A history of baby-eating mothers

The first IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar of the Spring term was by Dennis Stathakopoulos on the dramatic sounding topic of ‘Mothers and cannibalism in late antiquity’. This was an offshoot of a project Dennis had done on famine and pestilence in late antique Rome and Byzantium and he started with some historical and anthropological studies of reactions to famine, and in particular of the resort to alternative food-stuffs. The normal pattern seems to be after ‘ordinary’ food is consumed to move first to inferior cereals and animal fodder, then small animals or dead animals, then non-food stuffs such as twigs, boiled lather and excreta. Occasionally, some then broke the taboo of eating human flesh.

Dennis had compiled references to cannibalism, mainly in the Mediterranean between the fourth and seventh century, and wanted to explore their meaning. In particular, he was looking at several references to mothers killing and eating their own children: these included a homily of Basil of Caesarea, a letter of Jerome about the siege of Rome, Hydatius’ chronicle on fifth century Spain and several others. Given these repeated references, he was wanting to find an alternative between the main tendencies of rejecting them entirely and taking them literally.

We then got a mixture of anthropology, history and psychology. Dennis had only found two specific cases of mothers eating their children (one from the siege of Messolonghi in 1821 and one from the Donner party in 1846-1847. In both cases this was eating children who were already dead. Mothers eating children is a motif in folk tales, but it also gets referred to in a couple of Bible passages (Deuteronomy 28: 53 -57, and 2 Kings 6: 28-29). Dennis was arguing that these Bible passages were the models for later authors, probably mediated through a passage of Josephus, which gives a particularly graphic account of a Jewish mother killing and eating her child during the siege of Jerusalem.

Dennis thought that it was plausible that cannibalism did actually occur in some sieges of the period, but that it would be very hard to get specific information about it, and most of it would be third-hand at most. (I found myself thinking afterwards of some of the overheated rumours going around of people’s behaviour in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). Dennis also wondered whether the topoi-like descriptions might be some kind of psychological defence, in which horrors at the edge of being perceivable might get rendered into more soothing formats via traditional expressions. Personally I’d have thought that maternal cannibalism is actually ramping up the horror.

In the discussion afterwards there was a lot of interest in what exactly we could conclude from the various passages quoted. Did they all really show infanticide as well as cannibalism, which would seem to involve a much more serious breaching of taboos? Were the references in a couple of passages to eating half a baby at a time saying something about gluttony, given it’s doubtful that would be physiologically possible for someone starving? What were the gender implications, given those present mostly agreed it wouldn’t somehow be so shocking if fathers were depicted eating their children, as in Greek myth? (Apologies to all devoted modern fathers – I think this is a reflection on ancient paternal images, rather than modern men).

Perhaps the most interesting comment was made by Charlotte Rouche, who pointed out that Josephus’ passage is a deliberate subversion of an expected classical trope of a mother choosing to kill her child rather than have it suffer – the expectation would be that the mother too would then kill herself. Josephus’ aim was possibly to suggest the calamities of the Jews, with every moral norm breaking down. (As John Gillingham added, if babies were likely to be killed by a victorious army after a siege anyhow, since they were too young to enslave, it might otherwise seem merciful to kill them early on).

I was left unsure of the extent to what we could reconstruct the exact meaning of such passages for early medieval writers and their audiences: the function of these stories seem to be very complex, especially given the possible reuse of earlier models. But when ‘medieval’ is too often used as a synonym for ‘brutal’, it is useful to remind ourselves that these people too had a clear sense of the limits of morality and the horrors lurking beyond it.

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One thought on “A history of baby-eating mothers

  1. Thanks for writing this up, with my week’s to-do list it just wasn’t possible to make it. An obvious parallel, which John is probably aware of, to the killing of babies in a siege situation is the various sorry chronicles of the Jews in the German town hit by the First Crusade, many of which contain awful tales of mothers slaughtering their children and then themselves to save them from capture and forced conversion or worse forms of death. I don’t know how much those could be said to be influenced by the wish to subvert models—there is of course the problem of how, if these populations wiped themselves out, the order of slaughter was known—but if the models of those texts are old enough, they may instead be the model that these stories are subverting. This might even work for the Christian ones given how (relatively) widely read Josephus was.

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