Verdict before Trial: The Muddled Clerical Opposition to Abortion

Zubin Mistry’s Abortion in the Middle Ages: c. 500–900 works towards a coherent narrative about a heretofore little-discussed subject—church and state policies on abortion in early medieval Europe. The paucity of documents presenting the point of view of everyday Catholics does make the discussion somewhat one-sided, given that the hierarchy’s views were captured in correspondence between, and edicts by, various members of the clergy and nobility. Still, the author manages to fit in the disintegration of the Roman Empire, royal sex scandals, in vitro miracles, theological conferences, rumored heresies and the initial merging of church authority and state power in Western Europe—into a book that is both ambitious and thoroughly researched.

Abortion in the Early Middle Ages: c. 500–900 Zubin Mistry (York Medieval Press, 2015, 342 pp) 978-1903153574, $99

Abortion in the Early Middle Ages: c. 500–900
Zubin Mistry
(York Medieval Press, 2015, 342 pp)
978-1903153574, $99

Mistry’s conclusion about this somewhat obscure period in church history is that the ecclesiastical hierarchy—with a few exceptions—has always been overwhelmingly against both abortion and birth control. Across eight chapters the author provides numerous examples of clerical opposition to the practice of abortion, going so far as to explain away a few striking examples that might run contrary to this collective mindset. Even those church fathers who might be seen as questioning, albeit elliptically, the severity of punishments related to abortion in the Middle Ages—and some punishments were socially, psychologically and spiritually extreme—are chalked up as textual anomalies.

In this era, penitential books appeared with lists of sins and prescribed punishments. Citing an excerpt from the earliest penitential ruling on abortion (though not the earliest known ruling by a church council), Mistry dismisses the notion of hierarchical leniency on the subject. He further rejects the idea that dissenting opinion could be discovered in contemporary texts, worded softly lest it reach the ear of Rome.

For instance, the penitential attributed to Vinniaus, who wrote in 6th-century Ireland, states:

If a woman has destroyed someone’s offspring by her maleficium, she should do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water, and abstain from wine and from meat for two years and [fast] for six Lents with bread and water.

At the time, women who had abortions could face years or decades of penance, or even be refused absolution and Communion until their deathbed—if they had completed a lifetime’s worth of sufficiently observed contrition. But to the author, the comparatively lax punishment prescribed by Vinniaus was merely an error in translation.

The evidence seems to make a straightforward case that antiabortion doctrine was relatively constant in the institutional church, and that this stance slowly crept into legal structures of various kingdoms throughout Europe. The narrative places the beginning of this trend in late Roman antiquity up to the first incursions of the Vikings, with allusions to these attitudes extending up until the present. However, Mistry is dragging the reader through three hundred pages swirling with the dust of history for a reason, and if one exerts the maximum amount of attention, the strength of the text emerges. Abortion in the Middle Ages has far less to do with the consistency of clerical opinions regarding abortion than it does with the inconsistency in claiming that abortion is an horrific act.

Despite his thesis about rigid hierarchical opinion, the author does end up acknowledging the multitude of ways in which the church fathers shifted in their justifications for vilifying abortion. Still, vilify they did. What emerges from these examples is something like the famous dictum of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts: verdict first, trial after. Women receiving their penance for having an abortion could not have suspected that their fate as sinner-criminals had been sealed by authorities from other centuries and places.

Looking first at the twilight of the Roman Empire, the prevailing view of abortion was that it was something abhorrent, though closely tied to the ways of pagans. To have an abortion or help with providing one was un-Christian in the sense that those thought to be most receptive to the practice were, literally, not Christians. Although, we learn that things might have not been much better for Roman women because the “rejection of abortion was at least an intelligible rhetorical pose, a recognizable moral niche, in Greco-Roman Society.”

Then, in the pre-Christian Roman legal tradition (the echo of which is heard throughout the Middle Ages to varying degrees), abortion was filed under the general category of parricidium, a crime that “entailed the murder of close relatives.” Mistry notes that, when abortion was pushed into this category in early medieval thought, a damaging association was created, given that “like pedophilia today, parricidium was a technical term with electrical resonance.” Abortion, he writes, “was murder not because of the ontological status of the fetus, but because of intentionality, the motive (epinoia) of the woman who aborted.” This focus on the woman initiated the social notion of abortion being gendered as a female sin.

At the time, women who had abortions could face years or decades of penance, or
even be refused absolution and Communion until their deathbed—if they had
completed a lifetime’s worth of sufficiently observed contrition.

While Catholic abortion morality influenced Western European kingdoms, these powers already had their own mores and concerns on the subject, meaning there might be several coinciding belief systems. The sermons of Bishop Caesarius in 6th-century Gaul focused on the ills of abortion through a class lens, but his reasoning reflected far more individual ideas than corporate Catholic sensibilities. Caesarius’ views didn’t even reflect those of the local authorities. “‘[T]op-down’ secular Merovingian measures against abortion as an entanglement of paternal murder and sexual transgression are impossible to find” in the bishop’s texts dealing with abortion. Mistry demonstrates an intersection of several juridic views of abortion when the Gauls moved into Spain during the Visigothic era. A distinctively Spanish discourse on abortion would be shaped by “the tension between thinking about abortion in terms of Christian communities and Christian kingdoms.”

While Mistry’s chapter on the composition, dissemination, use and applicability of penitentials is somewhat muddled, he uses these compendiums of sin and punishment as a way to move into discussions about abortion in the Carolingian era, defined by the dynasty of Charlemagne, emperor of much of western Europe. In this period, the author writes, the Catholic hierarchy manifested “the unprecedented condemnation of abortion within textual tools designed for clerical education, pastoral ministry and episcopal practice.” In a world in which the church and political forces were intertwined, it should not be surprising that detailed discussions of abortion within European legal codes (as opposed to church fiat dealing with the safety of one’s soul in the hereafter) were instructive in covering councilor rulings. This included a number of situations that could lead to abortion as it was construed in the early Middle Ages, covering everything from prophylactics and abortifacients to rape and assault that leads to miscarriage.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book, however, is found in the final chapters, in which Mistry uses the account of Carolingian leader Lothar II and his divorce from Theutberga to highlight the way in which abortion came to be employed as a smear that could taint the accused’s moral standing. The final chapter, though it darts around in time, is an illuminating examination of how current negative attitudes towards abortion in the secular sphere draw from the source waters of texts and textual analyses made during the early Middle Ages—by Julian of Toledo, Braulio of Saragossa, Augustine—and how those pronouncements and musings on the subject also differ. As Mistry points out in his analysis of theological discussions of abortion during the period, “While connections between baptism and murder or death of infants were made, no surviving early medieval text explicitly drew the conclusion that abortion was ‘worse than murder.’”

As a detailed portrait of a little-known era produced through expert research, Abortion in the Early Middle Ages: c. 500–900 is worth a read. Again, the lack of material on congregational opinions and practices renders the text somewhat one-sided. But if Mistry argues forcefully that while the church hierarchy has a long history of decrying abortion, its motives for doing so are an often contradictory tangle of shifting rationales. This hodge-podge of arguments nevertheless has functioned for centuries to create the sort of predetermined verdicts that reflect nothing of the women accused nor their reasons for seeking an abortion. Today, the medieval period is not so far away. Women who have abortions are still put on trial—by legislatures and by policies requiring them to jump through an increasing number of hoops to obtain care. And church authorities still are trying to have a say over these women’s moral standing.

Bennett Elliott is a freelance journalist living and working in Washington, DC.

Let us know what you think.

Email your letter to the editor to conscience@CatholicsforChoice.org