Births and Birthing
DURING LABOUR - POST-BIRTH OBSERVANCES - BREASTFEEDING - SWADDLING
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.
Many options were available for the woman who was birthing but
none were particularly effective. Largely these consisted of herbal
poultices, folk remedies and devout prayer.
Invoking the name of Saint Margaret,
the patron saint of childbirth, was always believed to ease labour
pains and assure a safe delivery. 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
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:
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.
Another suggestion for the delivery
of a breech birth said that the midwife should:
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.
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.
Mentioned in an English will dated 1508 is:
Also, one small girdle harnessed
with silver and gilt which is an heirloom, called Our Lady's
girdle, for sick women with child, I will that it be delivered
to my son Roger, to remain as an heirloom.
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.
The mother is attended by many women who stand by with towels
and water to wash the new babe.
Whether the mother is accurately
portrayed in her clothing or whether she is painted that way to
preserve her modesty can only be guessed at. Other images of births
usually show the mother as partially clad or in a chemise although
the illumination detail at the top of the page, artist unknown,
shows a woman who is completely naked.
Lorenzetti's painting The Birth of Mary painted in 1342
detail at right, shows a birthing scene. Women attend the childbirth
and wash the infant while men wait outside. Bowls to wash with
and towels are shown, much as the home births of today are prepared
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.
Many noble women were often not too involved in the direct upbringing
of their babies, preferring to hire the services of a wet nurse
in place of breastfeeding the children themselves. This, of course,
was not encouraged by the church who felt that if the Virgin suckled
her own child, then noble women should do likewise.
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 upright than realistic.
Breastfeeding mothers are often shown
wearing a gown which has two small slits in the gown which made
breastfeeding easy. Many other breastfeeding images of the Madonna
merely show the front of the kirtle partially unlaced and the
breast pulled out from the top.
and infants were wrapped in swaddling bands. This was believed
to provide warmth, encourage the baby's limbs to grow straight
and keep the baby supported. One common belief was that the limbs
were loosely-jointed and that sudden movements were harmful to
the development of the child.
In medieval Europe there were two
main swaddling methods: the tightly-swathed circular technique
and the looser crisscross technique. The detail at right from
the Master of Trebon, The Adoration Of Jesus circa 1380
shows the babe snugly wrapped from tip to ankles, leaving the
clothes generally consisted of a square of cloth with two or more
additional bandages for securing. The baby was laid on the cloth
diagonally and the corners were folded over the body and the feet
and under the head with the bandages being tied securely around
the baby. This formed the baby's clothing until it was about a
eight or nine months of age.
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.