Edith’s Diary, 1424

My name is Edith and I am fourteen years old. 

I am what you would call a medieval ‘peasant’ although we call ourselves villeins. I work the land owned by Baron Morgan and tend to the crops alongside my family in return for a house and protection from attackers. Work starts at sunrise and ends at sunset so it’s pretty intense but there’s so much to be done and we have to make the most of the light. Candles are expensive !!

When I’m not busy in the fields, I help Mother run the house. I’ve been taught to weave, sew, cook, make simple remedies from herbs and other ingredients and I help take care of my younger brothers and sisters. My older sisters help too and my older brothers help Father with the hard work outside, except for Edward. He’s just become apprentice to a blacksmith and we’re all very proud of him. 

Our farmhouse

I recently married … with Baron Morgan’s permission of course. My husband Robert is also from a villein family and I’m lucky that he is only one year older than me. I’m also lucky because we became quite attached to each other before our parents sought a marriage agreement. My friend Catherine has very ambitious parents and they made her marry a man who was ten years older than her who she had never met before, all so that they could say their daughter was married to a yeoman. That’s a free man to you – someone who doesn’t work for a lord like us. 

And now that I’m married, Robert and I are trying to start a family of our own. Afterall it’s what women are on this earth to do isn’t it? To reproduce? It’s why God has put us here and it is what Lord Morgan expects too, as well as my family and community of course. Who will work this land in years to come if there are no children born? 

I have to start while I’m young although some girls have already had their first baby by fourteen. Most people in our community live to about forty so the younger I start, the more children I can have. Hopefully there’ll be one baby a year (roughly) and that means I can have ten or twelve children by the time I reach old age at thirty. At that rate at least some of them will survive to be adults. There is so much disease and so many accidents that most poor little souls don’t live beyond their first birthday. My older cousin has had five children so far but only two have survived. 

I hope I’m not so unfortunate as her. 

March 23rd

It’s early days but I think I might be pregnant. My periods have ceased and Mother says that my shape is changing. I can’t be certain of course because periods often stop if food becomes scarce but Mother’s pretty confident. She knows the signs well after twelve pregnancies of her own.  

We’ll go and speak to Joan next, our local midwife. I bet this is the first person you would seek for advice in your day too. I know her well after helping her to deliver my three youngest siblings. Wealthier folks might go to see a physician to have their wee tested but we can’t afford that and Joan will be able to tell just by looking at my belly hopefully. She has such an invaluable wealth of experience. 

I’ve heard that physicians can test for pregnancy by placing a key or a latch in a lady’s urine. If the imprint of the latch  is visible after a few days then she is pregnant and if not, she will have to keep trying. 

I hope that I am carrying a child although the thought of giving birth scares me. We are taught that women are fated to suffer pain in childbirth because of Eve in the Garden of Eden. She ate the forbidden fruit and so God punished her and all of her descendents with increased pain in childbirth. That is the way of things and so every woman has to go through it although some seek relief through the use of herbs but that’s against God’s will. I don’t know how things will be in the future but I wouldn’t accept that. 

A number of girls in our community have died in childbirth too which makes me anxious. I’ve lost four relatives in total, mostly cousins. It used to make me sad but it happens so often now that you grow used to losing people. I just pray it doesn’t happen to me !! Many women simply bleed to death after delivery or they weaken and perish. All we can do is pray to God and hope that we are strong enough … and trust in our midwives I suppose. 

July 15th

My stomach is wriggling and kicking with a mind of it’s own … literally. Do all babies punch like this !? 

I first felt something a month ago when Joan thinks I was about five months gone. She was certain that I was pregnant and after missing so many periods we all felt sure. I knew I was pregnant. I can’t describe it. I just felt different somehow mostly far more bloated than usual and protective of my body. I’m sure you’ll know what I mean. 

And then when these little flutters began in my tummy I knew for certain. Robert was so pleased and we’ve both been talking about names and where the baby will live. We still live with my parents but we hope to move into our own house one day if one becomes available and if Baron Morgan allows.

My belly is getting bigger and bigger though and work is becoming difficult. I have to do hard physical work most days like gathering crops, kneading dough, scrubbing clothes. I’m worried about how breathless I get and wonder how I am going to feel in three months time when I’m nearly at the end of my term !! I see Joan the midwife quite often so I suppose she will know best and Mother’s watching me like a hawk. Robert too keeps a close eye too and won’t let me work too hard. I think between them all I’m quite safe. We’re a tight community.  

For now I have to bind my bump as closely as I can. Normally I wear a petticoat and a simple dress with a belt on which to tie a knife and a pouch. Now I have a tight bandaging around my waist underneath and it’s a bit uncomfortable to say the least.  I presume you have something similar in your time – a corset perhaps like some of our fancy ladies in their castles? It does help to keep bump out of my way though and I think it is supporting my back a little. Some fear that it might hurt the baby but I don’t see how it could. Honestly, you try milking a cow with a great big belly sticking out in front of you !! 

