Abortion in Medieval Times

Since the Roe v Wade debacle, I’ve been wondering about abortion a lot…

Basile Lebret
5 min readJun 2, 2022
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Picture me in this medieval tower. The entrance has been transformed into a conference hall by adding seats. There’s a video projector, a small table and a computer sitting in front of us. The lecturer is this old woman, dressed sharp in bright colors, for outside the heat of May is burning Paris.

She lectures us about the concept of ages through Medieval Europe. he lecture asserts through the Middle-Ages but this reduction of an entire era to a single era appears ethnocentric to me.

She tells me, the four students and the flock of retired folks present that thanks to Aristotle, human life was then divided into four stages. Infant, young age, adulthood and old age. That this measurement certainly circled back to the four seasons.

Explanation is this, in Scandinavian aeras, where the seasons were less well defined, you either were young or old. My lecturer, she asserts that in the 16th century, thanks to the expansion of clocks, a new models appeared which divided life in twelve stages. It shall be noted that, through the 13th century, towns which were declared independent could be granted the right to have a clock, before this only the church was allowed to assert the time through the use of bells.

This 12 stages model took form in Germanic societies . Since clocks were now a part of everyday life, people also began to acknowledge anniversary, which before were reserved to dead ones. It is interesting to note that a model in 10 steps existed in Western Europe. The 12 steps acknowledged the fetus and the deceased as stages of human life.

The lecturer, she asserts it is thanks to the progress of horlogery that it came to be, not medecine.

At the end of the conference, everyone is sitting in this uneasy silence that often burdens AMA. I ask: “The fact that the fetus is now a part of infant life, can it be linked to the rise of medicine and the advancement of biology which came because of the Black Plague?”

Lecturer is adamant although she agrees with me seeing those twelve stages as way more biological than spiritual. No, it’s not because of the progress in medical studies. It’s purely religious. “Abortion has always been a sin,” she says. “Lots of correspondence point to life having already started in the mother’s womb”. She adds: “We know clerics considered soul came into boys by day 40 after conception, a little later for girls.”

The four stage of life do not concern women. Their fertility is what defines them. They are either virgin, in bloom, fruitful or barren once menopause hit.

Just like legality doesn’t concern anything with a womb. During the Black Plague, in France, some councils voted for laws preventing widows from inheriting from too many husbands. in hopes of preventing the creation of matriarchal dynasties.

Me, sitted in my Medieval tower, am displeased by the answer. What interests me is not really “why” people would think the fetus to be human but when it happened.

Science history will teach you that Roman science was merely Greek knowledge. And that the fall of Rome story of snuffed all this knowledge out. It is Arabic people who would keep the flames of science ignited from the 6th to the 13th century. In 700, Ottomans conquered Spain. Through this cohabitation, Europeans scholars would rediscover Greek treaties and science the Arabs had expanded upon.

As as side-note: this may be how Dante’s Inferno was conceived, since in its conception it appears to really resembles a Muslim book called Le Livre de l’echelle Mahomet.

If books travel, ideas do too. Due to the recent Roe v Wade controversy, I learned on a Twitter feed that while fundamentalists woudl argue, Islam doesnt condemn abortion until 120 days after conception. This is based on the belief that the fetus doesn’t possess a soul upon procreation but is being breathed in after a certain amount of time.

Delving a bit more in the abortion in Medieval Europe, one would find that although it was considered a sin, punishment was an exile of three months if it happened before 40 days for a boy and 80 for a girl, and three years if the abortion took place after said date.

One paper I read mentioned how laic authorities weren’t eager to judge what they thought was a religious problem. And even cited a case in which a woman had drowned her newborn infant only to be found not guilty of homicide, since she had done with her possession as she wished.

This reminded me how a husband had every right over his family, since his wife or his child were also just seen as mere possessions.

Another paper I read mentionned how some towns in Germany had more accounts of tirals for abortion than France as a whole. Remember how I started this paper stating that the twelve stages of life took form in Germany before being imported to Western Europe through almanach and such?

More importantly, a part of me wonders: Do you think the reigion who hunted women down fr getting abortion were the same who would go on to hunt them for adoring the devil?

Michel Pastoureau, a French historian, thinks a link can be found between the French communities who burned witches and the ones who used to judge animals.

Can the reborn fight on people’s bodily autonomy be linked to obscurantism which stemmed in the 15th century thanks to the religion war? Is that why some region of the world are more chil with abortion than other?

Every way you look at it, a crisis is always good time to study the root of anissue.

In order to cut it at the root.



Basile Lebret

I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.