Here is how the story goes: One day, the Countess Margaret of Henneberg met a poor woman who said she was carrying twins. The countess was confounded by the prospect of birthing two children at the same time. She told the poor woman that the only way twins were possible was if they had two different fathers. Outraged, the poor woman cursed the countess, declaring that she would have as many children as there are days in a year.
On Good Friday in 1276, the countess gave birth to 365 children. The children were as small as mice. Legend holds that half the children were girls and half were boys. The boys were baptized as Jan, the girls baptized as Elizabeth. The sex of the odd number child was debated a lot in the seventeenth century. Some theologians decided that child was a hermaphrodite, just to make things even. Regardless, all those tiny children died, and so did their mother.
There are different variations on the story. In one version the countess insults a woman with quadruplets. In another, she insults a woman with twins, making the father of the twins believe that his wife has cuckolded him; he places his wife in jail until the countess gives birth to her 365 children, proving his beloved's innocence.
But all the stories follow the same pattern: A haughty rich woman insults the motherhood of a poor woman, and as a result, is cursed with children—365 children, all tiny fingerling babies, boys and girls, who die and take their mother with them.
There is an engraving of the scene of Margaret's miraculous birth by Pieter Kaerius. It depicts a busy bedchamber where Margaret lies in the canopied bed in the right-hand corner, attended to by a midwife. In the foreground other women boil water and stand around, busily ministering the tasks of birth. You might miss it, but in the far left corner, on top of a table is a basin, on top of which 365 little bodies stand unnoticed and unattended to by anyone else in the picture. When I first saw those manifold babies just standing there, I laughed. The absurdity is remarkable. Does no one care about these little babies? Are there so many that they can't be fully seen? Is it better just to dip them in holy water and turn away?
The legend, of course, is dubious. But Margaret of Henneberg was a real person. Born in 1234, she was married to the Count Herman von Henneberg. She had two children who survived into adulthood, a son, Poppo and a daughter, Jutta. And she did die on Good Friday in 1276 at the family castle in Loosduinen, a small village in the Netherlands.
The first mention of Margaret's many children is in a late fourteenth-century document that states simply, "During Easter, Countess Margaret of Henneberg gave birth to 364 sons and daughters and died quietly, together with them." From there, the story grows until it reaches an apex in the early seventeenth century. Childless women would travel to the Loosduinen Abbey and wash their hands in the basin that allegedly baptized all 365 babies. Of course, the basin wasn't actually the real basin, if there ever was one, But in matters of faith and miracles, proximity is more important than precision. And Margaret's curse would be their blessing.
Some sixteenth-century writers alleged that one of Margaret's children was preserved as a curiosity. The child was kept in the Kunst-kammer, the large cabinet of curiosities owned by King Frederick III. Mathies Skaanlunct saw the child, preserved in a glass bottle, hanging from a golden chain. He described it as black with small white nails and as long as one joint of a finger. The author Jan Bondeson surmises that the child in the Kunst-kammer must have really been the product of an abortion and passed off as one of Margaret's cursed children.
The infant in the bottle was lost in the 1820s, after the Kunst-kammer was dissolved by the government, and legend of Margaret of Henneberg fell out of popularity in the seventeenth century. One of the doctors who gave credence to the story of Margaret of Henneberg, John Maubray, was discredited after his involvement with the scandal of Mary of Toft: the peasant woman who claimed to be giving birth to rabbits, or more specifically rabbit bits—a leg here and piece of lung there. In reality, she was just sticking dead rabbit parts into her vagina and faking labor. Maubray believed Mary of Toft. Yet, when other less credulous doctors investigated the feces of the dead rabbits pulled from Mary's birth canal, they saw pieces of hay and straw, proof of her ruse. The jig was up, the doctors who gave credence to Mary's scam were mocked, Maubray included.
The result was that everything Maubray believed was cast into immediate doubt, and the truth about Margaret of Henneberg became another casualty in the eighteenth-century fight between science and myth.
And as science won, stories like Margaret's were forgotten. In the 1930s, her story had a renaissance when two doctors explained her miraculous birth as the expulsion of a hydatidiform mole, which is a mass that can grow inside the uterus. Inside the mole are cysts that are held together by thin strands of fibrous tissue. The children, the doctors speculated, were the cysts spilling from her vagina, like grapes falling out of a bag.
