Firstly, I feel I have to begin in the good old Middle Ages. Ye olde England has often been a favourite haunt of mine and it is probably the time period in which I feel most at home. Knights in stone castles, plenty of horses and beautiful gowns – yep, I could quite happily set up home there. That is, if it weren’t for the death, disease, terrible sanitation (or lack of) and cruel laws laid down by the feudal system. While many of us dream up princesses and castles, I think it’s safe to say that the Medieval era was genuinely one of mud, plague and general misery for many. What better place to give birth and raise a child !!
The thing with the Middle Ages is that they lasted a very long time – from around 1066 when the Normans invaded up until 1485 and the beginning of the Tudor era in fact. There were also many different social classes too from peasants (or villeins as they would call themselves) up through yeomen and wealthy traders to knights, barons, earls and finally the King himself. And the children of these men would of course have experienced very different childhoods according to their family’s standing within the Medieval world although, either way, childhood ended at the age of 7 and all of these mini adults were expected to work or learn an adult role.
Before we step into this world, it’s also helpful to understand just how much of a role religion played in shaping every part of a person’s life. Everyone in society, from the peasant to the King, was guided by religion and pregnancy, childbirth and infancy were not excluded. The key belief to remember was that Eve, who gave in to temptation and plucked the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, is responsible for the downfall of all women. In the Medieval mind, women were tainted by her original sin and in punishment of this, God decided to make childbirth extremely painful. Couple this with the lack of medical help (not even so much as a scan to check that baby is doing ok) and an incredibly high mortality rate linked to childbirth and you start to gain an idea of just how frightening this was for the Medieval mum.
A Simple Life?
Aside from being perpetually told that she had brought the pain of childbirth upon herself a Medieval girl did not have much of an exciting future to look forward to and a woman’s life was certainly not an easy one. Imagine a young villein’s daughter, recently married at the age of 14. Her periods have begun so she can bear children … nothing wrong in that to the Medieval mind. We’ll call her Edith.
She might have been one of ten siblings or more, large families being the norm in the Middle Ages. And to produce so many children, a woman would endure many many pregnancies through her lifetime and its very possible that between the ages of 14 and 25, Edith might fall pregnant up to 10 times … one baby a year !! This is a culture which expects a woman to be almost continually pregnant throughout her adult life and there are a number of reasons for this. In wealthier families, copious amounts of children secure the family line and guarantee a number of male heirs. Daughters are valuable too as they can be married off to social betters in order to improve the family’s position. For poorer families like Edith’s, the more children a family have the more workers there are to contribute to the household. Edith also knows that of her 10 pregnancies, it is likely that only … of her children will see their first birthday and even fewer their tenth. The sad truth is that for many reasons (disease, complications in childbirth, lack of baby-proofing in the home), most babies don’t survive. It is a fact of life for most Medieval women and Edith is brutally aware of it having lost perhaps five of her ten siblings already.
Even more frightening is the risk posed to the mother. In his book “The Time-Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England”, Ian Mortimer estimates that up to 22% of women will die as a result of childbirth. Without modern day scans, interventions or the ability to perform C sections, childbirth is an incredibly dangerous time for the Medieval woman. The only text books relating to pregnancy and childbirth at that time were mostly written by churchmen, many of whom had never seen a birth or had sex !! For this reason, there are a number of Medieval drawings which depict babies in utero as tiny adults floating freely in the womb. Clearly those religious scholars had never been punched in the diaphragm by a heavily constricted baby !!
And so things aren’t looking good for poor Edith but in the eyes of her culture it is simply her role in life. Her parents expect it, her husband will certainly expect it and even the lord of the Manor expects it – he wants to ensure the next generation of workers for his land. With no contraception, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem either and so Edith will likely fall pregnant quite quickly.
Midwives, Corsets and Confinement
Edith will work physically demanding tasks over long hours every day, including harvesting crops in the fields, grinding corn or washing clothes. She might feel a little more tired than normal but otherwise there is no way for her to know that she is pregnant. What she lacks now is another piece of today’s equipment – the pregnancy test. For most women (me included) weeing on that little stick is one of the most exciting moments in life as we attempt to detect pregnancy as early as physically possible but as Sarah Bryson describes in her article ‘Childbirth in Medieval and Tudor Times’, Edith will likely be in for a surprise around five months after conception when she first feels those deep kicks and wriggles. She might suffer morning sickness, understand a missed period or recognise a growing belly but those first flutters would bring real confirmation.
