Research examines the ‘abortionist saints’ of medieval Ireland
A recent article on sexuality and childbirth in early medieval Ireland reveals some surprising attitudes towards abortion held among the Christians during this period, and that hagiographical texts recount four Irish saints performing abortions.
Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials, by Maeve Callan, appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality. Callan examines a wide range of hagiographical works and other sources from medieval Ireland. She writes, “these accounts celebrate saints who perform abortions, restore female fornicators to a virginal state, contemplate infanticide, and result from incest and other ‘illegitimate’ sexual unions. Moreover, the texts themselves generally reflect a remarkably permissive attitude toward these traditionally taboo acts, an attitude also found in Irish penitentials and law codes.”
The saints who took part in these abortions were Ciar�n of Saigir, �ed mac Bricc, Cainnech of Aghaboe, and Brigid of Kildare – who are thought to have lived during the fifth and sixth centuries. In Ciar�n of Saigir Life, it is explained that a beautiful nun named Bruinnech had been raped by a local king. The story continues: “Ciar�n, despising the enormity of such a crime and wishing to apply a cure, went to the house of sacrilege to seek the girl from there.” After learning “that she was pregnant. Then the man of God, led by the zeal of justice, not wishing the serpent’s seed to quicken, pressed down on her womb with the sign of the cross and forced her womb to be emptied.”
In later texts this story was changed to where Saint Ciar�n simply blessed Bruinnech’s womb with the sign of the cross and the fetus disappeared. In the other saints’ lives this was the same way that Ireland’s three other saints had put an end to pregnancies.
Callan adds, “Saints were not the only ones performing abortions in early Ireland. The sixth-century Penitential of Finnian, the seventh-century Irish Canons, and the eighth-century Old Irish Penitential include abortion among the sins to be repented. Comparatively speaking, it was a low-ranking sin. For Finnian, its atonement required less than half the time assigned to penance for childbirth.”