In the past as today, some couples fail to conceive despite trying. Infertility is the inability of a person to reproduce by natural means, whereas childlessness may also be a choice – achieved through celibacy or contraception and early abortion. The inability to conceive bears a stigma in many cultures and it is tempting to take this social response as universal. At present, infertility affects about 10-15 % of couples, and it is easy to imagine that in prehistory, when poor or unstable nutrition occurred episodically, the rate was higher rather than lower.
What happened to the women that failed to get pregnant? It is likely that it was the women who were held responsible for success or failure to reproduce, as their bodies carried their babies.
A late Bronze Age deviant burial found in a settlement pit at Stillfried, Austria, was interpreted in this light: the skeleton was that of a woman of adult to mature age (40-60) and the absence of physical traces of pregnancy and partition combined with the fact that she was probably murdered by a blow to her head was taken as evidence for an execution related to her infertility (Breitinger 1990, a re-analysis is on its way). Although the line of reasoning stretches the evidence too far, it did not occur to me to question the equation ‘infertility = undesired, bad, brings low social status’ at first.
This changed with a recent trip to Klosterneuburg, a monastery near Vienna, where the Austrian patron Saint Leopold III (c. 1075-1136 AD) and his second wife Agnes of Waiblingen (1072-1143 AD) are buried. A recent aDNA analysis of the skeletons attributed to Leopold, Agnes and a son or proofed that indeed they are in a genetic family relationship. That was reassuring, as with skeletal material of that age it is not uncommon that they no longer match the tombs, as they were often disinterred, their relics distributed and reburied.
Agnes had at least 21 children well attested in historical documents and she died in old age, especially for medieval standards. Detailed investigations of her obstetric and life history as documented in her bones would therefore be of great interest to our motherhood project.
It intrigued me that Leopold was sainted, whilst Agnes was not, although both are, in a sense, the founding couple of Austria. In my opinion, having 21 children should guarantee anyone sainthood!
The monastery’s historian explained that motherhood, in the Middle Ages, was somewhat incompatible with the female ideal of virginity, chastity and purity. In was widely believed that in order to conceive, women had to have lustful feelings, which was regarded sinful (no mention of the men’s feelings at all). This medieval logic meant that most female saints were nuns or childless women rather than mothers.
Notable examples of medieval marriages that did not produce any children include that of Henry II with Cunigunde of Luxembourg or Edward the Confessor with Edith of Wessex; in both instances, the childlessness (infertility?) of the couples was later explained by their pious lives in chastity.
The idea that infertility and childlessness might have brought a higher, even saintly status for affected women, because it was closer to virginity that motherhood, was news to me. Of course the women we know about were already on top of the social ladder and it is unclear if the same logic applied to women of lower status. But in any case, I always like it when engrained cultural preconceptions are unveiled…
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Bauer, C. M., M. Bodner, H. Niederstatter, D. Niederwieser, G. Huber, P. Hatzer-Grubwieser, K. Holubar, and W. Parson. 2013. Molecular genetic investigations on Austria’s patron saint Leopold III. Forensic Science International: Genetics 7(2): 313-315.
Breitinger, E. 1990. Infertilität als gesellschaftspsychologisches Problem in der Urnenfelderzeit. Forschungen in Stillfried 9/10: 41-74.
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Neukam, S. 2011. Die Frauen der Babenberger. Magisterarbeit, Universität Wien.