The day must have started out like any other in eighth century Bischofsheim. A peasant woman was about to draw water from the river. What she saw in the water horrified her: a drowned newborn in swaddling.
The woman screamed uncontrollably and attracted a crowd. Rudolf of Fulda, Saint Lioba’s hagiographer, says the villager was “burning with womanly rage.” When she was able to speak, she said one of those Saxon nuns from Britain had borne and murdered the child and then contaminated the water with the corpse. The nuns led by Lioba protested their innocence and held prayers and processions for God to exonerate them.
A vision like flames appeared around a crippled girl, who publicly confessed. She was a beggar and had received food and clothing from the sisters, but she had been absent for a while, claiming illness. Rudolf said the nuns wept with joy at the revelation, but perhaps it was relief that everyone knew they were indeed guiltless. I would like to think that at least some of the nuns were shocked that someone they had helped not only ended her baby’s life but, with the lack of baptism, also condemned the infant’s soul.
This was not the only time or place parents killed their infants during the Middle Ages, and that practice contributes to the perception that medieval parents were not emotionally attached to their newborns. The reaction of the woman in the village shows otherwise. She was as appalled as we would be.
Rudolf sees this incident as the Devil using the girl to try destroy Lioba and her abbey and the young mother’s confession as a miracle that furthered Lioba’s cause. She and the women who braved the Channel crossing and overland travel to today’s Tauberbischofsheim, Germany, had a lot at stake. Their abbey was part of Saint Boniface’s mission to spread and solidify Christianity on the Continent. If the very people the nuns were trying to help believed the women capable of such evil, the laity might turn away from the religion, and many souls would be lost.
The sisters’ greatest obstacle was that they were foreigners. Lioba was born in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and grew up in the abbey of Wimbourne. She and the other nuns would have stood out, even if they didn’t wear habits. Their accents and manner of speaking would be different, and many were literate when the vast majority of the population could not read.
Whether or not the vision happened as Rudolf described, I have a sickening feeling the murder of the baby is true.
The unnamed “poor little crippled girl” was an outcast. A medieval audience would have thought her disability was a curse from God, perhaps a punishment for her parents’ sin, like conceiving a child on a Sunday. She was probably a teenager, old enough to marry by medieval standards, but her disability, poverty, and lack of family and connections made her undesirable as a wife.
Medieval folk also would have believed the nuns did all they could for the girl, who sat near the convent’s gate and begged for alms. Her food came daily from Lioba’s table. The nuns provided garments and other necessities as an act of charity.
Rudolf says only that the girl succumbed to the Devil’s suggestions and committed fornication, but I have a feeling there is more. We know nothing about the baby’s father. Perhaps, a man paid the girl and used her so that she could have some means to support herself in case the nuns no longer wished to provide for her. Or did someone get her drunk and take advantage? Maybe, a man told her she was pretty or was simply nice to her—a powerful thing to someone told she’s undesirable her whole life. Did she hope the man might marry her, especially if she was fertile?
When she realized she was with child, did the girl turn to the man who impregnated her? If he agreed to acknowledge the infant as his and support the child but not marry her, a medieval audience would think he was doing the right thing, and if he had a wife, she was supposed to put up with it. But what if he refused to take any responsibility? How was a girl with no home, relying on charity for food and clothes, going to support a baby?
How I wish this girl would have left the newborn on the church steps and allowed her child to be taken to a monastery for the Church to raise. But she must have been alone when she gave birth, without even a midwife on hand. If she suffered from extreme post-partum depression, she might have thought the baby was better off dead.
Perhaps, she confessed to the murder because she did not want to see the people who had shown her the most compassion to be punished. Yet the girl’s end is as sad as her child’s. Rudolf wrote: “But the wretched woman did not deserve to escape scot-free and for the rest of her life she remained in the power of the devil.”
It’s uncertain what Rudolf means. Church legislators would forgive a mother who “kills her child by magical practice by drink or any art,” but they required penance such as a pilgrimage when travel was dangerous and unpleasant, fasting, alms-giving, not bathing, and prayer. The penance would last seven years if the death was to conceal adultery; three years if the reason was poverty. I suspect the girl committed suicide, an act beyond God’s grace in the medieval mind.
What the girl did to her baby was heinous—no other word can describe it. Still when I think about her, I see a frightened teenager young enough to be my daughter, without friends or family. Had one caring person been with her at that fateful moment, could the tragedy for both mother and child have been avoided?
Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolf of Fulda’s Life of Leoba
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara
Originally published July 20, 2016, on English Historical Fiction Authors.