Births and Birthing
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.
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 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:
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. These images are known as Madonna
Lactern. 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 toes exposed.
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