Scholarship on motherhood in general has been shaped by a split between motherhood understood as an “experience” and as an “institution” since the publication of Adrienne Rich’s foundational work in 1976. The experience that concerns Rich and those who have followed in her wake is that of the mother herself, as distinct from that of the child. Indeed another set of terms for this distinction is between “maternal subjectivity” - that is, the mother considered as a thinking and feeling subject in her own right –and the “ideology of motherhood.” Institution and ideology alike refer to cultural myths and stereotypes of mothers and motherhood, and to the prescriptions and demands placed on women as mothers by society at large, and so to motherhood as both a culturally defined ideal and a socially constructed role. By contrast, Rich’s maternal experience is primarily physical or bodily, although she and others argue against it being dismissed as mere biology.
This distinction has likewise shaped scholarship on medieval motherhood beginning with Clarissa Atkinson’s 1991 The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages. Atkinson places emphasis on motherhood as institution or ideology, explaining that is she writing a history of ideas about motherhood as presented in various texts. And subsequent scholarship, in particular the essay collections Medieval Mothering and Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period, has likewise focused on motherhood as a socially constructed role, in particular that of caregiver or nurturer, while downplaying motherhood as a bodily experience as biological and so a-historical.
By contrast, my interest is in motherhood as an experience as defined by Rich; as a bodily experience that is also a meaningful experience as it becomes part of a woman’s subjectivity. Where previous scholars on medieval motherhood have frequently dismissed physical motherhood as natural and a-historical, I seek to historicize it by considering the meanings it held for women in the medieval past. Finally my work shows motherhood to have been a much more complex, contradictory and ambivalent, experience than can be summarized as a single term such as caregiving.
To attempt to capture the complexities of motherhood as an experience for medieval women, this book is structured as something of a narrative of that experience. It is divided into two parts: the first (Chapters One and Two) focuses on the woman’s process of becoming a mother, on pregnancy and childbirth, and the second (Chapters Three and Four) focuses on relationships between mothers and their children during the first few years of a child’s life. The two parts are joined by a focus on the tension between life and death, the potential death of the mother in bringing new life into the world (Chapter Two) and the potential death of that new life – the death of the child (Chapter Three). The organization of the book is thus not dictated by the dates of thee sculptures themselves, indeed the chapters move from the thirteenth century (the Reims sculptures in Chapter One), back to the twelfth century (the Moissac and Autun sculptures in Chapters Two and Three) with a gesture towards the sixteenth (the transi tomb off Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome in Chapter Two), and then forward again to the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries (the Virgin and Child sculptures in Chapter 4). Likewise I am not attempting to use the chronology of the sculptures to track changes in motherhood as an experience over time: my evidence does not support doing so. I also cross over the boundary between the art-historical categories of Romanesque (the Moissac and Autun sculptures) and Gothic (the Reims sculptures, the transi, and the Virgin and Child sculptures), simply because those categories are not relevant to my work here.
Chapter One takes as its topic the Annunciation and Visitation scenes from thee west front of Reims cathedral. I focus on the differences between their images of the Virgin Mary and argue for seeing these changes as the product of her impending motherhood – and so for seeing these sculptures as representing motherhood to the women of medieval Reims as a transformative experience. Chapter Two focuses on a specific transformation wrought by motherhood, that of a living woman into a corpse. The monstrous forms of both the Moissac femme aux serpents and the transi of Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome are understood to represent the dead mother who, in dying, gives birth to her own dissolution and decay. Chapter Three continues to address issues of life and death, focusing on the life and death of the child. The central sculpture for the chapter is the Eve from the church of St-Lazare at Autun, which is understood in combination with the shrine to St. Lazarus that stood inside of the church. I imagine medieval women coming as pilgrims to this shrine on behalf of a sick, dying, or miraculously healed or even resurrected child, and argue that the emotionality of the Eve image would have provided a model for these women’s own emotions. Chapter Four follows from the previous in focusing on the relationship between the mother and child as represented in multiple sculpted versions of the Virgin and Child. The chapter’s primary focus is on the sculptures’ clothing, which structure the mother-child relationship differently in each sculpture. I argue that these sculptures cumulatively created a discourse on the combination of merger and separation, love and hate, that characterizes parturition as an experience. Finally the book’s Conclusion looks to representations of motherhood in contemporary (late twentieth and early twenty-first century) art made by women artists and looks for both continuities and changes in motherhood as an experience over time.