the pregnant abbess, the nun of Watton, and cuckolded husbands

pregnant abbess delivered of her child

The story of a pregnant abbess miraculously delivered of a unwanted child was highly popular in medieval Europe. The story is first attested in Latin in the 1120s. It became part of many Latin collections of miracle stories throughout Europe. By the thirteenth century, vernacular versions existed in England, France, Spain, and Italy. By the fifteenth century, the story was known from Iceland to Ethiopia. The story of the pregnant abbess had such broad appeal that it was made into a drama presented to the Paris Goldsmiths in 1340. About a century later, the story was made into a drama presented in public processionals at Lille.[1] The miracle of the pregnant abbess wasn’t regarded as scandalous or ridiculous.[2] It was celebrated as revealing the mercy and grace of God.

In the story of the miracle of the pregnant abbess, an abbess ruled her convent with rigorous piety. The nuns under her disliked her severity. They sought her downfall. By the instigation of the devil and her own weakness (and implicitly by the prayers of her sister nuns), the abbess became pregnant through sex with a table servant. The sisters found out about the abbess’ pregnancy and secretly informed the bishop. He came to the convent to investigate. The abbess fled to an altar of the Virgin Mary and prayed for mercy. The Virgin Mary appeared with a retinue of angels. She induced the abbess to give birth. The angels took away the child and gave it to a hermit to raise. When the bishop sent representatives to examine the abbess, they found no indication of pregnancy. The bishop, astonished, himself examined the abbess. He too found no indication of pregnancy. Horrified at the injustice done to the abbess, he threw himself at her feet and begged her forgiveness. He ordered harsh punishment for the false accusers. The abbess, not wanting her sisters to be unjustly punished, confessed her pregnancy and the miracle to the bishop. The bishop praised the Virgin Mary, forgave the abbess, and took care of the child. The abbess’ child eventually succeeded the bishop in his episcopal office.[3]

Aelred of Rievaulx’s account of the nun of Watton includes a miracle like the miracle of the pregnant abbess delivered of her child. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote about 1160 of recent events concerning a nun at the Watton monastry. In Aelred’s account, the nun of Watton, like the abbess, was despised by her sister nuns. The nun of Watton, like the abbess, got pregnant. The nun of Watton was also miraculously freed of her pregnancy by angels.[4] In addition to hatred of men’s genitals, Aelred’s account is colored with hatred for bodily effects of pregnancy. The miracle of the pregnant abbess doesn’t describe the abbess’ body after her pregnancy is ended. Aelred, in contrast, described with evident contempt for natural effects of pregnancy the rejuvenation of the nun of Watton:

When the morning had come the supervising nuns were there looking at her. They saw her womb had shrunk, that her girlish — I will not say virginal — face had put on comeliness, and that her clear eyes had lost their leaden color. … They prodded her womb, and behold, such slimness had succeeded the swelling that you would think her belly attached to her spine. They prodded her breasts but drew no liquid from them. Not sparing her, however, they pressed harder, but they expressed nothing. They ran their fingers over each of her members, they explored everywhere, but they discovered no sign of a birth, no indication of a conception.

{ Mane autem facto, adsunt custodes, respicientes in illam, vident detumuisse uterum, vultum puellarem, ne dicam virginalem, induisse decorem, oculos perspicaces, plumbeum deposuisse colorem. … Palpant uterum, et ecce tumori successerat tanta gracilitas, ut dorso ventrem adhaerere putares. Tentant ubera, sed nihil humoris eliciunt ex eis. Nec tamen parcentes, fortius premunt, sed exprimunt nihil. Per singulos artus currunt digiti, explorant omnia; sed nullum signum partus, nullum conceptus indicium repererunt. }[5]

Recent scholarly work has focused on women to celebrate Aelred of Rievaulx as a champion of gender equality:

Without apology or drama he praises women in the highest social ranks for their virtue, their strength, and their concern to build up the Church and the kingdom, and he shows ordinary English women receiving God’s blessing through his saints. His women are remarkable for their virtue, faith, and social or domestic roles rather than for their sex. Aelred recognizes not only kings and saints as models of human virtue and faith but all sorts and conditions of women as well. As he declares that God created men and women as equals, he portrays them as equally sinners and lovers of God, equally recipients and ministers of God’s loving-kindness to his creation.[6]

Aelred’s account of the nun of Watton contains hatred for the sexual biology of men and women in roughly equal measures. Unlike the miracle of the pregnant abbess, the account of the nun of Watton apparently didn’t circulate widely.[7] Medieval readers probably didn’t disseminate the story of the nun of Watton because they disliked its contempt for natural, biological effects of pregnancy on a woman’s body.

Medieval literature doesn’t include stories of men miraculously delivered of unwanted children. The nearest story concerns a Swabian husband whose work to earn money for his family kept him away from home for two years. When he came home to his wife, she had a young boy. The wife explained that she had eaten heavily of snow to quench her thirst and had thus become pregnant. About five years later, the cuckolded husband took the boy on a business trip. In a faraway land, he sold the child to a trader. When he returned home, the husband explained to his wife:

Give solace, dear wife,
give solace;
I lost your child,
whom not even you yourself
loved more
than I.
A storm arose
and a raging wind drove us,
too tired to resist,
onto sandy shoals;
and the sun scorched us all
and that child of yours

{ Consolare, coniunx,
consolare, cara:
natum tuum perdidi,
quem non ipsa tu
me magis quidem
Tempestate orta
nos ventosus furor
in vadosas sirtes
nimis fessos egit
et nos omnes graviter
torret sol, at il-
le nivis natus
liquescebat. }[8]

The story of the cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child doesn’t tell of a Godly miracle. It describes tit-for-tat morality among fraudsters:

Thus the treacherous
Swabian tricked
the wife;
thus fraud overcame fraud:
for the child whom the snow engendered
quite rightly melted
under the sun.

{ Sic perfidus
Suevus coniugem
sic fraus fraudem vicerat
nam quem genuit
nix, recte hunc sol
liquefecit. }

Unlike the miracle of the pregnant abbess, the story of the cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child wasn’t included in medieval handbooks for preparing homilies. It hasn’t been celebrated as a portrayal of men and women as equally guileful. From the beginning of Christianity to the present, neither the Virgin Mary nor Saint Joseph miraculously arrived, even just in a story, to deliver a cuckolded husband from a child he didn’t want.[9]

Unplanned parenthood can be a wonderful surprise. It can also be a major burden. In the U.S. today, a woman who finds herself pregnant can choose to abort the pregnancy, or choose to carry the pregnancy to term. She can also choose to give up the child for adoption or choose to legally abandon it. Men facing unplanned parenthood have no equivalent choices. States, in fact, unnaturally force financial fatherhood on men. Even worse, cuckolding men has become institutionalized through grotesquely unjust state procedures for establishing paternity. Men and women today can’t even imagine the miracle of a cuckolded husband delivered of his unwanted child.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Knight (2008) p. 1. The Lille play, sponsored by the collegiate church of Saint Peter, had as its principal purpose to edify. The Paris Goldsmith’s play was presented to a confraternal audience seeking “to reconcile spiritual and material concerns.” Id. p. 147. A critical edition of the Lille play, entitled “Le Miracle de L’Abbesse Grosse,” is published in Knight (2011) no. 71, pp. 223-270. Metzler (2001), Ch. 1, reviews the manuscript history and distribution of the miracle of the pregnant abbess. By the late twelfth century, Nigel of Canterbury had made the story into Latin verse. Ziolkowski (1986) pp. 91-9, “De abbatissa inhonesta.” In the thirteenth century, the story became a song in the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Here’s a list of cantiga manuscript instances of the miracle of the pregnant abbess.

[2] Boccaccio’s Decameron includes playfully scandalous stories of lascivious abbesses: the story of Masetto de Lamporecchio’s sexual over-work as gardener at a convent (3.1), and the story of the abbess, wearing a man’s britches mistaken for a headdress, catching one of her nuns with a lover (9.2).

