I’m thrilled to announce the release of my first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective.
What’s this all about, then?
I’ll let the blurb do the talking.*
Tertullian of Carthage was the earliest Christian writer to argue against abortion at length, and the first surviving Latin author to consider the unborn child in detail. This book is the first comprehensive analysis of Tertullian’s attitude towards the foetus and embryo. Examining Tertullian’s works in light of Roman literary and social history, Julian Barr proposes that Tertullian’s comments on the unborn should be read as rhetoric ancillary to his primary arguments. Tertullian’s engagement in the art of rhetoric also explains his tendency towards self-contradiction. He argued that human existence began at conception in some treatises and not in others. Tertullian’s references to the unborn hence should not be plucked out of context, lest they be misread. Tertullian borrowed, modified, and discarded theories of ensoulment according to their usefulness for individual treatises. So long as a single work was internally consistent, Tertullian was satisfied. He elaborated upon previous Christian traditions and selectively borrowed from ancient embryological theory to prove specific theological and moral points. Tertullian was more influenced by Roman custom than he would perhaps have admitted, since the contrast between pagan and Christian attitudes on abortion was more rhetorical than real.
About the series
Medicine and the Body in Antiquity is a series which fosters interdisciplinary research that broadens our understanding of past beliefs about the body and its care. The intention of the series is to use evidence drawn from diverse sources (textual, archaeological, epigraphic) in an interpretative manner to gain insights into the medical practices and beliefs of the ancient Mediterranean. The series approaches medical history from a broad thematic perspective that allows for collaboration between specialists from a wide range of disciplines outside ancient history and archaeology such as art history, religious studies, medicine, the natural sciences and music. The series will also aim to bring research on ancient medicine to the attention of scholars concerned with later periods. Ultimately this series provides a forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore ideas about the body and medicine beyond the confines of current scholarship.
How on earth did I come up with this topic?
Heh, I remember explaining my research to a class once. One undergrad rolled her eyes and said, ‘Well, that’s random.’ I gather this was meant to be a put-down. This is a very specialised topic, though one which has implications for broader society. Perhaps it is best to begin with the story. That’s kind of my thing.
It all started when my wonderful wife and I were expecting our first baby, and we were waiting for our first ultrasound. Right at that moment I was trying to think of a good topic for my PhD research—looking for an area where I could break new ground in a subject which meant something to me. Mostly I was interested in Roman social and literary history, so I figured I’d stay on that path. As we were sitting in the hospital waiting area, my mind put two and two together: how would the Romans would have thought about the foetus and embryo? It’s not like they could see what was going on inside the uterus.
Bing! That was a lightbulb above my head. How did the offspring in utero fit into Roman family life? There was no word in Latin or Greek for ‘foetus’ or ’embryo.’ What did that tell us, if anything? When did the Romans think the soul came into being? Some of the secondary literature I’d read suggested that abortion was a routine occurrence in pagan Rome. Was that really true? I was determined to find out. Oodles had been written on Roman attitudes towards children, but the story generally started at birth. This struck me as odd. After all, parents start to think about their future children long before they set foot in the delivery room.
Flash forward a few months, and I was swamped in research. I’d imagined that I wouldn’t find a lot of source material to work with, but the opposite turned out to be the case. It was clear I needed to focus the research more intensely. Wringing my hands, I went to my supervisors, who suggested the project would be a lot more achievable if it revolved around a single ancient source. Who though? Galen? Hippocrates? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be great to make use of the research I’d already done on Roman social mores and family life? I was curious as to the impact of medical and philosophical theory on Roman conceptualisations of the foetus and embryo.
And that’s how I made the acquaintance of Tertullian—I wouldn’t call him a friend, exactly, though he’s definitely one of the most interesting people I know. Fiery of temper, steeped in rhetoric, extremely well-read in ancient medicine and philosophy, and Roman down to his socks and sandals. Tertullian, as it turned out, was loquacious on the subject of the foetus and embryo. In fact, he was the first Christian source to address the subject at length, though others had touched on it before. Through the eyes of a Roman social historian I was viewing a question which was directly relevant to today’s world: where did Christian opposition to abortion come from?
Wait, what? That’s a pretty controversial topic!
Yes, it is. For good reason—we’re grappling with big issues. There’s no point pretending the history of abortion is not politically contentious. History plays such an important role in determining policies like Roe v Wade. Readings of early Christian sources are always influenced by modern controversy—indeed, this is true of all historical sources.
Over and over I’ve seen Tertullian and other historical figures conscripted as foot-soldiers in crusades for and against abortion. Rather than try to categorise Tertullian as a pro-life or pro-choice author, I aim to give readers a deeper explanation of his views on the subject. In doing so, I’ve made a very deliberate choice not to push any political stance for or against the legality of abortion.
Still, it would disingenuous to act as though I don’t have an agenda. Full disclosure: I seek to give an historical context to allow more informed discussion. One of the great justifications for the academic study of history is that the present informs the past and can thus tell us something about ourselves. For Classical history in particular, it is often claimed that the Greeks and Romans built the foundation of the modern West. On the subject of Christian conceptualisations of the offspring in utero, there is indeed a clear link between modern and ancient thought.
Who is the target market?
Like most academic books, Tertullian and the Unborn Child is primarily marketed and priced for university and college libraries. My research is meant to serve anybody with a scholarly interest in the history of Christian thought concerning abortion. For this reason I wrote the book for a broad academic readership. It will be of use to both specialists and non-specialists in Greek and Roman history.
An extensive preview of Tertullian and the Unborn Child is available via Google Books and Amazon. Here you will find the preface and introduction. It is available to purchase as a hardback or an ebook via the Routledge website and can be ordered through numerous online retailers.
Until next time, vale.
* Text and cover image not to be copied.