Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Women Are Baby Machines

This article’s title requires immediate explanation. I once read a statement that most medieval women never experienced a period because they were pregnant from the first moment possible, and what with pregnancies, miscarriages, and breastfeeding, they were pretty much doing the baby thing until menopause set in. This post is not about whether or not women were supposed to have making babies as their sole purpose in life (I think that’s adequately addressed in Misuse of the Word Medieval Part 4: Women). This post simply asks the question “How many pregnancies did the average woman bear in the course of her life?”

The Method

Taking the same women used in Part 13: Most Girls Married Old Guys, I looked at the number of pregnancies borne by each one, disregarding spouses since I’m not interested in the number of pregnancies per marriage, but the number per woman. Thus, miscarriages or stillbirths are still counted, and twins are counted as 1. 65 women were included.

In dividing the data, I looked at what would be considered normal by modern standards. In American society, I see 1-5 as being the number of children one can have without being considered too “strange,” though someone with 5 likely hears the comment “Wow! You must love children!” (or a less polite version of that) on a regular basis. I also calculated the number who had 1-3 children, since that would probably be considered “average.” I looked at the number who had more than 5, then finally, at the number who had more than 10.

The Data

  • 50.8% of women bore 1-3 pregnancies
  • 60% of women bore 1-5 pregnancies
  • 40% of women bore more than 5 pregnancies
  • 13.8% of women bore more than 10 pregnancies

So…

Obviously, the data doesn’t support the stereotype. Even considering the women who died in childbirth at a young age or were separated from their husbands, there were plenty who lived long lives and only had 3 children because they wanted 3 children. 5 pregnancies will not prevent a woman from ever seeing a period. I suppose 10+ pregnancies might, but even with more data, I have doubts that 13.8% would grow to something we could call “most.”

Limitations

Obviously, this data is far too limited to draw a definitive conclusion. Having more data would improve the study, but as before, I got sick of entering numbers after 65. It should also be noted that this data applies only to the upper classes, who didn’t have the motivation of having lots of children to work the farm. I’d love to examine that data as well, but right now, I don’t have access to it. As before, this study is almost entirely limited to England and France, so expanding could bring different results.

Comments

Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Women Are Baby Machines — 4 Comments

  1. Out of curiosity, do you have plans on what topic you’ll cover in the next Misuse of the Word Medieval article? I was curious, because I saw a poster on an RPG forum I visit mention that the houses of medieval peasants actually conformed to a relatively complex building code, and I was curious if that was true or not.

  2. Medieval women weren’t horribly oppressed by the Patriarchy! Shock horror! Better not tell any feminists that, they’ll call you a mysogynist and start sending you death threats.

  3. If I had money, I would totally send you somewhere to do more research.

    Of course, as a history major I don’t have money…