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Medieval Births and Birthing

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.

Other medical texts attributed to Trotula, and those from Hildegard von Bingen had other helpful advice for the expectant mother and for during and following the birth itself.

To avert a miscarriage
Many expectant mothers were happy, if not apprehensive about becoming mothers, and shared the same concerns we do about not carrying a child to full term. Medical advice was extremely careful about offering advice to these women, because it realised that by saying what would strengthen a pregnancy and would would actively harm it, it realised that women who wished to be not pregnant might then take certain herbs in order to end an unwanted pregnancy, which was, as far as the church concerned, a sin.

Never-the-less, many remedies to ensure a good pregnancy were offered, like this one from texts attributed to Trotula:

Against miscarriage accustomed to happen to certain women in the seventh or ninth month. Take oil, wax, powder of frankincence, and mastic, and mix them, and let the woman be annointed front and back two or three times a week. This very much strengthens the womb and the cotyledons.


During labour
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.

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. 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.

Post-birth observances
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 for.

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.

Trotula, or writings attributed to her, offer more practical advice to the post-partum mother. Her advice is this:

For pain of the vagina after birth, take rue, mugwort, and camphor, grind them well and, having prepared them with musk oil or pennyroyal oil and warmed them in a pot, wrap them in a cloth and insert as a suppository.

For rupture of the genitals from birth, Trotula again has practical advice:

For rupture of the lower parts after birth, take root of comfrey, dry it and then pulverise it well, and put with fine powder of cumin and also cinnamon in the vagina, and it will be solidified.

If the birth itself had finished, but the afterbirth had not presented, Trotula again has practical advice. Once again, she turns to herbals.:

For birth of the womb and for bringing out the afterbirth. Take root of parsley, leaves of leek, and borage, and extract the juice, and mix in a little oil, and give to the patient to drink, and put vinegar into the vagina, and she will be freed.

Hildegard von Bingham, writing from the twelfth century, offered slightly less 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
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.

Since the pain of breastfeeding is a universal trait amongst brand new mothers, it comes as no surprise to learn that Trotula also had advice for the medieval woman whose breasts were tender and engorged. She advocates:

For pain of the breasts caused by milk, we should mix clay with vinegar and make a plaster; this diminishes the pain and constricts the milk. But first we should foment the place with warm water.

The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti, which is a copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis from the 14th century Vienna has this to say about promoting milk:

An excellent thing, the onion, and highly suited for old people. They generate milk in nursing mothers and fertile semen in men.


Swaddling bands
Newborns 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.

Swaddling 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, red or green do not appear to be entirely uncommon in early medieval art.

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