Helen Castor explores how the people of the Middle Ages handled the most fundamental moments of transition in life – birth, marriage and death.
Part 1: 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 and the male world of medicine was little help to a woman in confinement. It was believed that the pains of labour 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.
Part 2: A Good Marriage
Unlike birth and death, which are inescapable facts of life, marriage is 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, with help from their family and friends, according to rules laid down by the church.
Helen Castor reveals how in the Middle Ages marriage was actually much easier to get into than today – you could get married in a pub or even a hedgerow simply by exchanging words of consent – but from the 12th century onwards 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.
Part 3: 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.