Death in Childbirth: Memory, Mortality, and Premodern Europe, 1000-1700 ce

By Dr. Samantha Katz Seal

About the Project

When we talk about maternal mortality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, we tend to talk about one specific, unknowable question: how many women died?

I want to think about premodern maternal mortality from a different perspective, one that combines quantitative data and historical method with forms of inquiry— for example, network theory— that have been particularly useful in literary studies.

This page offers a preliminary taste of what I hope will be a growing Digital Humanities project, one which aims to collect, organize, and make accessible to a wide audience the information that we do have on the premodern women whom we know did die. With this information I believe that we can:

  1. Identify patterns in mortality incidents related to geographic location, individual pathology, historical events, etc.
  2. Observe clusterings of medieval mortality within specific families/lineages.
  3. Consider these deaths as public, high-profile occurrences that resonated within their local (sometimes even international) society, with potentially significant impacts on their communities.
  4. Offer a form of memorialization for women who died fulfilling their society’s vision of normative female practice and embodiment, sometimes without their full consent.


This is not a statistical project. One cannot make statistically accurate conclusions from this data; the premodern women for whom we can clearly identify a reproductive cause of death were almost invariably the most elite of their region. At best, we are looking at a small sampling of the women who actually died. But therein also lies the advantage. These were the women whose deaths in childbirth were most likely to influence a wide circle of others, to inspire gossip, communal trauma, even literary production. In this sense, we can think of the incidence of maternal mortality almost as an interlaced network of female-centered trauma stretching across medieval Europe; the memories of the women who did die contributed to the association of childbirth with maternal death, amplifying the sense of risk for those women of reproductive age who yet remained alive.