I went to a really good conference yesterday at the University of Manchester, 'Objects and Remembering'. There were some exceptional papers, including a very moving keynote by Dr Layla Renshaw. She discussed her work as a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist in the exhumation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War. It was both fascinating and affecting to learn how those who were alive at the time of the atrocities, as well as the descendent of those who were massacred, consistently constructed their memories of the dead via physical objects. These were not only things that had been physically exhumed along with the bones of the deceased – spectacles, a buckle, pencils, a ring – but also objects raised up from people's memories, things long gone, and visible only to the mind and heart. One individual recalled the corduroy suit one of the victims had worn on the day he was taken to his death, The suit, perhaps memorable as something rather fashionable at the time, was thus the link to the past, an object that somehow uniquely represented a loved one – and perhaps in a sense represented the loss of that one too. Layla’s book on her study of these exhumations is now for me a must read.
To something at the other end of the life-death spectrum, and to a few thoughts triggered by another of the really interesting papers at the conference, one by the first speaker, Dr Emma-Jayne Graham of the Open University, who was looking at Roman votive objects in the form of terracotta babies. Hundreds of these astonishing objects have survived. They are typically life-sized, and all of them are represented as swaddled. Emma-Jayne explained how they were probably given by parents as offerings to gods in recognition of real babies passing into the next stage of human life, of the moment when they could be released from the protection of swaddling – a rite of passage, in other words. I asked her about the faces of these babies, whether they were realistic. She said some were, but others looked like old people, and others like aliens! A fair description of all babies, I thought.
Anyway, inevitably, my medieval brain made an association with Anglo-Saxon depictions of swaddled babies. In the manuscript known as Junius 11 (c. 960-c. 980), there’s a picture of Eve lying in bed holding up a rather static-looking, and rather big, baby (Cain), who then appears to float over towards Adam. (The link to it is HERE, though you need to zoom in to see it properly.)
In another manuscript, the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch (c.1020-c.1040), we have a series of what are called cenningtid or post-birthing scenes: mothers tightly wrapped in their bedclothes looking on at midwives attending to their babies.
(You can see the cenningtid of Hagar on folio 28r; of Lot's daughters on folio 34r; of Sarah, folio 35r; and of Tamar, folio 57r HERE. The images are copyrighted so I can only provide you a link to them. Unfortunately the slightly clunky British Library manuscript viewer does not allow me to give a direct link to each one, only to the first folio of the manuscript, but you can easily navigate to the relevant folios via the drop-down box on the right of the screen. Again, you will need to zoom in for clarity.)
I remember the first time I came across one of these images, in my early days as a PhD student. For a moment, I had thought the child was inside a cauldron! A baby being boiled in a cooking pot! Horrible Anglo-Saxons! Then, of course, I (fairly) swiftly reigned in my wayward imagination and realised it was a biblical birth scene. As you can see, the babies are again depicted scarily big – no nod to realism here.
One other thing of interest for me is the fact that the midwives in these scenes are always shown with uncovered heads, as opposed to the mothers who are shown formally with typical head-coverings. I find this detail rather touching in an odd sort of way: as if we’re being invited into the more private side of begetting offspring. And if you find this hint of intimacy curious, then you will want to know that the only other instances in this manuscript where women are shown with uncovered heads are in scenes depicting sex. But that’s for another time.