Another theory contends that Margaret of Henneberg actually had twins, and the legend is a matter of semantics. Bondeson explains: "If the countess had given birth to her children on Good Friday, that is on March 26, she would have conceived on the second day of the new year, since in those times, the year started on March 25, just before Easter. Thus, if she had given birth to as many children as there had been days in the year, she would have had two children, the twins Jan and Elizabeth."
Of course, it could also have just never happened. Margaret could have never had 365 cysts or children or even twins. Myths about haughty women mocking peasant women on their multiple births and being punished with multiples of their own abound in many cultures. The moral of these stories is clear: Your blessing is your curse.
This truism is still often true when it comes to women and childbirth, and the idea stretches back to the a beginning: Eve's punishment for ruining paradise was pain in childbirth. As God tossed her and Adam out of Eden, before he placed a flaming sword before its gates, he told her, "I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children." Later in By Psalms 127, children are called a reward. "Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them," the psalmist says, comparing children to arrows. Curse and blessing.
Jewish mythology suggests that even before Eve, there was a woman named Lilith. She was Adam's first wife, cast out of the garden because she demanded equality with man. Lilith personifies the ubiquitous female evil—the tempting serpent in the garden, a demon, the reason men spill their seed, a night hag, a monster, the mother of demons, the lover of Satan. She is a vampire, a succubus. Some stories even claim that because of her evil, the angels cursed her so that every day, 100 of her demon seed would die. In revenge, she tries to kill the children of Eve. She is credited as the cause of stillborns and the patron demon of abortions.
In Greco-Roman mythology, Lamia (which translates to Lilith), is cursed by Hera to only have stillborn children because she slept with Zeus. In retaliation, Lamia devours the children of other women. All the while, she is consumed by her own grief, which is compounded by the fact that she cannot close her eyes until, in an act of mercy, Zeus allows her to pluck her own eyes from their sockets. Like Margaret of Henneberg, Lilith experiences children as the inverse of a blessing, and pitted against Eve, the two Biblical women are a precursor to Margaret's story: woman pitted against women, both cursed by fertility.
In Margaret we see a woman perfectly fruitful and perfectly barren. Blessed with children and cursed with their abundance. She both literally contains multitudes and contains nothing at all.
In Sisters of Sinai, a feminist rereading of women in the Bible, Jill Hammer retells the story of Lilith and Eve. Instead of rivals, they become partners. In Hammer's version, Lilith lures Eve to the center of the garden and tells her that she lives in the ocean, where she gives birth to children who are stolen by the angels. Lilith explains that her children are the souls of Eve's children and in order for them to live, Eve must eat of the forbidden fruit. To illustrate her point, Lilith creates a fire that heats the forbidden fruit until it bursts "like seedpods" and thousands of tiny lights scatter into the night.
Lilith then says, "We are meant to scatter our sparks in the world. Without that task, we are not alive. And so you must begin death, and hope, and children. You must bear bodies for that souls that are waiting."
The story has eerie resemblance to the myth of Margaret, whose womb burst forth with hundreds of half-formed children. It ties together both blessing and curse that are the prevailing mythologies of the female body. To become a mother is to labor through a curse. Your uterus is your value. It is also your undoing. My own children are the reason I pee when I sneeze. They have ruined me. They have made me. I am more than their mother and yet, sometimes, that is all I ever can be.
This representation, of course is a half-formed thing, it is a false equivalency. There is more than just a Eve or a Lilith, a peasant woman or a Margaret. There is more to a woman's meaning than just bearing children. I know this. We all know this. And yet, there is that archetype again, doing battle within us, until something breaks and pours forth—a hundred little multitudes, our blessings and curses, baptized and waiting.
Previously: "A History of Lithopedions: When a Fetus Turns to Stone"
Lyz Lenz has written for The Hairpin, The Toast, The New York Time Motherlode, and other various and sundry internet entities. Find her on twitter @lyzl.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby, Source image via Shutterstock. 17th-century engraving by Pieter Karius.