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Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death

Wed Oct 9, 9-10pm, BBC4

Episode one
In fifteenth-century Britain, the worst danger a woman faced was childbirth. Surrounded by negative hocus pocus imposed by a church that saw women at best as botched version of men, complete with inside-out sexual organs, at worst as dirty, toxic necessities, women as young as 13 would be confined to a dark, stuffy room for weeks before their birth, with only holy objects and other women for company.

In this first of three programmes looking at birth, marriage and death in the medieval era, Helen Castor’s exploration of birth is strong on the actual event, but it suffers from such a focus, often feeling like a subject for ‘Women’s Hour’ rather than an everyman – and everywoman – exploration of medieval life that wider social contextualisation might have given it.

There are touches here and there ­­­– the midwife’s power over a dying baby’s eternal soul, how Henry VIII’s Reformation, itself sparked by personal experiences of infant mortality and miscarriages, led to a very different birth experience for women – but for the most part, it’s a long hour for viewers less than enthralled by the subject.