Englandcast 024: Pregnancy and Childbirth in Renaissance England

One of the most popular episodes I've done is from 2014, the episode on Pregnancy and Childbirth. Here's the transcript of the show for your reference as well.

Remember, you can support the show with a regular donation on Patreon for as little as $1/episode. And thanks!

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast. I'm your host, Heather Teysko. This episode I’m going to talk about childbirth in Renaissance England. I recently watched the BBC series called Medieval Lives that Helen Castor did - it’s on youtube if you haven’t seen it - and I was struck by the episode on childbirth, and it seemed obvious that I should do an episode on that, given that I’ve been pretty open about my own medieval issues with conception, carrying a successful pregnancy, and childbirth, both here and in my personal blog. So I’m going to focus this episode on how women gave birth in Renaissance England, and especially the changes that permeated into the birthing room with the Reformation. Also, I’m going to talk frankly about birth, and pregnancy, and sex, so if you are uncomfortable about that, or if you haven’t had the birds and the bees talk from your parents yet, you should really not listen to this unless it’s with a parent. I know a lot of schools have links to this podcast up on their websites, and I really don’t want to be the one to tell you about how babies are made, so go talk to a parent or other trusted adult like a teacher or youth group leader, ok?

So, let’s look at the medical knowledge and resources that women would have had as they got pregnant and carried a baby to term, and then went through the ordeal of labor and delivery. First, it’s important to recognize that the medical establishment at the time viewed women as incomplete men, and all of the medical textbooks at the time came from the position that women were men who weren’t all the way formed yet. The vast majority of medical knowledge that doctors had at this time came from ancient Roman and Greek texts, and the idea of the half-formed man comes from Galen. There is a famous text called the Trotula Texts, which is actually three titles combined that were compiled in Salerno in the 12th century. The Italian port of Salerno at this time was a famous medical hub, responsible for bringing a lot of knowledge from the Arabic world to Europe. One of the texts, called Book on the Conditions of Women talks a great deal about pregnancy, menstruation, and care for a newborn child. This text was still making its way through Europe over the next several hundred years, and would have been a novel compilation of women’s health issues, because it was actually fairly difficult to study women’s health as a male doctor since few women would be comfortable having a man handle their routine care, and most men might find it sinful and lustful. There were very few texts about women’s health, even until very recently.

Hippocrites gave us another idea about how women became pregnant that was still popular in medieval and Renaissance England, which was that women were not just the recipient of the man’s sperm, or seed, but they provided seed themselves, which meant that a woman needed to have an orgasm in order to get pregnant. I’ve read this before; and while there is clearly a positive side to this belief for women; ladies, don’t get too excited about bringing this idea back and starting some kind of Medieval women’s lib hashtag movement or something; in the middle ages it was often used as proof against a woman’s claim of rape if she got pregnant; clearly, if she was pregnant, she enjoyed it because she had an orgasm, and so it couldn’t have been rape. I’m sure many rapists got off the hook because they happened to commit their crime at a time when the woman just happened to be ovulating.

So on a happier note, let’s have Joe marry Jane, and hey love each other very much, and he wants to have babies with her. Let’s say it doesn’t happen right away. Some towns had very interesting rituals to help with fertility. There was a meadow in Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, where up until the 15th century a white bull was kept for use in the town’s conception ritual. The bull would be led by the monks at Bury St Edmunds in a procession from the meadow, and the women who wanted to conceive would accompany the bull, stroking its sides, until they reached the gates of the Abbey. At that point they would enter the church and make prayers and offerings to St. Edmund.

Once a woman gets pregnant, assuming she does, she has a lot of mixed messages she needs to deal with. First, there is the image of the Virgin Mary, and the birth of Jesus being this beautiful and holy event. Contrast that to a popular book of the times called Holy Maidenhood which describes pregnancy in part with this cheering opening:

“Your rosy face will grow thin, and turn green as grass; your eyes will grow dull, and shadowed underneath, and because of your dizziness your head will ache cruelly. Inside, in your belly, a swelling in your womb which bulges you out like a water skin, discomfort in your bowels and stitches in your side, and often painful backache; heaviness in every limb, the dragging weight of your two breasts, and the streams of milk that run from them. Your beauty is all destroyed by pallor; there is a bitter taste in your mouth, and everything that you eat makes you feel sick. Worry about your labour pains keeps you awake at night. Then, when it comes to it, that cruel distressing anguish, that fierce and stabbing pain, that incessant misery, that torment upon torment, that wailing outcry; while you are suffering from this, and from your fear of death, shame added to that suffering with the shameful craft of old wives who know about that painful ordeal, whose help is necessary to you, however indecent it may be, and there you must put up with whatever happens to you.”

After reading that, I would totally be headed straight to a nunnery.

In another contemporary book called The Sickness of Women, things aren’t quite as bad. They say that if it’s a normal natural birth, twenty pangs or so will be enough. But of course, we don’t really know that much about how often births went so easily. We are a little better informed of complications. In 16th and 17th Century England the estimations are that one out of every 40 women died in childbirth, and as many as 200 out of 1000 children would die before the age of 5. Those are staggering statistics. Mothers were advised to make confessions and their wills if they needed to before labor in case they died giving birth. Complications mentioned in The Sickness of Women start with “unnatural presentations” ie the baby in the wrong position. In these instances the midwife is to anoint her hands with wild thyme oil, and attempt to turn or rearrange the baby. Without medicine. Totally not cool. The birth of my own daughter was successful only after forceps, but of course until the 17th century forceps didn’t exist. If the baby was stuck, attempts would be made to jar the baby out by shaking the woman, lifting her, rearranging or repositioning her, and other similar methods, which, given the fact that she was in the second stage of labor by this point, I can only imagine how painful they must have been. In the case of stillborn children, it appears that the life of the mother and not the baby was meant to be saved if possible.

