Review: ‘Abortion in the Early Middle Ages, c. 500-900’ by Zubim Mistry



Published: 17 Sep 2015
ISBN: 9781903153574
Pages: 356
Binding: Hardback
Imprint: York Medieval Press                                                                                                                                   RRP £60


When a Spanish monk struggled to find the right words to convey his unjust expulsion from a monastery in a desperate petition to a sixth-century king, he likened himself to an aborted fetus. Centuries later, a ninth-century queen found herself accused of abortion in an altogether more fleshly sense. Abortion haunts the written record across the early middle ages. Yet, the centuries after the fall of Rome remain very much the “dark ages” in the broader history of abortion.

This book, the first to treat the subject in this period, tells the story of how individuals and communities, ecclesiastical and secular authorities, construed abortion as a social and moral problem across a number of post-Roman societies, including Visigothic Spain, Merovingian Gaul, early Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England and the Carolingian empire. It argues early medieval authors and readers actively deliberated on abortion and a cluster of related questions, and that church tradition on abortion was an evolving practice. It sheds light on the neglected variety of responses to abortion generated by different social and intellectual practices, including church discipline, dispute settlement and strategies of political legitimation, and brings the history of abortion into conversation with key questions about gender, sexuality, Christianization, penance and law. Ranging across abortion miracles in hagiography, polemical letters in which churchmen likened rivals to fetuses flung from the womb of the church and uncomfortable imaginings of resurrected fetuses in theological speculation, this volume also illuminates the complex cultural significance of abortion in early medieval societies.

As ever, I requested and received this e-book from

My Review

The relentless emphasis on early sources can be hard work to get through, especially with the copious footnoting and the multiple pages of the bibliography. It made me so happy.

Mistry uses a wide variety of sources, some which have been heavily mined by previous works on the subject and some which are lesser known, if Mistry’s comments are to be believed. They give us a fragmentary but interesting look in to early mediaeval religious and secular thoughts on discussion. Many of the sources themselves relied on earlier sources for their authority, the pronouncements of church fathers and councils passed on in legal codes and penitentials. Much of the discussion arose around the point at which  foetus achieves personhood and this the point at which murder is committed. If abortion was murder a different punishment was inflicted.

Even though it was hard going and I sometimes had to re-read a page I found this book very enlightening, and would recommend it for those interested in the European early middle ages, a study of one of the many aspects of the intricacies of life.


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