Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

The abbess undresses to disprove her pregnancy

  • Title: Cantiga 7 The pregnant abbess
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The story represented in the sequence of images in Cantiga 7, entitled “How Saint Mary freed the pregnant abbess who had slept before her altar weeping,” begins after the abbess of a monastery became pregnant by a man from Bologna. In the first panel, the nuns come to the bishop to tell him of the sins of their abbess. The nuns are eager for revenge against their abbess due to the strict regime she imposed upon them. In the following panels the bishop and his company ride to the monastery to investigate the situation, and the bishop discusses the sin with the abbess. The nuns who accused the abbess are standing behind her, while the bishop’s company encircle him. In the fourth panel, the abbess is praying to Saint Mary when she falls asleep. The angels deliver her child under directions from the Virgin Mary.

    The delivery scene in the Cantiga suggests the unconventional nature of this birth with heavenly assistants. The abbess sleeps comfortably as her child is taken from her side just as Eve emerged from the sleeping Adam. The depiction of this birth as a miracle presents a wondrous outcome rather than the alternatives of a stillbirth or abortion. Church doctrine required that all infants, except the stillborn, be baptized in order to gain salvation. The child in Cantiga 7 is not shown as baptized. The focus remains on the repenting abbess and not on the future of the child. However, the fifth panel does show an angel giving the child to a hermit.

    The next day is represented in the sixth panel where the bishop orders the abbess to remove her clothing in order to inspect her body for signs of pregnancy. Because of the angels’ intervention, no signs are visible. Cantiga 7 reminds its audience that even abbesses are not immune to lust. While Cantiga 7 engages with the lives of these women, it emphases patriarchal rule, represented by the bishop, and his responsibility to oversee the nuns’ behavior and punish them for sexual lapses.

    In this Cantiga and others like it, the trope of sexual sin is linked to Marian religious devotion. This draws a comparison between mortal women who succumb to the sins of sexuality, framing sexuality as an undeniable aspect of human life, and. the Virgin Mary, who remains separate from the power of sexuality, absolving mortals from the consequences of their weakness. Accounts from a Spanish thirteenth century women’s monastery in The Ladies of Zamora suggest, like the abbess in Cantiga 7, real life nuns and abbesses did not necessarily abide by the religious rules and restrictions placed on them. One of the virgins of Zamora, Doña Estefania, dined and entertained a suitor alone, suggesting what the Master General of the Dominican Order feared most, “the eventual consequences…of those nunnish glances which…were capable of pinioning a man.”

    Alfonso X, king of Castile-León, was known as the Learned and commissioned a wealth of literary works including the Cantigas. These stories of Marian miracles were composed in Galician Portuguese, the literary language of the era. Alfonso commissioned music and illustrations to accompany the poems, some of which he wrote himself. There is further personal material including Cantiga 235 in which the Virgin cures the king of a serious illness. This particular manuscript version is known as the códice rico for its numerous and detailed illustrations.

  • Source: Reproduced from the Edicón facsímil del Códice T.I.1 de la Biblioteca de San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial, Siglo XIII. Edilán, 1979. Made available open access by the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Rights: Pubic domain
  • Subject (See Also): Abbesses Alfonso X, el Sabio, King of Castile- Cantigas de Santa Maria Cantigas Mary, Virgin, Saint Monasticism Pregnancy Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: Iberia
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 1280- 1284
  • Related Work: Additional Cantigas about nuns engaged in illicit sexual activity:
    55. The nun who left the monastery,
    58. The nun who was shown the mouth of Hell,
    59. The nun who was slapped by a crucifix,
    94. The nun who ran away with a knight.
  • Current Location: Madrid, Escorial Museum, MS B.i.2, fol. 14v
  • Original Location: Iberia
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor: Layman; Alfonso X, King of Castile
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 33.8/50.2 [size of page]/
  • Inscription:

    "Como as monjas acusaron ant’ o bispo a abadessa que era prenne."[How the nuns accused the abbess who was pregnant before the bishop.]
    "Como o bispo foi veer a abadessa ao moẽsteiro."[How the bishop went to see the abbess in the convent.]
    "Como vẽaoeron ant’ o bispo a abadessa e as monjas que a acusaron."[How the abbess and the nuns who accused her appeared before the bishop.]
    "Como Santa Maria fez sacar o fillo a abadessa pelo costado."[How Mary removed the abbess’s child through her side.]
    "Como o angeo deu a criar o fillo da abadessa a un hermitan."[How the angel gave the child of the abbess to a hermit to be brought up.]
    "Como a abadessa se despojou ant’ o bispo e foi livre da acusaçon."[How the abbess disrobed before the bishop and was cleared of the accusation.]

    Captions come from Cuarenta y cinco cantigas del Códice Rico de Alfonso el Sabio: Textos pictóricos y verbales edited by Luis Beltrán. English translations come from the Oxford Cantigas de Santa Maria Database: http://csm.mml.ox.ac.uk/index.php?narOption=all&p=poemdata_view&rec=7.

  • Related Resources: Metzler, Eric T. The Miracle of the Pregnant Abbess: Texts and Contexts of a Medieval Tale of Sexuality, Spirituality, and Authority. Ph.D. dissertation. Indiana University, 2001 ;
    Hernando, Irene Gonzalez. Posiciones fetales, aborto, cesárea e infanticidioun acercamiento a la ginecología y puericultura hispánica a través de tres manuscritos medievales. Miscelánea medieval murciana 33 (2009): pages 99-122.;
    Karras, Ruth. "The Virgin and the Pregnant Abbess: Miracles and Gender in the Middle Ages." Medieval Perspectives 3, 2 (1988): 112-132.;
    Knight, Alan. The Pregnant Abbesses of Paris and Lille: Parisian Confraternity Drama of the Fourteenth Century. Brepols, 2008.