The words of women seeking safety and strength for their reproductive lives speak across time. These childbirth charms first came to me by way of a book I read over twenty years ago, Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. Amid the excerpts from queens, nuns, and advice for wives, there is a short chapter called “Old English pregnancy charms” in the Motherhood and Work section. All five charms begin with the phrase, “The woman who cannot bring her child to maturity” or a slight variation; the Old English word is afedan. The phrase “cannot bring her child to maturity” encompasses many outcomes on the spectrum of motherhood: miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, infant death, or child death. The medieval woman who performed the rituals in these instructions would be seeking help for herself in what was likely the most dangerous time of her life.
The charms are to protect and strengthen a woman before, during, and after her pregnancy. First are instructions for stepping over the grave of a dead man; secondly to step over her lord: both of these assert her strength. Thirdly she is to go to the church and declare her child’s safe birth before the altar. The fourth charm is for the release of retained grief over the loss of a previous child. The fifth charm is to help the mother successfully produce milk, involving a “cow of one color,” a running stream, spitting and not looking around while going through the actions.
I bookmarked the page with the idea that one day I’d like to work with these spells. Here were some really interesting “old wives tales.” My interest in women’s reproductive lives is personal, familial, political and deep. In these fragments of spells from an old Anglo-Saxon herbal I felt a connection to women who lived in another age but had the same biology as me.
This year I realized that in the time since I first discovered these texts in a printed book, many old manuscripts have been uploaded to the internet. A quick trip over to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscript website soon yielded the exact manuscript from the late 10th-early 11th century. This set of charms is from the Lacnunga, meaning “Remedies” and is found in MS Harley 585, f. 185 r,v. The Lacnunga and Bald’s Leechbook comprise the primary sources of the earliest recorded Anglo-Saxon medicine. It was here I found the wonderful drawings that help tell the story.
The snake appears again and again throughout many of the charms, for conditions as varied as a toothache, fever, elf-shot, or to staunch bleeding. I wanted to use the image of this ancient animal of earth, one rich with shamanic as well as biblical associations, somewhere in these charms.
The instructions for the woman to step over her lord seemed the best place. With this ritual Eve’s daughter takes back her rightful power and enters the painful process of childbirth as strong as she can be, even stronger than her husband, in this.
The pregnant belly marginalia appears in the first pages of the herbal called the Pseudo-Apuleius for its similarity to the classical herbal. This drawing helps make clear the purpose and likely source of these charms. Being able to see the original writing in the oldest English language gave me new insight about the translation I was using, which was written by Dr. G. Storms in Anglo-Saxon Magic, published in 1948. In his description, he refers to the practitioner of these remedies rather disparagingly as a “medicine-man” due to their magical nature. This is to differentiate the role from the Leechbook‘s “medical man” who used the “superior” method of bleeding his patients with leeches. I am so conditioned to the male academic voice that it took me a while to realize these would be instructions from a midwife to another woman. Men have only been involved in the care of pregnant women and birthing babies for a relatively short period of time, historically speaking. Very likely these pages were written by a male monastic in a scriptorium. Just as likely the source was a female midwife, and the charms very old.
I printed off the two manuscript pages from the Library’s images, and went through the Old English letter by letter, writing the modern letter above, until I was able to separate out each individual charm. I decided not to use the broad pen writing of the original manuscript for the charms I was writing, except in a palimpsest I made for one charm. On the right, above, is a homework page on which I first wrote these charms ten years ago when I devised this script for a conference class. I have written about my goddess glyphs extensively elsewhere; using them for this text felt right, for the roots of Anglo-Saxon are German and the glyphs are quite similar to runes, with the addition of curved lines.
In the third charm, it was clear in the Old English that the word was cwic, (the last four letters in the second line above, showing the Old English letter “wynn” for the “w” sound; you can also see how idiosyncratic the word spacing was). I expect that cwic is the ancestor of our word “quicken.” This word is still used by women to describe the first time they feel the child move inside them, and to me is preferable to the more ponderous “when the mother feels the child is alive” of the translation I was using.
I began by changing that line, and then imagined what the other lines might have been before the christian overlay. For this I made some calfskin vellum into a palimpsest, by writing on it, then scraping and sanding it. The time when these charms were written down was a period of transition from the old religion to the new one. A woman might have gone into a church and declared that the child would be safely born, by christ (the word appears with the small c in the manuscript, second from bottom line, next to last word, spelled criste, with a small c, long s and short t). Or, she might have followed the old religion which is referenced in many charms of the same period, in which modor in eorth is invoked (modor, or “mother” also appears as the first word in the second line of the manuscript detail above). Invocations to Erce also appear in this era, which is likely the name for the Earth Goddess. So I imagined that in the old religion, she might go, not to a church, but to a grove, where there would also be an altar, and declare by Mother Earth that the child would be born.
I wanted to make these books true to the spirit of the time and the materials a working midwife might have access to. Thus most of the vellum pieces are the oddly-shaped offcuts created when the skin is cut to the square and the irregular bits are discarded. A goose quill would be easy to acquire, and limp leather bits salvaged from clothing could be made into the wrappers. I found my leather bits at a local powwow, a good place to find animal products used in handmade goods, and stitched the vellum into the wrappers with a linen thread coated with beeswax for ease of sewing and durability.
I added some gilded symbols to each charm, as an aid to remember the written instruction, but it was a stretch to imagine how a medieval midwife might have obtained these. Perhaps she was a cook or laundress in an abbey and had access to the skins and inks, so possibly this extra service of gilding might have been had by offering healing or sex. I made separate amulets for each instruction, as the actions described are quite distinct and would be performed separately. To number them in the order they are written down, I knotted the binding thread of each with its number in the sequence.
Recent attacks on women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies give these spells an eerie relevance. After I finished making these, emerging rather dazedly from a frenzy of archaic language and imagining the life of a medieval midwife, I found myself wondering what they might mean to modern life. As I was photographing them at the end of June, I was simultaneously watching the now-famous filibuster by state senator Wendy Davis in the Texas legislature, as she and her supporters stood their ground against the erosion of women’s health care. It was not lost on me that the intention behind both sets of words was the empowerment of women as they face the most difficult and deep decisions of their lives. The journey through pregnancy, whatever the outcome, is never trivial, never easy, and never the business of anyone except the woman, and whoever she has chosen to help her.