Of course there were always those medieval scholars and their wise ideas to turn to. According to Sarah Bryson, one method of testing was the ‘latch method’, taken from ‘The Distaff Gospels’, a collection of women’s medical lore written in the late 15th century. Essentially, the woman wees into a bowl and a latch (or key) is dropped into it. There it stays for three to four hours when the urine is thrown out. If the impression of the latch remained in the bowl then she was pregnant. I guess the latch went back into use from wherever it had come from. While this seems wacky to us in the 21st century, there is one thing however which has been correctly identified – our medieval ancestors knew that something was different in the wee of a pregnant woman to one who wasn’t. They even went on in the Tudor era to refer to the people carrying out the tests as ‘piss prophets’ !!
So, by the time she finds out, Edith is likely already half way through her term and with no scans or blood tests, she will have to simply hope that all is well with her baby. There is always the chance that a baby might be breach, have the umbilical cord wrapped around their neck or that the mother’s pelvis is not wide enough to give birth but there is no way of knowing until labour begins and there is little hope of medical intervention. So who does Edith turn to for help – the church with their wise scholars? A local hospital or doctor? Nope, it’s the midwives, a group of highly experienced women … and probably her mum too.
Yep, midwives have been helping pregnant women for centuries, only summoning a male doctor if things became difficult during the Medieval era. They learned their trade from older practitioners and through witnessing countless ‘natural’ births. They might be able to provide remedies for sickness or pains, suggest positions for birth and aid in turning a breach baby and Edith would likely call for her village midwife when the time came. Midwives often worked alone in their particular area, travelling from house to house to deliver babies and perform various legal duties. Sounds entirely like the birth plan for my first pregnancy – natural remedies, a home birth with the help of a local midwife and no medical intervention. Thankfully however, I live in the 21st century as this Medieval style birth plan did not pan out !!
Her midwife might suggest that Edith slow down a bit as her pregnancy continues but it’s unlikely that she will have any sort of maternity leave. No, Edith has to work for as long as possible before her confinement begins (I’ll come to that later) to keep her house running smoothly, to fulfil her family’s feudal obligations or maybe to keep money coming in. To help her do this, she would likely have worn various corsets to limit her bump. A wealthy woman would do the same although more to maintain her figure and keep up with fashion than for the purposes of work. A corset represented femininity and social status and women sought to uphold this image. Can’t say that I felt particularly feminine as I waddled around Morrisons at 8 months pregnant but at least I could breath (just about). As well as causing day to day injuries such as lung problems and back pain, a corset could be restrictive enough to cause birth defects and miscarriage in a pregnant woman.
When her time came, Edith would prepare for the birth and this would typically begin with her ‘churching’. For a wealthy woman, this involved a dedicated service with a procession to church where the family’s priest would bless the mum to be and pray for both her and baby. For Edith, it would probably involve a simple trip to church to seek the blessing of a priest. Either way, the process of childbirth begins with the church, placing faith in God to protect mother and child.
Following this, Edith’s ‘confinement’ would begin. You might have heard this word during your own pregnancies and thankfully, it doesn’t mean quite the same thing anymore. To our medieval ancestors, childbirth was an incredibly private affair and certainly not a place for men. Edith would essentially be shut away in a dark, airless room, surrounded by female only relatives and her midwife to wait for labour to begin. Outside air was seen as unclean and unhealthy and so it was boarded out with tapestries or shutters and instead, the room was scented with purifying herbs. Likewise, there was also a concern that light would hurt the mother’s eyes and affect the baby so again, it was essential that windows were shut and boarded. The overall aim was to recreate the environment inside the womb so that the transition for baby was as easy as possible. Calming the mother was also key and so anything that might unsettle her would be removed. In wealthier families, tapestries depicting calming scenes were hung around the room.
