THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

19 July 2013

Royal Babies and Celebrated Infants

With all of the excitement surrounding the impending arrival of Britain's newest Royal baby, it seems like a good opportunity to have a look at the medieval representations of birth - that blessed, everyday event.

Egerton MS 1070 f. 24v c13818-46
Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from the The Hours of René d'Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 24v

The most frequently depicted newborn in medieval art is, of course, the infant Christ, who is usually shown in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, a curious ox and ass, and occasionally choirs of angels (see above and below).  One imagines that the future king or queen of England will be born in a cozier setting, although perhaps with slightly less celestial fanfare.

Harley MS 1892 f. 8v c13685-05
Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from a book of prayers and Gospel lessons, Netherlands or England, c. 1490 - c. 1510, Harley MS 1892, f. 8v

The births of saints and kings were also a popular subject for medieval illuminators.  The miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great below is a typical example, albeit one in a particularly luxurious setting. 

Royal MS 20 C III f. 15r E023482

Detail of a miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great, from Historia Alexandri Magni, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1485 - 1490, Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

An image of another well-appointed birthing suite can be found in Harley MS 2278, a manuscript containing Lydgate's lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.  In the miniature on f. 13v (below), the new mother is being attended by a group of ladies, while another looks after the newborn, complete with tiny halo, before a roaring fire.  

Harley_ms_2278_f013v_detail

Detail of a miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The 14th century Queen Mary Psalter was most likely produced for a royal woman, and includes quite a few bas-de-page paintings of nativities (with a small ‘n’).  A particularly charming example is that of St Nicholas, who can be seen lying swaddled in his cot, watched over by his tired mother and a busy servant.

Royal MS 2 B VII f. 314v G70033-40a
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of the birth of St Nicholas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 - 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 314v

These scenes are overwhelmingly female ones, populated almost entirely by women (and of course their babies).  Men, when they are present, are most often onlookers, claiming an active role only when medical intervention seems to have been necessary.  The most common depiction of this type of exigency is with the birth of Julius Caesar, who according to legend, had to be cut from his mother’s womb (hence our current term ‘caesarian’).  This operation has been captured in medias res in Royal MS 16 G VIII, where the future emperor can be seen emerging from his otherwise fully-dressed mother, surrounded by medical men.  Caesar’s mother seems relatively calm in this miniature, but is slightly less so in another Royal manuscript, which shows us the immediate aftermath (both below).

Royal_ms_16_g_viii_f032r_detail
Detail of a miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, from Bellum Gallicum, illuminated in the Netherlands (Bruges), 1473 - 1476, Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Royal MS 17 F II f. 9r Caesar K90057-89a
Detail of a miniature of the birth of Caesar, from La Grande histoire César, Netherlands (Bruges), 1479, Royal MS 17 F II, f. 9r

Not all the medieval depictions of childbirth and infancy fit into these familiar patterns, however.  A copy of the Roman de la Rose dating from c. 1490 – c. 1500 includes a miniature of the personification of Nature literally forging a baby, hammering his shape on an anvil while discarded attempts lie on the floor nearby. 

Harley MS 4425 f. 140r c13324-85
Detail of a miniature of Nature forging a baby, from Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 - c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r

Royal_ms_10_e_iv_f121r_detail
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lion suckling an infant, from the Smithfield Decretals, France (probably Toulouse), with marginal illustrations added in England (London), c. 1300 - c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 121r

A bas-de-page scene in the Smithfield Decretals (above) shows a rather unusual caretaker for a newborn; illustrating a popular legend, a series of marginal miniatures show a lion suckling and tending to a baby.  And Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus includes a well-known episode in the (almost certainly apocryphal) life of Pope Joan, who was said to have masqueraded so successfully as a male pontiff that her true gender was only revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a religious procession (below).

Royal MS 16 G V f. 120r K040945
Detail of a miniature of Pope Joan giving birth, from Giovanni Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus, France (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

By and large, however, most medieval births were seen as occasions of great joy, as they still are today.  It seems fitting to conclude with this miniature of the birth of St Fremund from Harley MS 2278, which shows the celebration of both men and nature at the blessed event.

Harley_ms_2278_f072v_detail

Detail of a miniature of a rainbow after the birth of St Fremund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 72v

Comments

Thank you for a brilliant post! I was particularly struck by St. Edmund's halo from birth, which appears to me to be a very poignant form of christomimesis. Do you know whether this kind of evidence of sanctity was widely disseminated in hagiographies?

Very interesting (and apropos) blog. Your readers may have been interested to see a close-up of the scene from MS Royal F II 17. In contrast to all other medieval c-section images where the mother has already expired, Caesar's mother here is still alive! Look closely and you'll see that she's gripping the hand of her attendant. Other representations of Caesar's birth in the BL collection are:
1) London, British Library, MS Royal 16.G.VII, s. xiv ex. (Paris), f. 219r: Les faits des Romains – showing female attendants.
2) London, British Library, MS Egerton 1065, c. 1480 (Bruges), f. 9r: a copy of Jean du Chesne, Commentaires de César showing a male surgeon and female attendants.
You have an amazing range of medical MSS in your collection (more in the Sloane collection even than Harley) and it would be wonderful to see them exploited more in this blog.

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