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Babies Buried Under the Threshold

I swear sometimes I can read a 400-page book and discover only one visual or a single trivial oddity that captures my imagination and makes its way into a new novel. I won't tell you which of these fascinating facts is the one but here's what I gleaned from The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by Robert Fossier, (Princeton University Press, 2010)


Best facts first:

  • The fire or hearth went from outside the house to inside sometime between 900-1100 AD.
  • Last rites could be given by laypeople, even criminals, during the Black Death and early Middle Ages.
  • Children who died without baptism or were stillborn were buried under the threshold of the home to prevent demons from seizing it and turning it into a changeling.
  • Women worked salt marshes and salt pans in fishing villages, hard physical work to produce the salt required to preserve food.
  • Churchman San Bernardino of Sienna maintained that a fetus less than 40 days old could be aborted for reasons of health or poverty. Herbal abortion recipes were well known.
  • Wine was not kept from one season to the next. It was either consumed or destroyed.
  • Houses of prostitution were kept by the Church, noted here and detailed in my first book, A Herstory of Prostitution in Western Europe.  

Here are other gems:




  • "The place of women was strengthened during the final centuries of the Middle Ages. They reigned over leatherworking, felt making, and the cloth trades.... They were the ones who sorted the merchandise, counted it, and sold it. Iconography shows us women keeping a haberdashery or a cobbler's shop, but also a butcher shop or a grocery store. The statues of the various trades include women among the Masters of shops, the workers, and the servants." Page 201 of the e-book
  • From 900 to 1050, women seem strongly present in economic or political affairs. In contrast, there is a decline in that area (a moral decline, in any event) from 1052-1180 or 1200. This was followed by a striking rise during the latter half of the 13th century and it continued high level of involvement for 150 years, followed by another decline when society began the shift to the "modern age" in the 15th or 16th centuries. Obviously, there's more than one explanation for these variations in female power: the numerical prominence of men or women; ... church control; an evolution or shift in the types of activities in the economy of production; the progress or the retreat of individualism. Page 92
  • Fire entered the house...somewhere between 900 and 1100, the woman and wife gained undivided authority over the family nucleus. The familial group, conjugal or broader, was known as a feu, or fire, and modern French still speaks of a household as a foyer. Fire was at the heart of every human group; it brought men together to eat, women to spin, children to sleep, and the old to telltales and recite poems. Page 157
  • Salt...was indispensable for the conservation of many foods and for human life in general. Salt could of course be extracted from mines, but it was the works by the sea that produced salt by evaporation that furnished the better part of it. Salt marshes were usually Signorial possessions, in practice rented out to those who live nearby and exploited it. Sizable amounts of salt traveled by water or by caravans of animals with loaded saddle packs starting from the various coasts -- those of the Atlantic or the Tyre sea, for example – that have rich salt marshes. What the historian of those times finds original in the salt trade is not the method of accumulating the salt, which is changed little since then, in spite of the use of industrial methods. It is the place given to women. Women did not spend their time mending nets ... or watching out, with resignation and anguish, for the return of the sailor; they did hard physical labor, raking the salt pads, tending the drying ovens, and carrying the sacks of salt. This sort of activity was really individual, but it took up a large part of women's time and contributed to isolating these sailors' wives while their husbands were at sea. Page 164



  • Voluntary abortion, in town and even more in the country, was certainly a common practice, but it remained clandestine, hence dangerous. The church insisted that semen be respected. In practice, the old wives' recipes are quite well known. They were usually concoctions of chamomile, ginger, and fern, along with some truly dangerous manipulations. However, the reasons for this abandonment of gestation remain totally obscure. In the 14th century, several "doctors of the faith", San Bernardino of Siena among them, reached the point of admitting that before 40 days of fetal life the embryo could be destroyed, not without a whole series of penances, of course, And only provided there was a serious reason such as bad health or even extreme poverty. This is a good indication of how frequent such acts were. Page 40 in book; 71 in eBook
  • From 25 to 30% of babies were stillborn -- difficult to find today even in the most poverty-stricken lands. Causes of death included tetanus, meningitis, strangulation by unskilled manipulations, dysentery, and vascular insufficiency caused by a difficult pregnancy or a premature birth. Page 73-74 in eBook
  • Even if the child died after only a few moments of life, it had known human breath, and, not baptized, it would go to hell, as Saint Augustine promised... Simple chapels placed in the countryside preserved the connection with such souls [in limbo] under the protection of the church and showered them with gifts and prayers. As for the tiny body, archaeology attest to the extreme rarity of burial among the baptized. Was there a special place for burial, for example, under the parvis of a church? Or as excavations have shown, under the threshold of the paternal house, crushed under a building stone to keep some demons from seizing it to turn the dead child into a changeling of the devil? Or, more simply, would it be thrown into the nearest stream? Page 42 in book; 74 in eBook
  • Newborn babies who died before they could be baptized… In limbo, where they reposed while prayers were recited for them in special chapels and sanctuaries "of respite", they waited a judgment they could not condemn them. Children aborted just before they were born or were presumed dead on coming into the light of day may have been baptized or just ondoye (French) by being given a private, emergency baptism, and since this pseudo-sacrament could be administered by a lay person, even a criminal, eternal damnation could be avoided. Page 137 in book, pg. 216 in eBook
  • The obsession of a substitution, accidental or voluntary, by a human hand or a diabolical one, still inhabit some mothers of today. And what was to be said or done with twins? Were they not perhaps proof of bad conduct on the part of the mother, made pregnant by two different men? Or was one of the two babies — but which one? – perhaps the diabolical double of the other? Little was known about twin births, and the rarity of twins attested in aristocratic genealogy raises the specter of infanticide, a grave crime, worse than voluntary abortion, but the only way to wash the family honor clean. Page 74-75 in eBook
  • In the cemeteries the skeletons of young children under seven years of age account for some 20% of the dead. Page 47
  • The baby was ... bathed frequently, up to three times a day, and changed even more often. This was women's work. Page 47, page 82 in eBook
  • When the child reached the age of one, he was helped to walk with the aid of a walker, but at anything like a playpen or crawling on all fours were systematically discouraged. The first may have been seen as a reflection of fetal enclosure, and the second as a return to animal life, condemned by God. Page 48

