C is for Childbirth

Midwife assisting birth with birthing chair.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Midwife assisting birth with birthing chair. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Childbirth during the Medieval period was viewed with great joy and great anxiety.  Medical treatment was crude and usually ineffective, so it was probably for the best that childbirth was considered a woman’s domain and not a medical proceeding.  Even so, the statistics show that one in three women died during their child-bearing years, most often from childbirth or postpartum complications of it.

Women in labor were attended by a midwife and her assistants, mid-wives in training, because the skill of midwifery was learned by experience only.  As midwives were called on to baptize babies in case of impending death, a woman had to have the recommendation of her parish priest in order to begin her training.

In noble households a special lying-in chamber would be prepared months a head of time.  The best bed linens would be used and the floor would be strewn with fresh rushes mixed with sweet herbs.  Once the labor began, the door of the chamber was shut and the windows blocked to keep light out.  After the birth, mother and child remained in the lying-in chamber for a month.

In addition to the midwife and attendants, the laboring woman would have up to six female relatives or friends with her for comfort and encouragement.  Remember, girls during this period were married at 12 or 14, so often the laboring mother was a child herself by our standards.  With no type of anesthesia to ease the pains, save oil rubbed on the belly by the midwife.  The presence of other women who had gone through the ordeal and lived to tell the tale were probably welcomed by the mother-to-be.

Women in labor often used a birthing chair with a horseshoe-shaped seat, allowing the midwife easy access to her and taking advantage of the slight help gravity provided. According  to Melissa Snell, “Birth was usually expected within 20 contractions; if it took longer, everyone in the household might try to help it along by opening cupboards and drawers, unlocking chests, untying knots, or even shooting an arrow into the air. All of these acts were symbolic of opening the womb.”  Often charms, such as the gemstone jasper, credited with child-birthing powers, or a cranes’ foot were used to assist in difficult births.

After a successful birth, the umbilical cord would be tied and cut at four fingers’ length.

Babies were wrapped in swaddling.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Babies were wrapped in swaddling. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The child would be washed in warm water, or milk or wine if the house was affluent.  It’s gums would be rubbed with honey to give the babe an appetite and it would be wrapped in swaddling cloths to make its limbs grow straight.  These cloths were changed every three hours.

Despite the pain and suffering of childbirth, it was a natural and expected occurrence. Women, then as well as now, looked forward to the blessed event with both fear and anticipation, hoping for a job well and swiftly done.

Sources:

“The Medieval Child:  Part 2, Entry Into the Medieval World,” by Melissa Snell

“The Midwife at Work,” by Lupita Diaz

 

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32 Responses to C is for Childbirth

  1. elfahearn says:

    What a fascinating post, Jenna. I like the idea of opening all the cupboards and drawers. I can just imagine everyone running around flinging stuff open as the mother groans on the bed.

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  2. Pingback: C is for Childbirth | Romance Reader Girl

  3. Wonderful post, Jenna! All of this is fascinating. I think the swaddling for keeping the arms straight and changing it everything three ours is very interesting. Great Post!

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  4. Sue says:

    In Victorian times (think it was maybe before) and before docs knew to wash hands, the rich women went to hospital and many died. The docs would use the same rags etc for more than one woman. The poor women who gave birth at home had a better chance of survival. Early medicine is one of my side interests lol

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Cool, Sue! Yes, before they had a clue about germs and hand washing a home birth was probably much safer than in hospital, even though lying-in hospitals had been established as early as 1745 in Dublin. Thanks for coming by!

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  5. Daryl Devore says:

    Day late here – but fantastic post.

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  6. melissakeir says:

    I’m glad that they had others there to support. In some ways, that’s what the birthing nurses do. When I had both my children, the nurses were more supportive with breathing and such than hubby. It also sounds like the chair was a good way of doing it. Laying in a bed would be harder without the help of gravity.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Yes, the nurses at the hospital were great. And my cousin, also a nurse, stayed with me during my second delivery, which was very comforting. A support system, then or now, is essential.! I thought the chair sounded very practical. At that point you want all the help you can get!

