, nervously expecting her first child and writing her husband to ask him to hurry home.  Decades later, Margaret is a somewhat interfering mother, attempting to block her daughter from making a socially ill-advised marriage.  The letters concerning Margaret's defiant daughter Margery and her suitor, the "shop keeper's son" (the horror!) make the family and its interpersonal
relationships seem not so different from disapproving parents today.  Dr. Castor, while an expert on medieval history herself, also speaks with other experts in the field who contribute interesting insights into the time period.

The set also contains a Viewer's Guide with helpful information explaining the Middle Ages, as well as a timeline of important events that happened during this time.  There's also an interesting section on "Medieval Megastars" -- people who made their marks upon history in one way or another.  The final section of the guide discusses the Black Death, which had such a devastating effect on the people of this time.  All in all, this is a very fascinating look at the daily lives of people during this often overlooked time period.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Medieval Lives from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Medieval Lives: Four Gherkins, for being an intimate look into the daily lives of our medieval ancestors


Toni Mount said...

I'm fascinated with the photo of the tomb holding hands - where is it from please?

Lisanne624 said...

Hi Toni,

The photo is the tomb of Sir Ralph Green and his wife Katherine and is located in St. Peter's Church in Lowick, Northamptonshire. Hope you can visit one day!

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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