October 3rd

Now I’m nine months gone and I feel like a swollen gull. Baby seems to be doing well, wriggling around inside me and ready for work I imagine. It’s all at my expense though as I am utterly exhausted and sickness has set in. I’m still working but only just; most days I feel like I’ll collapse before sunset. It’s important that I help my family to complete their work and reach the conditions set by Baron Morgan. To ensure his support we have to work his land for three days every week and the rest we spend on our own property. 

I had my ‘churching’ yesterday. After our midday Mass Robert and I sought the priest’s blessing and together we asked for God’s help to deliver the baby (and I) safely. Fine ladies have a whole church service dedicated to them for this and the whole congregation prays for them but we aren’t that important. Just to have a blessing is enough for me and I welcome it gladly. Things are becoming very real now and though I’m really excited to meet my baby I’m also very frightened. I can be honest with you I know. 

Our little church … I think Baron Morgan’s grandfather had it built.

I’m trying not to think about it and just to focus on holding that baby in a few weeks time. I’ve got no idea when it’ll happen as we can’t be sure of a ‘due date’ or anything but I’ll go into confinement later this week so at least I won’t have to work any more. 

Father has separated one room of our house for my confinement. We have to make sure that all the windows and doors are boarded up securely so that no foul, outside air can get in. Robert and Father will light a fire to keep it warm and Mother will make up a bed for me. We also have to make sure that we keep the light out because it might damage my eyes or baby’s. We are trying to recreate the environment in the womb essentially so that baby isn’t too shocked after delivery. Hopefully this will keep any diseases out too. And it’ll keep me calm – heaven knows I need that right now !! 

When my time comes, Joan, Mother and some of my female relatives will come in to support me. I wouldn’t have any men in there though, heaven forbid. I’ve heard that you might do this but I think that’s very wrong. It’s a vulnerable place for a girl and men shouldn’t see things like that !! 

Together we’ll chat and plan and Joan will watch me carefully. I pray that everything goes smoothly. I’ve been told that if anything happens to me then they’ll call for the surgeon to perform a caesarian. I’ve only ever heard of this as it’s only used if the mother-to-be dies while trying to give birth. It’s a modern miracle if you ask me – imagine how many babies might be lost if they couldn’t remove them from the mother !! Modern medicine is incredible sometimes. 

October 21st

My labour has begun and it bloody hurts !! Excuse my language. Mother’s been chiding me terribly for swearing but I think God will forgive me, afterall this is an extreme circumstance. My baby is ‘breech’ according to Joan so it’s feet are pointing downwards and it’s struggling. I ‘m not too worried yet though because my older brother was like this according to Mother, Joan managed to turn him while he was still inside. I’m dreading it though because Mother has told me that it will hurt but to be honest, I just want this baby out of me. I’m so glad I’ve got Joan beside me with her years of experience.

Why woud anyone do this again, let alone once a year !?  

Joan said there are a few stages I have to go through and this is only the first. I’ve got my crucifix close by and a few other trinkets and I know Robert is praying for us. We’re all just waiting now; feels like the whole world is waiting but no-one else has to feel the pain I’m going through. I pray that this is over soon. 

October 23rd 

I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy yesterday. We have chosen the name Matthew, afterall it is common to give babies a biblical name. I liked the name John but Robert didn’t agree and the boy’s father should have the final say. 

He’s so beautiful. I quickly forgot all the pain once I held him. Joan was able to turn him easily although it hurt like sin but he seemed keen to be delivererd and enter the world. He suckles nicely too so I am not worried about feeding him and so far he seems a strong boy. Joan isn’t worried about losing him just yet but we all wait with baited breath and pray.

I feel strong in myself too. I delivered the placenta within hours of Matthew’s birth and the bleeding is lessening now so I’m optimistic that I will recover well and be out of my bed soon. I had better get some more sleep. 

November 5th

Everyday we both grow and we are getting to know each other so well. I admit that in those early days the new responsibilty was overwhelming and I’ve not even left my confinement yet. But Robert and I pour over every detail constantly, worrying about his temperature, his feeding, cleaning his bottom. Robert’s got used to tying the nappy cloth about him already but I’m still struggling. It’ll be easier when I’m up out of bed properly and able to walk about more.

I worried when Matthew stopped breastfeeding after a day or two but thankfully Joan stepped in and made up a pap for him – that’s a mixture of flour and milk mostly though some folks put meat broth in too for sustenance. He didn’t like that very much but I was just so relieved that he had fed at last. I persevered with breastfeeding afterwards and he was feeding perfectly again soon after. It hurts so much but I have no choice, I won’t see the poor little soul starve and there are no other options. I could employ a wet nurse if we were wealthier but I can’t afford that and there aren’t any other foods I can give him until he is weaned at about 18 months old. 

Joan calls in often to check on us when she is in the village and I’ve got Mother to help of course. Thankfully there are plenty of experienced women about who are helping me, including my older sister and between them they take turns holding Matthew and bringing me anything I might need. I will have to get up soon and get back to work but I could stay here for another month easily. 

