England,  ER,  Western Europe

What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the Past

1365 Damilano's The Birth of the Virgin
1365 Damilano’s The Birth of the Virgin

So we have discussed sexual mores from the past, but those of us who have had the birds and the bees discussion know what happens from all these bedroom doings. Many times, there is small person on the way. So how did ladies of old handle the joys of pregnancy?

Pregnancy was joyful, but it was also a very serious and dangerous business. Mortality rates for both mother and child were not good. One in three women died during their childbearing years, and being rich or young did not spare a woman from complications after labor which could kill her. The Diseases of Women, a widely used medical treatise from the medical school of Salerno, discussed how there was little release the trauma of childbirth except poultices and prayer.

Prenatal care was all but unheard of as well. Most women did not know for sure they were pregnant until the baby began to move, usually about the fifth month. This was called the “quickening”, which while it sounds like something from the Highlander was an extremely important milestone. A woman might suspect she was pregnant from a missing period, but there was no way to know for sure as that could be due to breast feeding, illness or poor nutrition. During the Tudor time period, a doctor would study the color of a woman’s urine or see if a needle left in the urine rusted. Once the woman determined she was indeed pregnant, there was no way to monitor the baby’s health in utero. Women were advised to look at something beautiful while pregnant or giving birth to ensure a beautiful baby. Wives tales abounded that women who were startled by something while pregnant would “mark” the baby, with a birthmark or some other deformity. Husbands were forbidden to lie with their wives once it was known they were pregnant, or until well after the baby was born and the woman was “churched”.

Noble ladies would begin their “lying in” starting at about the third trimester. They would sequester themselves in a purely female world, and no men were allowed as servants. Not even the woman’s husband would be allowed in. Before a lady would “take to her chamber” as it was sometimes called, there was an elaborate mass where all present would pray to “give the lady a good hour” and for her safety and blessing during labor. The chamber the lady withdrew to was closed off with tapestries of calming images to keep out sunlight in order to protect her eyes and the baby from the sun. Only one window was allowed to be open to let in fresh air. Religious relics and crucifixes were allowed to give the mother-to-be spiritual comfort. The lady would stay in her lying in chamber until after the birth. Common women sometimes also took to their chamber, but not with the same elaborate rituals of the nobility, usually with a simple blessing from the priest. Women of the lower classes usually had to work right up until their time as there was no one to cover their daily responsibilities.

Once labor began, it was the realm of the midwives. Male doctors rarely attended births unless it was an emergency or an extremely important woman, such as the Queen. Midwives would administer herbal poultices and folk remedies for pain and to speed labor. Some of these included included rubbing the sides of the expectant mother with rose oil, giving her vinegar and sugar to drink, or applying poultices of ivory or eagle’s dung. Ick. Women also called upon Saint Margaret, who in legend was swallowed by a dragon and spat back out. Women would pray the baby would be delivered as easily as St. Margaret had come out of the dragon. Magnets and coral were both used to dull the pain as described by Hildegard Von Bingen. She also discussed the healing properties of a stone called sard. “If a pregnant woman is beset by pain but is unable to give birth, rub sard around both of her thighs and say “Just as you, stone, by the order of God, shone on the first angel, so you, child, come forth a shining person, who dwells with God.” Immediately, hold the stone at the exit for the child, that is, the female member, and say, “Open you roads and door, in that epiphany by which Christ appeared both human and God, and opened the gates of Hell. Just so, child, may you also come out of this door without dying, and without the death of your mother.” Then tie the same stone to a belt and cinch it around her, and she will be cured.”

Despite these clumsy efforts for pain control, many midwives were very experienced having seen so many births. They were generally women of good character and because of their delicate position were very trusted. There was a real fear of witchcraft, and midwives had to take an oath that nothing from the birth, such as an umbilical cord or placenta, would be taken. Midwives often positioned women on a birthing stool instead of lying in bed. They also had methods for turning breech births. Hildegard Von Bingen also wrote for a breech birth, “with her small and gentle hand moistened with a decoction of flaxseed and chickpeas, put the child back in it’s place and proper position.” If a birth for a noble lady was quite difficult, she might be given a holy girdle to help with the pains. There were several of these relics used by noble ladies.

Once a child was born, the umbilical cord was burned in the fireplace. The women attending the birth would wash the child. If the child was sickly, a priest was rushed in to baptize the baby so it would not be eternally damned. If there was no time for a priest, the midwife was allowed to baptize, but only in the extreme circumstances of a child’s imminent death. Cesarean sections were almost unheard of, and only used when the mother had already died and it was the only hope of delivering a healthy baby.

Even after the safe delivery of a healthy child, the danger for the woman was not over. Many women died of puerperal infections, or childbed fever. Since there was no thought of germ theory or washing hands, the risk of bacterial infection was high. It affected women with in the first three days after childbirth and progressed rapidly causing severe abdominal pain and fever. If the woman lived, she would not be allowed to attend church until she was churched. Noble women were not allowed to feed their children, and so they were given to a wet nurse. The baby was wrapped tightly in swaddling bands to encourage the baby’s limbs to grow straight. For noble women, this must have been a lonely time as their child was whisked away and they were left alone to fight for their lives. However, this was considered to the purpose of women at this time. “Be fruitful and multiply” was the main commandment, so large families were not uncommon and women went into this danger again and again.


Sources available on request