Mum to be might also wear various amulets and talisman in the hope of reducing the pain of childbirth. Don’t forget though that medieval understanding of Eve’s sin mean that women are fated to suffer increased pain in childbirth and so really, all Edith has is hope and prayers to see her through. There are no forceps, no pain relief and many women refuse opiates or herbs due to this longstanding belief.
With all of this in mind, ultimately poor Edith knows that she may not come out of her confinement alive. As described earlier, there is a large chance that either the birth or compilations afterwards will kill her and yet this is the duty of women and a risk they must take every time they fall pregnant. Edith has no choice now and so she must lie in bed until the time comes when midwives will enter the birthing chamber and help to deliver her baby. This may be in bed or by use of the birthing chair and it will be accompanied by many many prayers.
In the event of complications, a male doctor would be called for although other than blood letting, there was little they could really do. The final option for serious issues was the c section. This procedure was used throughout the centuries only as a last resort for struggling women. It could be performed if there was no hope for the mother or if she had already died with very few accounts of anyone surviving. As a modern mum who’s had two c sections, both emergency and elective, I find this fact particularly hard to swallow as I know that I simply would not have survived the birth of my son if I had been a medieval mum. In our world, it is easy to take for granted a procedure which is mostly so easy, straightforward and (relatively) painless. Out of sheer sympathy, I will spare Edith any difficulties and say that her baby is born trouble free.
Once the baby is born, Edith is still far from safe. Many mothers suffer complications after birth including major blood loss and infection and this means that neither Edith nor her baby are safe until they are out of that birthing chamber. Out of sheer sympathy though, I will spare Edith any difficulties and say that her baby is born trouble free and healthy.
Next Edith and her community must raise the infant through its early years and into adulthood. Of course, Edith needs to get back to work as soon as possible so she must balance work and being a mum – sound familiar !? Medieval England holds one key difference to 21st century parenting though and that is that the whole community works much more closely together to share the work of child-rearing. Edith either works at home or she can take her child to work with her and although this means carrying a growing infant, it allows Edith to return to work and continue to earn her keep.
Feeding the baby was far easier too. While breastfeeding isn’t for everyone in our day, Medieval mums had no option for formula milk. Extended breastfeeding was common with many babies breastfeeding until 18 to 24 months. There was however the opportunity to engage a wet nurse.
Often employed by wealthier families, the wet nurse was usually a woman who had lost her own baby but maintained her milk in order to feed others. Among the upper classes this allowed women to fall pregnant again much sooner without breastfeeding. And according to Fiona Tapp in her article ‘13 Things Parents Did In The Middle Ages’, the lower classes might also have used a wet nurse with one woman feeding several babies among the community in order for mothers to return to work and to fall pregnant again. That is of course, if they could afford it. Choosing a wet nurse was also not a decision made lightly. Medieval people believed that certain character traits of the wet nurse could be imbued into the child and so women of a kind and honest nature were highly preferred.
And how about sleeping? Edith would be shocked to hear our modern day deliberations over bed-sharing. To the lower class Medieval mum this was the only option and many babies would sleep alongside their mothers, although, in reality, most families would share a bed as there was not room for more than one of two.
As for general childcare, where does Edith keep baby safely? With no rockers, play mats or high chairs, it is likely that the baby would be heavily swaddled and placed in a safe spot – ideally a small wooden crib if Edith is able to get one. Or Edith might tie her baby into the crib tightly where it can sleep or gurgle quietly as Edith works. This may seem extreme but bear in mind that later generations would swaddle their babies and hang them up on the wall, out of the way !! Be warned Baby Cora !!
Now there are many articles out there which stipulate that babies were swaddled, put down and ignored during this period and this may be true. How often it happened we will never know but most likely, babies were not swaddled for too long and were put down to crawl whenever possible. When baby was swaddled, it was often for the child’s safety. At a time when open fires burned continuously in every house, along with the presence of uneven floors and open doors, a mother could work comfortably knowing that her baby was safe and extremely unlikely to go anywhere.