Black Death/Great Mortality:


  • "The two contagious forms of the disease - the pulmonary, which is 100% fatal, and the bubonic, from which one out of four persons can hope to escape after four days. The first form was dominant in the 14th century epidemic (but none in later occurrences), which explains the terror inspired by its approach, as it was incurable, and its incubation period was only a few hours or days. However, to the extent to which contemporaries noted such nuances, it was the "black" plague (the word was first used only in the 16th century) – the less deadly form with inflamed buboes, the survivors of which were immunized against recurrences – that was the most often described and feared. It was also the variety that recurred up to the late 15th century, leaving behind an increasing number of survivors. Page 24
  • Certain individuals may have escaped contagion through a serological immunization, and, as I have already mentioned, people in the B blood group seem to have had a natural resistance to the plague bacillus, which means that it's predominance in populations of pure Celtic or Asiatic origin (Hungarians, for example) may perhaps explain the "white spots" on the map of the plague. Page 26
  • The gradual decline of the Black Death was not only due to a lessening virulence of the bacillus, but also to an economic recovery and a population increase that led to the reoccupation of abandoned lands and hamlets. Throughout the west, that recovery occurred between 1430 and 1480, according to region, but the disease continued for some time to come." Page 26- 27

Assorted Gems:


  • We can trace female "counterpowers" and I've already touched on them: they appeared around the hearth fire or on the bed pillow; at the "parliament of women" that took place at the fountain, the washing hut, and the mill; at the cemetery, which men feared and avoided; and in the devotions or pilgrimages specific to women. Women were zealous in the cult (or at least the ... veneration) of the Magdalene, the repentant sinner and "counter mark" of the virgin. Men put their hopes in the mother, the spouse, and the virgin, saintly or human, while women found a consoling patroness in Mary Magdalene. Page 82 pg. 132 in eBook
  • The Medieval church saw prostitution as the only concession that could be admitted to the tyranny of sex. It condemned prostitution, obviously, but it also closely supervised it's functioning. It was in accord with the municipal officials that the church agreed to take responsibility for filles communes, placing them in specialized houses that it often owned, and when the "girls" age could no longer apply their trade, the church sought lodging for them in a religious community or service in the household of a priest. In principle the revenue ... went to the municipality, but the church did not refuse to except gifts from the men who frequented the houses. In the city these houses… were often grouped around the churches, on the bridges, or across from the palace. Page 91 [Note further info on this in my book A Herstory of Prostitution in Western Europe.  ]
  • Thanks to many of our sources of the 13th century we find that food-related activities represented as much as half of the known trades, and those indirectly connected with raw materials, metals or textiles, represent almost another third, which left only 10 or 15% of occupations for those dedicated to intellectual activities and only an infinitely small fringe for the "services" that we call "the tertiary sector." Page 130 – 131
  • Life expectancy varied from century to century according to the standard of living, but it can be estimated that in the Middle Ages it never rose above 60 to 65. Beyond that age one was a survivor, but not useless. There are now few older men in the military but in the early 14th century over 10% of men of war were over 60. It is an error to believe the early death was widespread in the Medieval world as shown by innumerable examples. Page 133, pg. 209 in eBook
  • Four-fifths (4/5) of all suicides were men, and in Medieval times three out of five of these hanged themselves and one out of four chose drowning. As is true today the family often refused to recognize that expression of a last will, speaking instead of illness or an accident. The church may have been fooled, but when the act was patent the suicide was judged a criminal and his body dragged across the ground and hanged in public. Page 139 in book, pg. 218 in eBook
  • The master's vineyard was picked first, but only after he had used all the wine that remained from the preceding harvest, because one was not kept from one season to another. We do not know enough about the winemaking process at the time to judge, but we can guess that the workers were less skillful than in our own day. People try to use up wine as quickly as possible, even the mere-goutte, the first juice obtained even before the grapes were trampled, and the verjus, the wine made from the first pressing, which was acid was reserved for use as pickling brine. Putting the wine in barrels and sending it to market explains why vineyards were often planted near the shore or by the banks of the river which facilitated the transport of casks that were considered insufficiently solid to withstand the bumps of dirt roads.
  • The forest supplied food stuffs, and today's scholars tend to agree that an economy of gathering and small-scale animal raising, providing the main sources of food, was as typical of the Middle Ages as had been true since Neolithic times. Page 182 [see this page for an excellent list of the food stuffs that grew wild in the forest]
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