A MEDIEVAL WOMAN'S LIFE - BIRTHS
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Births and Birthing
The practices surrounding medieval childbirth
DURING LABOUR - POST-BIRTH OBSERVANCES - BREASTFEEDING - SWADDLING BANDS
Many women suffered greatly and many more died in childbirth regardless of whether they were rich or poor. A medieval gynecological treatise from the medical school of Salerno called The Diseases of Women wrote of the horrors and dangers of childbirth with little to relieve the stresses of childbirth other than poultices and prayer.
Potions advocated for childbirth in the middle ages included rubbing the flanks of the expectant mother with rose oil, giving her vinegar and sugar to drink, or applying poultices of ivory or eagle's dung.
Gemstones were also utilised to ease childbirth. Placing a magnet in the mother's hand was believed to provide relief as was wearing coral around her neck. In the twelfth century, Hildegard Von Bingham wrote of the powers of the stone called sard:
Another suggestion for the delivery of a breech birth said that the midwife should:
In cases of difficult births for noble ladies, the mother-to-be could have been advised to put on a holy girdle which would help to alleviate the pains. At Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, monks guarded the girdle of St Ailred as it was known to be helpful to ladies lying in. The Sickness of Women, one of the texts attributed to Trotula, wrote of a beneficial girdle made of a hart's skin and also wrote of jasper being beneficial.
Royal births were accompanied by much pomp and ceremony. When Henry III's pregnant queen Eleanor was due with her fourth child, she borrowed the Virgin's Girdle and a thousand candles were lit around her husband's tomb. The baby boy was christened Edmund because the antiphon of St Edmund was being chanted on Eleanor's behalf at the time of the baby's safe delivery.
Pictured above at left is a detail from
a fresco by Da Milano in 1365 of The Birth of The Virgin.
Rituals surrounding medieval childbirth included the essential burning of the newborn's umbilical cord in the household fireplace. The puryifing influence of fire was seen as a way of counteracting the sinful origins of conception.
Hildegard Von Bingham, writing from the twelfth century, offered helpful advice to mothers who had just given birth. She advocated that from the time of the child's birth and throughout its infancy, a stone of jasper should be kept on her hand. Possibly, she means, set into a ring, although this is unclear. The jasper would also protect the child from evil as it emerges from the womb.
New mothers were forbidden to attend church until properly prepared post-birth in the ritual of churching. This was the ceremony where a woman was welcomed back into the church after childbirth and was once again permitted to take the sacraments. Until that time, a woman might not touch holy water, bake bread or prepare food.
How rigidly this baking of bread and preparing of food was adhered to in a small domestic or peasant setting is unknown. Certainly in larger, more affluent households where help was available, the practice would have been carefully noted. It seems unlikely that a peasant woman would refrain from her chores for any extended period of time if she had a husband and other children in her care.
At left is an image from 1360 by Barnaba da Modena of The Virgin and Child showing Mary with her breast exposed for breastfeeding, although clearly the positioning of the baby is more symbollic than realistic.
medieval Europe there were two main swaddling methods: the tightly-swathed
circular technique and the looser criss-cross technique. The detail
at right from the Master of Trebon, The Adoration Of Jesus circa
1380 shows the babe snugly wrapped from tip to toes.
Soranus, a physician from the second century, wrote about the swaddling of infants. He recommended that babies be tightly bound from the feet to the shoulders. His recommendations were later included in medical and midwifery books in late 15th century Europe.
The detail shown at right by Geburt Christi dated at 1330 shows the baby Jesus wrapped in green swaddling bands instead of the traditionally white. Coloured bands of blue or green do not appear to be uncommon in early medieval art.
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