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  7. It was probably due to the young age that many women died, during childbirth. I would have been born, but I would have most likely died during child birth, and most likely my son as well as I had gestational diabetes. Great post. I tweeted and shared.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I’ve read that women often made a confession and were absolved when they went into labor because the chances of them dying were so great.I really like the odds better these days. 🙂

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  8. Great post, Jenna. Mathair and I love the history of midwifery. Funny enough, we both did our senior projects on midwifery. She had a historical view on hers with a Wiccan twist, while I did a modernized version. Sharing now.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Thank you, Inion! Midwifery is a fascinating subject. And it’s something most women relate to on some level as well. The notions that have changed over the centuries are so interesting–like shooting the arrows–I do love researching this subject!

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  9. Brenda D says:

    Excellent post. I’m so glad I live in modern times with modern medicine. If I was born in medieval times, I may not have been born, lol. I was a breech birth.
    Also, if I were pregnant with my second son in medieval times, I and my son would have died. I had to get an emergency C-section. He was breech and there were complications.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Modern medicine cannot be beat in my opinion. I had the same trouble with my first daughter–breech and complications. So we might not be here either, Brenda. Even in the early 20th century, there were major problems. If you saw last year’s Downton Abbey, set in 1921, Lady Sybil died in childbirth from pre-eclampsia because she went into seizures. I had that same condition with my second child, but they gave me meds and I lived to tell the tale. 🙂

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  10. Angelyn says:

    shooting arrows in the air–huh! Never would have guessed….

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  11. Having given unmedicated birth to twins (no medication was my choice), I can say with some experience: ouch. Although I saw a midwife for my regular checkups at the time, I was not allowed to see one during my pregnancy and not for giving birth. Twins are considered “high risk” and midwives are not allowed to supervise them according to California law. However, for me, it wasn’t a long process. Started at 8 am, was over by 5 pm. I agree with Andrea that young teenagers shouldn’t ought to be giving birth, but, if I understand it correctly, life expectancy was rather short to begin with. If they didn’t start early, they might miss out altogether.

    Good article, Jenna.

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      Unmedicated birth of twins? I’d say OUCH! I guess I have a low threshold of pain. My meds wore off during my 2nd labor and it was the worst thing I’d ever experienced. But you’re right, they started young because life expectancy was so short by our standards. As soon as a girl had her first menses, she was marriageable and as soon as she married she probably got pregnant. If she survived childbed, and didn’t die of some other disease, she might live as long as her mid-40s. We really have a lot to be grateful for these days, don’t we? 🙂

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  12. D'Ann says:

    Yikes! I thought childbirth nowadays was pretty rough, thank God I didn’t have a baby back then.

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  13. Honey to an infant? Probably one of the reasons for high infant mortality rate. I’ve had all three of my kids with a midwife, and although not pain-free, it’s not the screaming terrible process it’s made out to be as long as everything is normal (head in right position, etc.). It’s was noted by a Dr in the early 20th century, that women in countries not “Christian” the labor was nearly pain-free. Fear / anxiety = tension, and tension creates pain.
    However, these girls at 12-15 were too young to be having children 🙂

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    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      There were a lot of “remedies” or “medicine” that actually made people sicker. And I suspect you’re right about the honey and the mortality rate, although dirt and disease probably carried off a lot of women and children as well. Women of the middle ages probably learned at an early age what to expect in childbed; adults didn’t tend to sheild them from harsh truths. And while there was some anxiety I’m sure, the women in the room hopefully were able to belay some of the fear. Thanks for coming by, Andrea!

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  14. lizaoconnorl says:

    Living in Medieval times does not sound fall at all. To be honest, even living in Victorian times sounds unpleasant. Will future generations look back at our time and ponder how we could endure our hardships? Were past people unaware of their hardships, but rather,just thought ‘that’s life’ and went on? If I were transported back in time I’d be bitching and moaning the whole few days I survived.

    Like

    • lizaoconnorl says:

      Would it kill me to proof before I submit? Really, would it?
      fall = fun

      Like

    • Jenna Jaxon says:

      I’m sure just as we find our modern conveniences revolutionary, people of other times thought their innovations just as grand. I’m sure when the typwriter was invented, secretaries threw away their pens and danced a jig. In the future, when all you need do is speak into your cell phone to create a document, they will pity us for having to type. 🙂 So yes, I think they thought, “That’s life,” and carried on. I’d like to try living back in Medieval times for a short time, that is. I do like my cold remedies and Tylenol on occasion. 🙂 Thanks for coming by, Liza!

      Like

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