Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death

Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death

Sat, 04/04/2015 - 5:00pm

Host Helen Castor

Historian, author and television presenter Helen Castor explores how the people of the Middle Ages handled the most fundamental moments of transition in life. In doing so, she reveals the beliefs and thought process of those living in the medieval world. For the people of this time, the teachings of the Catholic Church shaped views and attitudes across the whole of Western Europe. But at the end of that era, the Church would find itself in the grip of momentous change and the ways of birth, marriage and death would never be quite the same again. Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death airs Saturdays April 4 through 18 at 5 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

April 4 - A Good Birth
For a medieval woman approaching the moment of labour and birth, there were no antiseptics to ward off infection or anaesthetics to deal with pain. Historian Helen Castor reveals how this was one of the most dangerous moments a medieval woman would ever encounter, with some aristocratic and royal women giving birth as young as 13. Birth took place in an all-female environment — the male world of medicine was little help to a woman in "confinement." It was believed that the pains of labor were the penalty for the original sin of humankind so, to get through them, a pregnant woman needed the help of the saints and the blessing of God himself.

April 11 - A Good Marriage
Unlike birth and death, which are inescapable facts of life, marriage is a rite of passage made by choice and in the Middle Ages it wasn't just a choice made by bride and groom — they were often the last pieces in a puzzle, put together by their parents according to rules laid down by the church. Helen Castor reveals how in the Middle Ages marriage was actually an easy process. One could get married in a pub or even a field simply by exchanging words of consent. From the 12th century onward, the Catholic Church tried to control this conjugal free-for-all. For the church marriage was a way to contain the troubling issue of sex, but, as the film reveals, it was not easy to impose rules on the most unpredictable human emotions of love and lust.

April 18 - A Good Death
Most of the time we try not to think about death, but the people of the Middle Ages didn't have that luxury. Death was always close at hand, for young and old, rich and poor — even before the horrors of the Black Death, which killed millions in a few short months. However, for the people of the Middle Ages, death wasn't an end but a doorway to everlasting life. The church taught that an eternity spent in heaven or hell was much more important than this life's fleeting achievements and there was much you could do to prepare for the next life in this one. As historian Helen Castor reveals, how to be remembered — and remembering your loved ones — shaped not only the worship of the people of the Middle Ages but the very buildings and funding of the medieval church itself.