In Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he documents the letter Augustine of Canterbury sent to Pope Gregory after he was consecrated as a bishop in Britain. As mentioned in my last post, Augustine’s letter is filled with many questions about how to run the English church. These questions are separated into nine different categories. Last time I wrote about Augustine’s third, fourth, and fifth questions. Today I want to discuss the first half of Augustine’s eighth one.
Usually, Augustine asks two or three questions for each category. This is not the case for the eighth category. Here he asks eight different questions all relating to pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and/or the sacraments of baptism and communion. You can feel Augustine’s panic as he asks Pope Gregory what he should do and how he should act. After all, Augustine was a monk and most likely had very little experience when it came to sex, pregnancy, and childbearing bodies. (That’s not to say that other clergy didn’t, but that’s another post for another day!)
I want to share the exact quote so you can see what I mean when I say Augustine is panicking:
“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (pg. 76-77)
The last statement in this block quote has several amusing implications. Personally, I’ve interpreted Augustine’s comment about the “uncouth” English in two ways.
My first interpretation is that people keep asking Augustine questions about topics he’s incredibly shy about and he doesn’t know how to answer them properly. But they keep asking him and he’s panicking because he doesn’t want to talk about sinful things, but he has to because he’s the bishop. Another way we can interpret the last sentence is that Augustine has gotten himself all worked up about these matters to the point he’s freaking out, but he doesn’t want to admit to the pope that he’s curious about these very sinful things, so he blames his curiosity on other people.
Either way, these aren’t the questions of someone who knows what to do. These are the questions of someone who is very embarrassed and panicking.
As always, Gregory replies to Augustine. However, when I was reading Gregory’s reply, I could sense some annoyance in the pope:
“I have no doubt, my brother, that questions such as these have arisen, and I think I have already answered you; but doubtless you desire my support for your statements and rulings.” (pg. 77)
This is the medieval equivalent of ‘per my last email.’ (If you are unaware, ‘per my last email’ is an extremely passive-aggressive way to ask your coworker ‘can you read? I already told you this.’) Luckily for Augustine (and for us!), Gregory doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, he tells Augustine what to do.
For Augustine’s first question (“May an expectant mother be baptized?”), Gregory basically asks Augustine, why shouldn’t she be? After all, “the fruitfulness of the flesh is no offence [sic] in the sight of Almighty God” (pg. 77). Gregory goes on to argue that even though Adam and Eve sinned and God took away their “gift of immortality” (pg. 77), He still gave humans the ability to reproduce and have children. Not allowing a pregnant person to be baptized would be “foolish” (pg. 77) and that baptism is an act “by which all guilt is washed away” (pg. 77). Here, Gregory is reminding Augustine that it wouldn’t be right to deny a person salvation just because they are pregnant. God gave people the ability to have children and they shouldn’t be punished for something God made them destined to do.
Because God made people able to have children, people don’t have to wait to go church after childbirth, even though it says a person should in the Old Testament. Gregory argues that he understands the waiting period to be “an allegory” (pg. 77) and if a person were “to enter [a] church and return thanks in the very hour of her delivery, she would do nothing wrong” (pg. 77). He also argues that it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that makes a person unfit to enter a church, it’s sexual intercourse. (Or as Gregory delicately phrases it, “bodily pleasure” (pg. 77).) The pain of childbirth is the “penalty” (pg. 77) for having intercourse, so there’s no need to punish a person and their child by denying them baptism.
Gregory’s answer to the question “how soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife?” (pg. 78) is pretty simple. He says that a husband should wait until the baby is no longer nursing. However, Gregory is aware that not all parents personally breastfeed their children and he does not like the concept of wet nurses. He claims that “when women are unwilling to be continent, they refuse to suckle their children” (pg. 78). In Gregory’s mind wet nurses encourage people to have sex sooner after childbirth. If I had to make an educated guess, I don’t think Gregory knew that sometimes people have a hard time nursing. Baby formula doesn’t exist at this point in time so a wet nurse is the next best option. (Unless you feed your baby animal milk but that’s not a good way to get important nutrients.) Of course, there are other reasons a parent might hire a wet nurse, but Gregory does not realize this. Finally, Gregory is sure to add that “those who observe this bad custom…must not approach their husbands until the time of their purification has elapsed” (pg. 78).
While the phrasing of this practice is unfortunate, purification after childbirth isn’t strictly a Christian thing. Many cultures have some sort of period where a parent is considered “unclean” after giving birth. That being said, you can interpret this as the time that allows a parent to rest after childbirth. A lot of things can go wrong during the birthing process and it’s important to allow a person to heal. Think of this as an early version of maternity leave.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.