The Mothering Body: Women, Motherhood, and the Body in Late Anglo-Saxon England

“The Mothering Body: Women, Motherhood and the Body in Late Anglo-Saxon England.” in More Fuss About the Body: New Medievalists’ Perspectives. Edited by Leah Pope Parker and Stephanie Grace-Petinos. [Forthcoming, 2020].

The body in Late Anglo-Saxon England is alternatively hidden and revealed, and none more so than the body of the mother. Texts ranging from Beowulf to various Blickling and Vercelli homilies to the Encomium Emmae Reginae to the writings of Ælfric and Wulfstan reference or discuss the mother and her body; by comparison, the visual evidence is more limited. Only four manuscripts show images of the breastfeeding mother: the Harley Psalter and the three largely complete illustrated Psychomachia cycles. Unlike the textual evidence, each visual representation are copies of continental exemplars, suggesting a reticence to develop mothering imagery in Anglo-Saxon manuscript art. The Psychomachia cycles, moreover, hint at a different reading of the mother and her body: here, the mother not a nurturer and imitator of the Virgin Mary but is cast as an Eve who damns her children, becoming an inversion of both Mary and the Church, who give life.

How, then, were mothers and maternal bodies viewed in the period?

In many respects, the question is difficult to answer. This essay will examine what we can and cannot know from both written and illustrated evidence. It will draw on contemporary theory dealing with maternity and the maternal body in order to problematise the representation and theorisation of maternal and female Anglo-Saxon and contemporary bodies, arguing that contemporary concerns with seeing the maternal body in public (such as the recent headlines about the appropriateness and legality of breastfeeding in public) can shed light on how and where we expect to see the maternal body in the past. It will also explore what contemporary audiences of these images can learn about both Anglo-Saxon and contemporary maternal bodies.

By exploring issues of personhood, identity, and materiality of the maternal body, the essay will demonstrate an unease with visually representing the female body despite rendering it textually. This unease, moreover, is demonstrated by the representation of the female body more broadly, which is most often identified not through a representation of sex or sexed activity, such as breastfeeding, but through gender identifiers such as clothing and societal expectations. Whether in Anglo-Saxon text and image, or contemporary political culture, the maternal body must be and is confronted and accounted for despite a resistance to seeing it, even as society relies on it.