[3] The earliest surviving manuscript of the miracle of the pregnant abbess is part of the Latin collection of miracles of the Virgin Mary that Dominic, Prior of the English monastery of Evesham, compiled in the early 1120s. Boswell (1988), pp. 259-60, provides an English translation. A Latin text providing a 13th or 14th century version (MS Harl. No. 2316, fol. 6) is available in Wright (1842), pp. 38-40, “De abbatissa a dapifero suo impregnata.” An English translation of that version is available in Metzler (2001) pp. 3-5. A Middle English version is available online from the Northern Homily Cycle, Homily 13, Purification, ll 291-448. Metzler (2001), Appendices 3 & 4,  provide manuscript and collection indices for the miracle of the pregnant abbess. While some details vary across instances, the summary above describes almost all versions.

William Adgar’s late-twelfth-century Anglo-Norman collection of Marian miracles, Le Gracial, includes the miracle (“About the pregnant abbess {De l’abesse enceintee},” Miracle XLIX). It added relevant normative context:

Whoever deliberately prevents
natural conception
commits a grave fault against God.
It is a great sin to prevent conception,
but a greater one to kill the child conceived.

{ Ke ki desturbe a escient
Naturele engendrure
Vers Deu mesprent ultre mesure.
Grant pechié est del desturber;
Greignur, l’engendrure tuer }

Vv. 40-44, Anglo-Norman text from Kunstmann (1982), English trans. from Knight (2008) pp. 136-7.

[4] The nun of Watton was also miraculous freed of fetters in which her sister nuns had bound her in a prison cell. Merciful freeing of prisoners is deeply rooted in human understanding of compassion. Miraculous freeing of prisoners is described in Acts 12:6-11, 16:25-34. Coptic Christian Marian prayers from the early centuries of Christianity included prayers for setting prisoners free. A study of the affair of the nun of Watton stated:

Of the two miracles involved in the affair, that concerning the delivery of the child was probably less impressive to contemporaries than the freeing from the fetters, which was one of the oldest and best established types of miracles and therefore convincing testimony both of God’s favour and of Henry Murdac’s powers of intercession.

Constable (1978) p. 212. That’s conceptually confused. Eliminating a women’s pregnancy is unusual and not closely related to central Christian beliefs. Eliminating the nun of Watton’s pregnancy is by far the more interesting miracle in the account of the nun of Watton.

[5] Aelred of Rievaulx, About the nun of Watton {De Sanctimoniali de Wattun} / About a certain wonderful miracle {De Quodam Miraculo Mirabili} s. 10, Latin text from Patrologiae Latina, v. 195, pp. 795B-D, English translation (modified slightly) from Freeland & Dutton (2006) pp. 119-20.

[6] Dutton, introduction, id. p. 31.

[7] It has survived in only one manuscript and attracted little medieval interest, nor much through to the present.

[8] Cambridge Songs {Carmina Cantabrigiensia} 14, “Manner of the Liebo tune {Modus liebinc}” / “About the snow child {De puero niveo}” / “Listen, all you people {Advertite, / omnes populi},” vv. 5a.3-5b.8, Latin text and English translation from Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 67-9. The raging storm and the sun suggest metaphorically the wife’s relationship with her lover and God. The subsequent quote above is similarly from “De puero niveo,” stanza 6 (of 6).

The version quoted here is a tenth or eleventh-century Latin verse version. It is the earliest surviving version of a tale commonly called “The Snow-Child.” This tale has been widely disseminated, in primarily entertaining and diverting contexts, from the Middle Ages to the present. Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 211-2. A later Latin version is know as About the merchant {De mercatore}. The Old French fabliau version is entitled, “L’enfant qui fu remis au soleil,” or “L’enfant de noif.” While it has been translated into English, it hasn’t been included in English-translated collections of fabliaux published since 1982.

Removing unwanted children from a parent’s life was common prior to the twentieth century. Means of doing so were exposure, commitment to a religious institution, commitment to domestic servitude, or sale into slavery/service through a trader. Boswell (1988) describes practices of child abandonment through the Renaissance. Placing young children as live-in domestic servants and farm laborers continued through the nineteenth century in England.

