Toute Bonne Femme: Churching as a Women’s Rite

  • Paula M. Rieder
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Images of the Purification of the Virgin in early printed books of hours, like fig. 6.1, often portrayed a crowd gathered to witness and participate in the rite.1 In this example, a group of women and men accompany Mary for her rite of purification. The most prominent woman, well dressed and wearing a nicely decorated headdress, stands near Mary and holds a candle and a basket of doves. Behind the woman with the candle is a crowd of others too many to count. This black and white image was produced by a Parisian publisher and appeared in four printed books of hours that I am aware of, all from the late 1490s.2 These relatively inexpensive books were intended for use by the bourgeoisie and the appearance of this image in them provides some insight into the way middle-class French women and men conceived of churching. The artist portrayed purification after childbirth as a rite of particular importance to women and through which they supported one another. Although both men and women gathered to witness Mary’s churching, it was the women who stood closest to her and joined with her in the ritual. In other words, churching was a women’s rite and late medieval society expected women to be invested in it.


Fifteenth Century French Woman Unwed Mother Parish Priest Liminal Status 
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  1. 43.
    Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 2.Google Scholar

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© Paula M. Rieder 2006

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  • Paula M. Rieder

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