Medieval Midwives

Happy International Day of the Midwife!

Thumbing through the most recent PMLA* (don’t laugh; I’m partnered to an academic), I happened upon a fascinating study by William D. Paden and Frances Freeman Paden called “Swollen Woman, Shifting Canon: A Midwife’s Charm and the Birth of Secular Romance Lyric.” The authors of the study argue that the tenth-century ‘charm’ from the south of France could be one of the earliest poems written in archaic Occitan, a Romance language.

“In “Tomida Feminina” (“A Swollen Woman”), a Tenth-Century Charm from the south of France, a birthing woman and her helpers intone the magical language during the most intense moments of childbirth. The poem permits us, with brief but uncommon intimacy, to imagine the lives of women long ago.”

I love the gravity and pace of it; it almost reads like a meditation. Paden and Paden explain that the “rhythmic incantations” were performed by supporting persons, midwives, and possibly the birthing mother to assist in childbirth at least as far back as the ninth century. They also speculate that the charm may have been recited as a relaxation technique that helped women regulate their breathing. Incredible!

Tomida femina
in tomida via sedea;
tomid’ infant
in falda sua tenea;
tomid[a]s mans
et tomid[e]s pes,
tomidas carnes
que est colbe recebrunt;
tomide fust
et tomide fer
que iste colbe donerunt.
Exsunt en dolores
d’os en polpa
[de polpa en curi]
de curi in pel
de pel en erpa.
Terra madre susipiat dolores.

A swollen woman
sat in a swollen road;
a swollen child
she held in her lap;
swollen hands
and swollen feet,
swollen flesh
that will take this blow;
swollen wood
and swollen iron
that will give this blow.
The pain goes out
from bone to flesh,
from flesh to skin,
from skin to hair,
from hair to grass;
let Mother Earth receive the pain.

I don’t mean to be a spoiler, but I’m so tickled by the authors’ closing line that I can’t help myself from sharing:

“It pleases us to think that an image of birth presides over the birth of secular Romance lyric.”

*The PMLA is the journal of the Modern Language Association of America, and generally contains scholarly essays regarding literature and languages.


2 responses to “Medieval Midwives

  1. Ah, I love it! What a gem. This might be one of my favorite birth blog posts- ever.
    Also, I think maybe we should be required to memorize this for BBC.

  2. So cool, right?! Another cool thing I didn’t mention is that the authors believe the “swollen wood, and swollen iron, that will give this blow” represents an amnihook! They were made of wood with iron handles at the time. And then labor gets started, and .. “the pain goes out…” and so on.

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