[9] Boswell (1988), in its appendices of translations, pp. 449-60, provides serially translations of “The Snow Child,” “The Nun of Watton (Aelred of Rievaulx),” and “The Abbess Who Bore a Child and Was Saved by the Holy Virgin.”Id., however, failed to recognize how these three stories relate to men’s lives and men’s social position. Scholarship on the miracle of the pregnant abbess has served mainly to obfuscate the gynocentric structure of primate societies, including human societies.  Consider:

veneration of the Virgin did not have particularly positive implications for the position of actual women in the Middle Ages; the analysis of this story indicates that even the Virgin embodied and promoted negative aspects of the feminine, and that tales told about her promoted masculine control of women’s institutions.

Karras (1988) p. 126. Medieval men, on the other hand, complained of lack of appreciation for even basic aspects of men’s sexuality. Claiming that everything degrades women, and, deep down, is misogynistic, is a way of focusing concern on women. Consider:

The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess, therefore, which seems so woman-friendly at first glance because it celebrates woman as both redeemer and redeemed turns out to be profoundly misogynist upon closer inspection. … The way the Pregnant Abbess advances the doctrinal party-line on women’s sexuality may well explain the great popularity and wide dissemination of a tale which seems permissively to excuse the breaking of vows of chastity and the indulgence in wanton lust.

Metzler (2014) p. 203. Men today are subject to crushing, state-imposed financial payments for doing nothing more than having consensual hetero-sex that results in a child that they didn’t want. Men are subject to hate rape culture worldwide. Medieval historians who cannot understand basic aspects of the world in which they live don’t inspire confidence in the value of their study of medieval history.

[image] Pregnant abbess delivered of her child. The abbess is asleep before an altar. The Virgin Mary takes the abbess’ child and gives it to an angel. Book of Hours, Use of Sarum (“The Taymouth Hours”), England, 2nd quarter of 14th century. British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 156v, detail.


Boswell, John. 1988. The kindness of strangers: the abandonment of children in Western Europe from late antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon Books.

Constable, Giles. 1978. “Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order.” Pp. 205-26 in Derek Baker, ed. Medieval Women. Oxford: Published for the Ecclesiastical History Society by B. Blackwell.

Freeland, Jane Patricia, trans. and Marsha L. Dutton, intro., ed. 2006. Aelred of Rievaulx: the lives of the northern saints. Cistercian Father Series 71. Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 1988. “The Virgin and the Pregnant Abbess: Miracles and Gender in the Middle Ages.” Medieval Perspectives. 3: 112-132

Knight, Alan E. 2008. “The Pregnant Abbesses of Paris and Lille.” Pp. 135-47 in Maddox, Donald, and Sara Sturm-Maddox. 2008. Parisian confraternity drama of the fourteenth century: the Miracles de Nostre Dame par personnages. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

Knight, Alan E. 2011. Les Mystères de la Procession de Lille. T. 5. Légendes Romaines et Chrétiennes. Genève: Droz.

Kunstmann, Pierre, ed. 1982. Adgar. Le gracial. Ottawa: Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa. Via BFM Corpus.

Metzler, Eric T. 2001. The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess: texts and contexts of a medieval tale of sexuality, spirituality, and authority. Thesis (Ph. D.)–Indiana University, 2001.

Metzler, Eric T. 2014. “The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess: Refractions of the Virgin Birth.” Pp. 195-206 in Robert L.A. Clark, ed. Romard 52-53. The Ritual Life of Medieval Europe. London, Ontario, Canada: First Circle Publishing.

Wright, Thomas. 1842. A selection of Latin stories: from manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries : a contribution to the history of fiction during the middle ages. London: Printed for the Percy Society

Ziolkowski, Jan M. ed. 1986. Negellus Wireker (Nigel of Canterbury). Miracles of the Virgin Mary, in verse = Miracula sancte dei genitricis Virginis Marie, versifice. Toronto: Published for the Centre for Medieval Studies by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 1994. The Cambridge songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland Pub.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *