Births and Birthing
DURING LABOUR - POST-BIRTH OBSERVANCES - BREASTFEEDING
- SWADDLING BANDS
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.
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
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 symbolic than realistic.
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 toes.
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.