Matthew sleeps in the bed with me until we can find a crib. And why wouldn’t he? It is the safest place for him and it makes feeding him in the nights so much easier. Some folks worry about him being squashed or about him getting tangled in the bedsheets but I keep him safe next to me and I’d far rather that than have him sleep with the pigs and chickens in the next room. 

Soon I will have to organise his christening at our little church. Just like my blessing before confinement, it’ll be a small service after our Mass one Sunday. I’ve not chosen godparents yet but I think Father has a few ideas and Robert too. It’s important to choose the right people as they will help to raise Matthew in the Christian faith and care for him. With such a close community though there are plenty of people to help out. 

November 17th

I went back to work today. It was hard work too and I ache painfully now but I can’t stay in bed forever. I helped Mother by baking some bread and preparing a stew, collected in the eggs and replaced all the straw from the floors of the house. At times I was able to bind Matthew to my chest with a shawl and ‘wear’ him which worked well. It was great for him as he slept away a few hours there – you should try it one day, it might catch on. 

Helpfully we were given a small crib by a lady in the village last week. She won’t be having anymore children now as she’s just turned twenty-seven. We’ve placed it in the corner of the room out of the way for now and we’ll move it closer to the fire early in the mornings to keep baby warm while I work.

I wish Matthew’s crib was as pretty as this – ours is much simpler

I’m not sure whether he sleeps well or not as I’m too busy working to notice but he’s swaddled tightly so he rarely cries out loudly. I wrap him in long bandages and it reminds him of being in my tummy apparently. Some say that the swaddling helps a baby’s bones to grow straight and long too so it’ll make him a strong lad when he’s grown. I feed him every three hours and give him a cuddle before putting him back into his cot to sleep while I’m working. It’s not that difficult really and it keeps him out of harm’s way. 

Some women employ a wet nurse as I think I mentioned before. They’re women who have lost their own child but use their milk to feed others. Some even feed several babies in their town at once, for a price of course. That way the mothers can work and not worry about their baby. I know for certain that ladies higher born than I do this, especially as they need to fall pregnant again quickly and breastfeeding stops them from doing so. You have to be very careful though as the traits of the wet nurse can pass into your baby through the milk so you have to make sure she is a woman of exceptional character otherwise who knows how your baby will turn out !!

At least our little Matthew is safe for now.

January 15th 1425

A friend of mine lost a baby a few days ago. She was four months old and she caught a terrible fever just after Christmas. It frightens me more than ever now that we’ve got Matthew.

It was a bad harvest and we weren’t able to bring in as many crops as we usually do. By the time Baron Morgan had taken what is his, there wasn’t a lot left for the rest of us so food is scarce and we have to be frugal. I’m still breastfeeding Matthew but it worries me to think what would happen if my milk were to dry up because my diet was so poor. 

I think that’s partially what happened to poor Isabelle and her baby daughter. The poor thing was too weak to fight any illness and despite the family’s best efforts they lost her to the fever. I keep praying for her, as we all do, and hope that she will find comfort in the fact that this is God’s will and that they will be reunited in heaven. 

May 24th 

Help !! Suddenly Matthew is eight months old and crawling !! As he grew bigger I allowed him more time out of his crib to play. He loved wriggling around and rolling about on a bit of cloth near the fire but he began crawling a few days ago and now I can’t keep up with him. 

I’ve started doing what you might call ‘baby-proofing’. Mother told me that a lot of babies fall out of their cribs and hit their heads on the stone floor so I’ve put some extra furs underneath it to soften the blow if he did fall out.

I’ve heard a lot of women have lost babies because of strangulation too. Sometimes hanging cords and ropes can get tangled around their necks so I’ve made sure they’re all hung up high and out of the way. Robert checks daily too because Father is really bad at remembering to do this. I’ve told him off so many times. 

And I’ve made sure that all the pots, pans and heavy utensils are kept away from the edge of the tables. There are fire pokers and washboards and all sorts of things that could harm the baby but all I can do is keep a close eye on him and make sure everyone is extra careful. I’m sure he’ll be fine as long as I can keep him away from the open fire …..

October 22nd

Today is Matthew’s first birthday – he survived !! What a year it’s been, I really don’t know where the time has gone. Watching him grow has been so special and I know I’ve helped raise lots of younger siblings, nephews and nieces but it’s very different with your own child. He’s such a beautiful little boy, everyone says so. 

Now he’s toddling so things are getting harder. He gets up to such mischief if we don’t watch him. The Baron hires a todder groomer in the castle, someone paid just to watch his children and stop them from getting dirty. I wish I could afford to have someone do that for me. Mind you, they must dress him in such expensive, fine clothes … imagine getting them covered in mud !!

But we have more important things to worry about too sadly. For the likes of us, Matthew is another mouth to feed too which can be very tough, especially when winter’s are harsh like last year. The consolation is that he will soon be able to work and contribute to the family too. Only six more years or so to go. 

For now though, he’s doing well and so am I. So well in fact that Robert and I have agreed to start trying for our next child. I’m excited and keen to have another … I just hope I’m lucky enough to survive the next pregnancy, and the next. Time to begin the whole story again …