On a darker side, some accounts suggest that parents swaddled babies so tightly as to prevent the pesky infant from crying too loudly or for too long. Surely though, it would have taken a very strong-willed mother to ignore her baby’s cries for long, no matter the time period. It was also believed that swaddling would help the baby to grow tall with straight bones. Whatever the reason, it is likely that Edith will swaddle her baby, as her mother did with her. She will, after all, have learned everything she needs to know from her mother.
As for baby-proofing, of course the Medieval era did not have our mass-produced gizmos to protect infants and so there were endless dangers for babies to dodge. Various accounts at the time demonstrate that a large number of infant deaths were due to accidents in the home including falling from a crib and even strangulation from hanging cords. And I haven’t even begun to discuss the risk of disease !! Dysentery, malaria, diphtheria, flu, typhoid, smallpox, infection … you begin to see why historians believe a quarter of children didn’t reach their first birthday.
Once past that enormous milestone, Edith now finds herself dealing with a Medieval toddler. Too young to work but requiring a great deal of care, these little people were generally viewed as useless, as Simon Newman suggests in his article ‘Children in the Middle Ages’. As they grew, lower class children might be given small tasks within the household but ultimately, these needy little creatures served little purpose (some things never change I guess). This is demonstrated by their distinct lack of presence in many artworks or literature of the time although that is not to say that they were not loved by their parents. There are plenty of tales of parents spending what money they have doing all they could to cure their sick kids.
Wealthier mothers of course, paid for further help. This might come in the form of the ‘toddler groomer’ – an individual employed purely to shepherd little people about, keeping them in line and preventing them from soiling their clothes too much or speaking out of place. How many of us would love to hand our stinking dirty toddlers to someone else to clean up or prevent it from happening in the first place !!? This is especially true as children from a year up were generally dressed as miniature adults. For the upper classes, this might mean fine, colourful fabrics which were not cheap to replace. The lower classes too would have to ‘make do and mend’. Edith can’t just pop back to the shop to buy a replacement garment for her little one. Thank heavens childhood ends at the age of 7 !!
A Job Well Done
So, that’s it. Edith has carried her baby through pregnancy, given birth, survived and raised her baby to ‘adulthood’. Probably somewhere in that tale the poor girl fell pregnant again too, thereby risking her life once again, but she has fulfilled her role in society for now.
I encountered many differences between Edith and us modern mums, many of which were clearly gotten rid of for good reason. Childhood pregnancy, confinement and prolonged swaddling are obviously elements that aren’t ethical to our 21st century minds (although having someone to shepherd the toddler around does sound appealing !!).
And I found plenty of connections with her too. Edith would certainly understand co-sleeping, the hardship of returning to work and the need to baby-proof the home although she might not quite see why 21st century mums disagree on some of these issues. But what I found most comforting was the connection I felt with Medieval Edith surrounding our shared maternal love for our children.
I expected to find accounts of high mortality, disease, ignored and swaddled babies and I found plenty of these tales. And I had always assumed that the high likelihood of infant death caused parents to be slightly more distant towards their children than we are today, or that the harsh realities of their world made them colder and harder towards all aspects of life. However, what I found was quite the opposite. One section of text I discovered came from a Medieval manual ‘The Trials and Joys of Marriage’. In it, parents are urged not to question their faith if God should take a child from them but to accept it as His will, demonstrating just how deeply the loss of a child was felt in this era – enough to make some individuals question their religion. And there were plenty of stories surrounding parents paying all they had in their attempts to cure an ill child.
So what do you think? Happy to stay in the 2019 parenting club? While we have our issues, at least we don’t have half the life risks that Edith faced nor the lack of medical knowledge to see us through. Although, maybe just once or twice a day, the thought of swaddling them both and hanging them on the wall of the spare room does cross my mind …
Bryson, Sarah, ‘Childbirth in Medieval and Tudor Times’ https://www.tudorsociety.com/childbirth-in-medieval-and-tudor-times-by-sarah-bryson/
Mortimer, Ian, ‘The Time-Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England’
Newman, Simon, ‘Children in the Middle Ages’ http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/children-in-the-middle-ages.html
Tapp, Fiona, ‘13 Things Parents Did In The Middle Ages That No Parent Would Do Today’ https://www.romper.com/p/13-things-parents-did-in-the-middle-ages-that-no-parent-would-do-today-24172