Maternal Grief in Medieval Miracle Stories by: Danielle Griego, PhD

Return my daughter to me, Martyr Thomas! If anyone is the cause of this accident, it is me, her mother alone that must bear the blame for the crime, for it is I who did not send someone to supervise her from the dangers of childhood! I should have sent someone, but I was blind. Woe is me! Before God a crime of negligence has happened.1

Medieval miracle stories contained descriptions of the miraculous deeds performed by holy figures and were used to promote canonization. Although these accounts were ultimately collected to confirm someone’s sanctity, they can tell us a lot about the expectations that religious authors had about parenting. The above passage comes from the miracle collection of Saint Thomas Becket, who assumed the title of the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162, until his assassination in 1170. His miracles were compiled by two monks at Canterbury Cathedral, William of Canterbury and Benedict of Peterborough, from 1170 to 1184 and contain numerous descriptions of child death and mourning. The story surrounding this passage involves a five-year-old girl from Northwood, who was helping her father slaughter a pig outside of their home. Her father, a weaver, told her to wash off the pig’s blood on her hands in a pool of water and she slipped in and drowned. The weaver extracted her lifeless body from the water, as a crowd gathered to lament the girl’s passing.2 

What is interesting about this particular story is that the mother’s public grief becomes the main focus of the narrative from this point onward. Upon hearing the news that her daughter had perished, the mother of the girl ran outside, weeped in front of the crowd, and cried out to Thomas Becket to revive her daughter. She states that, it was her, not the weaver, that was responsible for the accident because she did not appoint anyone to watch the girl as she performed chores. She adds that she has committed a crime of negligence before God. William of Canterbury says that, after her supplication, the five-year-old was revived through Thomas Becket’s divine intervention.3 The author of the miracle story showcases the mother’s love for her child through the description of grief, but also uses the emotion to highlight the guilt that she experiences after her death. The woman grieves publicly, in front of the Northwood community, chastising herself for neglecting her parental duties and not appointing a guardian to watch over the girl. What is more, during her moment of great despair, she is the one to offer the poignant plea to Thomas Becket for help, not the father. She assumes complete responsibility for her child’s death and is the one to negotiate for the girl’s recovery. On the other hand, the grief of the weaver, who originally told the girl to wash her hands in the pool of water, is never mentioned. 

Grief being used to indicate guilt is not exclusive to the Thomas Becket miracle collection. For instance, the miracle collection of King Henry VI, who reigned intermittently between 1422 and 1471, contains several instances of child death accounts that point to maternal culpability. In one story, the anonymous narrator of the collection tells a story about a woman named Olivia and her six-month-old from, George, Northamptonshire. He states that Olivia does not swaddle George properly, causing him to get tangled up in his swaddling cloths and fall from his cradle. In the Middle Ages, cradles were often suspended above the ground in order to make nursing more accessible and keep infants away from animals or other hazards. Like the mother in Northwood, Olivia grieves publicly when she finds her deceased child. In fact, she weeps so loudly that neighbors start to gather around the scene of the accident. Unlike the other account, however, the author of this miracle more blatantly points a finger at the mother for neglect. He states that the reason for Olivia’s excessive grief is the guilt that she feels from not performing her most basic parental duties. At one point, according to the author, she even tries to run away from the death scene because she knows that she has been negligent in her duties as a mother. The author warns his readers to swaddle their children according to the proper custom of the time or they might have a similar accident.4

Both parents (and even godparents) were considered responsible for a child’s safety, especially since children attached themselves to their gender parent early on in life. Priests cautioned families to keep children away from hazards, such as water and fire, at the time of baptism and handbooks on proper swaddling methods were used to help parents avoid accidental deaths from occurring. However, even though mothers and fathers were expected to care for children, it was not uncommon for church authority to reinforce the idea that women were in charge of the domestic realm, including keeping children away from external threats. Bartholomew, the Bishop of Exeter, gave the example of a mother putting an infant by the hearth and a father placing a pot of water near the fire. If the water in the pot overflowed and killed the child, Bartholomew claimed that the mother in this situation was ultimately responsible for the death, because she left the child unattended in a dangerous area.5 Thus, it is not unusual for miracle stories to reflect the idea that mothers were culpable if children sustained or perished from injuries around the household. 

In conclusion, religious men used the public grief of women in miracle descriptions not only to highlight the love between mothers and their children, but to also showcase the emotion of guilt that women felt surrounding child death. Women like the mother in Northwood and Olivia from Northamptonshire were expected to assume blame when they did not perform, in the eyes of the authors, their parental duties. 

When reading or hearing about maternal grief and child death miracle stories, medieval women would have absorbed the idea that they were largely responsible for the state of the domestic sphere, especially for the safety of children.

  1. William of Canterbury, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, Canonized by Pope Alexander III., A. D. 1173., ed. James Robertson, Vol. 1 (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1875), 366: “Redde mihi, martyr Thoma, filiam meam. Si cui casus hic imputandus est, mater sola crimen habet, quæ vagabundæ pueritiæ custodian non delegavit. Debui (sed cæca fui,) puero dedisse pædagogum.”
  2. William of Canterbury, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket Vol. 1, 366.
  3. William of Canterbury, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket Vol. 1, 366.
  4. Paul Grosjean, ed., Henrici VI Angliae Regis Miracula Postuma (Brussels: Society of the Bollandists, 1935), 260-262.
  5. Dom Morey, ed., Bartholomew of Exeter, Bishop and Canonist: A Study in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), 224.

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