Where are you born = where you root: forest-related fertility and birth rites in 16-19th century of the French countryside

The time of the ‘old hag’ is almost finished and soon we’ll celebrate Candlemass, Imbolc, Setsubun or any other ‘first light/chase away demons’ festivities in the whole of the world. This blog summarises and reflects upon a book from 1984, by Jacques Gélis, a French historian apparently specialised in rural history of the 16-19th century: “L’Arbre et le Fruit. La Naissance dans l’Occidente moderne” (The Tree and the Fruit).

Three Queen’s day and the book

Some days before Three Kings’s Day (or Epiphany), I met the Black Madam of the Silsombos in the heart of Flanders. Her guardian is an oak.

The dark mother. Always in the shade. Covered with moss and winter mysticism. There are many stories about this statue of Mary and this place. Horrible stories. From past and present. About people drowning in the brooks, about young women being chased by men with bad intentions.

Around Halloween, a friend’s mother told me about this statue and this forest … and I do not know why, but I wanted to visit this place in winter. And on January 3rd, it was so far. As we floundered through the mud, we talked about how our society needs more inertia. I realized that mud also has something “feminine”. It’s full of stories about delay. Earthly.

The Silsomforest would be named after Sil, a hermit. I’m definitely going to try something more to learn more about her. A hermit, a female religious statue… a Flemish place with so many stories about female spiritual authority asks to be spit out;). I have already sent a few e-mails “with perhaps special questions” to guides and heritage experts, but no reply so far.

In the meantime, I got to know this mother’s friend better. She used to be a midwife. Fascinated by birth and life. During the walk in the mud, she called herself a “witch” a few times, because many midwives used to end up in the fire. She has written a book about her former occupation and lended me that day this book. And also another book, which title I can translate as: “The Tree and the Fruit – pregnancy and giving birth before medicalisation”.

She remarked that I’m not afraid of destruction and death. “I do not often meet young women who are involved in it.” I have not thought about it that way yet, but I have indeed been dealing with “the tree and death” since my grandfather’s forest accident almost 15 years ago. Maybe more than other young women.

This walk did have something yin and yang: the older woman dealing with birth and light, and the younger woman dealing with death and darkness. I was interested to learn more about life, and she decided to look into the past of her family after the last member of a previous generation died. When I told some friends about it, they said there ‘might have been an exchange’.

Three weavers. Travel. Through mud. An oak prince. In a bed of moss. Scars zippers in their skin. Places full of seeds. The young woman. The black mother. The witch. They did not give any presents. To the holy king’s son of this new forest. They observed only. The brook smiled. And they returned. And the brook knew: There is always an exchange.

Some thoughts of the book

“In the sixteenth, seventeenth centurie, and even the 18th until early 20th century, the imaginary world around birth is still that of a rural society whose cosmology is based on the rhythm of the seasons, the connection with the earth and the reference to the ancestors. (…) One made frequent use of signature medicine which, however, was often accompanied by devotions, because they believed that the female saints were able to correct the mistakes made by nature.(…) The association between femininity – fertility has been so old and so strong… in languages like Latin and German, the names of trees, the symbols of fertility, are almost always feminine, as are the names of rivers and all ‘active forces’, night, snow and light. (…)

Rites took (or still take) often take place at healing springs. These springs are located on the slope of a valley, hidden in a grove or far from the road, which makes it excellent to practice one’s devotions there in solitude; one can say or do things there that seal a contract, without others knowing. In such places, the girls enters into contact with the living forces of nature. The water that rises faster or slower, depending on the season, symbolizes the breathing of the earth.”

Even now, we can see that it are women who look for refuge in nature in times of pandemics, according to this recent study from a Canadian university.

When a woman wants a baby

Apparently, back in France (and according to the midwife, we could say this was probably also happening in Belgium), the young woman would resort to all kinds of devotions, mostly at sacred springs, sacred old stones or sacred trees. The fertility rites in which trees played an important role were countless and usually had the purpose of promoting ‘fruit production’.

* On Torchlight Sunday (the first Sunday of the Fasting period before Easter, e.g. February 20, 2021), people walked under the trees with burning torches, begging them for a good harvest, threatening them, shaking them violently and striking them.
* There was a “tree language” to which and attached great importance in predictions and dreams, in the search for a spouse and at the time of marriage.
* Planting maypoles was a common custom, even in cities.
* Couples were particularly interested in certain trees from their wedding day onward, namely those that were hollow, and by crawling through them they signaled their hope for a fruitful union.
* Also shaking a tree at a certain time indicated that they wished to have children, e.g. Christmas Day.

“The chosen tree was usually notable for its exceptional height, mighty branches and thick trunk, but also for its location, as a beacon at a crossroads or a high point, it was part of a mythical geography known only to the locals”.

Another Black Madonna, but in Bretagne

Thanks to the book, I became acquainted with another mother image near running water:

“In the Breton region of Morbihan, near Baud, there is a stone statue of the “Venus of Quinipily”, known in the seventeenth century as “the old woman” (Er Groarch’ Couard) or “the human”. It is the image of an ancient pagan goddess: a Greco-Roman Venus, an Irish Dercith or an Egyptian Isis?
This statue stood in the mid-seventeenth century in Castennec-en-Bieuzy on a grassy mound by the river Blavet.”

Not coincidentally next to flowing water, also a symbol of birth and life force.

“The object was of a worship that goes back at least to the Middle Ages. Pregnant peasant women from the area placed their unborn child under her protection. The rituals performed by pregnant women at the statue included walking around three times, reciting charms and touching the belly. Women also wore a band that would either be touched to the statue and then tied around their waists, or half of the band would be attached to the statue, while the remaining half would be held to the woman’s body until the child was born. After childbirth, the basin in front of the statue was used by women to bathe in.

In 1660, the Bishop of Nantes, alarmed by the popularity of this pilgrimage site, decided to ban what he considered to be inappropriate devotion. Without success. Some time later, missionaries who had come to Baud to preach there threw the ancient idol into the river; on the spot where it stood, they had a penitential cross erected. Three years later, however, “the old hag” was fished up and secretly placed along the water’s edge. But the news spread quickly. Once again, pregnant women from far and wide arrived. In 1670 she was again thrown into the water. Finally, in 1696, Count Pierre de Lannion had her transferred to the park of his castle in Quinipily, where pregnant women came to visit her in secret until our time to ask for her protection.”

The statue is said to be almost two thousand years old.

Source: wikipedia (because I have not visited this place yet)

Rooting – or the birth

The fruit has fed on the tree and is now detaching itself from it.
During the preparation, laces and straps are loosened and rings and buckles are taken off. The umbilical cord is cut.
In addition to these separation rites, certain rites are performed to welcome the child into the group. As the environment welcomes the child, as it is washed and dressed and breastfed for the first time, it is recognized as a “human being.

Some generations ago, people were born in their homes. Being born meant also rooting. Between the human and the earth, the ancestral land, there is a strong connection. However, nowadays, most people are born in hospitals, even not in their home village. I am also born in a strange hospital in Edegem. I cannot say that where I am born is my home. I had never an interest to live or explore this place.

This break with the old world of birth marks the end of an evolution that began hundreds of years ago, and coincides with the disappearance of age-old values, of a way of being and thinking, of a frame of reference that the industrial revolution had eroded and then destroyed, but without anything else taking its place. Many people are uprooted. I don’t call women to give birth at home. I am just reflecting if this is a reason why people like me became serial rooters, not able to call any place a home, like our ancestors could.