That leads to an interesting conundrum that involves baptism. Midwives, extraordinarily, were given the right to perform the sacrament of baptism in an emergency if the child would die. That was not only so that the child could be buried in consecrated ground, and also so that they could go to heaven. They didn’t need to wait until the child was fully delivered. If it looked as if it wouldn’t live, if there was any protruding limb the baby could be baptized. Priests worked with midwives to ensure that they knew the correct words, and knew to keep clean water available for the ceremony. In the late middle ages there were some concerns that midwives were using witchcraft to kill a baby, or a mother, or both, and more careful regulations of midwives started. Fortunately for most midwives, though, birth was a communal event and there were always many witnesses to a midwife’s decisions.

Interestingly, some recent excavations have shown that mothers grieved for lost babies just as much as we do now, and as I myself did. We keep our son’s ashes in our living room so he’s still sort of a part of our family. Some excavations of homes have shown baby’s graves under the home, lovingly made where the baby was arranged as if he was sleeping, and had little tokens buried with him. The argument could be made that perhaps the family couldn’t afford to bury the baby in the church, or the baby wasn’t baptized, but it also shows, some scholars contend, that the grief was real, and just because it was so much more common, it didn’t make the parting any easier.

So, let’s say that you’re going to give birth, and the pregnancy is healthy, and everything seems to be going well. About 6 weeks before you were due, you would go into confinement, which was your own space, with the windows shut up to keep out the bad humours, and with lots of women around you. No men were allowed, except, very rarely, priests. Noblewomen and Queens often had celebrations and feasts to celebrate going into confinement.

When labor began, one of the saints that a woman might pray to was St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. Women would often listen to readings about her in the early stages of labor. There were also icons and relics that women depended on. At Burton on Trent in Staffordhire, pregnant women were “very desirous” to have the staff of St. Modwena to lean on. Others had statues or tapestries or prayer rolls to help them focus. For centuries women believed in the benefits of jasper, and also using birth girdles. At Westminster Abbey monks guarded the Virgin Mary’s own birth girdle, given to them by Edward the Confessor, and it was available to rent for noble and royal births. Interestingly, this is often the way women who want a natural drug-free childbirth are coached in modern times. Side note: I studied self hypnosis before giving birth in an effort to go drug free, and there was a lot of emphasis on the music you could play that could trigger a hypnotic state, imagery, going to a safe space in your head and having your partner recreate and describe that space to you, and other ways to get into a relaxed state. For what it’s worth my own safe space was the beach in Bournemouth at sunset on a summer day, though after 25 hours of hearing my husband talk to me about it in between contractions, I’m a little bit sick of Bournemouth now. No offense if you live in Bournemouth. I’m sure I’ll get over it as soon as I go back.

But as the Reformation grew and brought with it the destruction of idols, these potential tools were taken from women. In 1538 the Bishop of Salisbury gave instructions that midwives in his diocese were not to use “girdles, purses, measures of our Lady or other superstitious things.” Some were told they could no longer pray to their saints. I’m not sure that there would be any way to trace how closely these instructions were followed, though. I can’t imagine being told while in the middle of labor that I was praying to the wrong saint.

Women were churched or purified about a month after giving birth, and would reemerge into the world at that point. The churching ceremony instructions are found in Leviticus, and some have argued that the ceremony is just more institutionalized misogyny seeing how it is associated with the old testament taboos around menstruation, but it’s interesting to note that modern women even today are told to avoid sex for at least a month, or their 6 week postpartum checkup so as to make sure everything is healed, and the risk of infection has gone down.

Because even after giving birth, a woman’s life was still in danger. Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymore, died two weeks after giving birth to her son Edward. Those of you who watch Downton Abbey will remember that Lady Sybill died after childbirth. Infection was a leading cause of death for most women, as was eclampsia.

A common event for people who could afford it was to go on a pilgrimage after childbirth. The shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk attracted many pilgrims who wanted blessings for fertility or safe labors, or to give thanks for children safely delivered, because it was built in the 11th century to depict the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation took place. Henry VIII himself went there in January 1511 when Katherine of Aragon gave birth to a son, walking the final mile. Though of course, it was too soon to celebrate, and the prince would die several weeks later. Two of his wives also visited Walsingham for fertility blessings. Walsingham Priory was dissolved in 1538, and I can imagine Henry approving that dissolution and saying a giant FU to it considering how little it helped him.

Finally, a note on birth control. Women didn’t have The Pill obviously, but there were ways that birth control was practiced, despite the fact that it was seen as a sin. By the early 14th century, couples practicing withdrawal were widespread enough to be troubling to confessors. Also, many women had access to herbs that could cause the body to abort a fetus, and were extremely effective in the early stages of a pregnancy - sort of like a modern morning after pill. So despite a lack of modern medicine, couples, and women, did have some ways of taking control of their reproductive lives.


That's it for this week, except the book recommendation, which is: Medieval Women: A Social History of women in England 450 - 1500 by Henrietta Leyser. I'll put a link up to purchase it on the website, which I’m trying to relaunch on wordpress with lots of links and supporting documentation for my podcasts in the next few months. I’ll also throw the youtube link up to Helen Castor’s Medieval Lives series, which I highly recommend. You can also visit the site to send me comments, story ideas, or other general thoughts about the weather, politics, or other random things. Actually, on second thought, please don’t send me thoughts about politics. The address is http://englandcast.com, or you can also find me on facebook at facebook.com/englandcast. 

So what do you think about that? I'd love to know your thoughts on pregnancy and childbirth, especially those of you who are moms! Leave a comment and let me know whether you think praying to a saint would have helped, or anything else!