Delivering a baby is a rather singular event for most women. We describe our individual experiences the way men talk about the fish that got away —where it happened, when it happened, how excruciating it was, and the enormous size of that fish/baby! Childbirth in the old days was a risky business, partly due to some weird “medical” practices and beliefs. I’m thinking about this today because it is Charlemagne’s birthday, and back in the 700s when he was born, bearing and raising a child to adulthood was hit and miss. So, today the Love Historicals authors share the some of the historical practices they’ve learned about childbirth through their research in history.
When you hear the term “Middle Ages,” you know you’re going way back, and as Anna Markland says, women didn’t have much choice but to endure.
Many women suffered greatly and many more died in childbirth regardless of whether they were rich or poor. A medieval gynaecological 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 dung.
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.
In cases of difficult births for noble ladies, the mother-to-be could have been advised to put on a holy girdle. 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.
Moving to the North American continent, Author Nancy Morse tells us how the Lakota also used an object, not to help the mother, but to protect the newborn.
Sioux 19th century quilled umbilical fetish
In the days before epidurals and semi-private hospital rooms, childbirth for a Lakota woman on the Great Plains was a risky endeavor.
When a child was expected, the prospective mother, or one of the grandmothers, made a fetish in the form of a lizard or tortoise out of hide and decorated it with beads or porcupine quills. One such fetish is shown here. The purpose of this object was to hold the infant’s umbilical cord. Since both of these animals were hard to kill, it was believed that their protective power would be transmitted to the baby. When the child began to walk, the fetish was worn on the clothing. Thus, a child of five or six was known as a “carry your navel.” Later, the fetish was put away and retained as a keep sake by the mother.
Shortly prior to labor, the expectant woman’s mother, or some relative experienced as a midwife, spread a clean square of deerskin down to catch the baby and drove a waist-high stake into the ground. When labor began, the mother-to-be squatted at the stake, grasping the top, with her knees pressed against it. When the child was born, it was cleaned with sweet grass soaked in warm water, wiped with buffalo grease, wrapped in a blanket, and placed beside the mother to begin life as a new member of the tribe. The cord was drawn through a puff ball which acted as a fungus powder and sewn into the fetish. A matching fetish was made and hidden away to decoy bad spirits from the baby’s source of power. An elder was enlisted to swipe the infant’s face with fine lines of red paint as a symbol of the baby’s relationship to Wakan Tanka, the Great Holy mystery.Then, a valued family friend renowned for bravery in battle and goodness at home breathed into the infant’s mouth, transmitting the vital life principle known as ni. In the days that followed, a feast was held and the village herald announced the baby’s name.
Giving birth by squatting at a stake was difficult enough, but it was downright dangerous when the village was under attack by an enemy tribe.Then, a young mother in the throes of labor was forced to leave the safety of the tipi to hide in the short grass of the high plains. As the contractions worsened, she bit down hard on a stick to keep from crying out, and when the infant emerged into the world, she pinched its nose shut so that her child’s first cry would not give away their hiding place.
Author Jill Hughey notes that, historically, most of the hiding during labor and childbirth was done by men, specifically the father of the infant. Though in many cultures a father had his own rituals surrounding the safe birth of a child, his physical attendance at the event was not common, and certainly not in any authoritative role, for much of recorded human history.
This seems odd when you consider how important lineage and healthy heirs were/are in many societies, though really important people, like queens, often had to endure witnesses filling their bedchambers to guarantee no one switched babies. Can you imagine having a government official lurking in your delivery room while your own husband wasn’t?
In most cultures, men weren’t directly involved with the laboring mother until a new understanding of the importance of hygiene and quick response to hemorrhage, not to mention the lifesaving development of the C-section, brought maternal care into the medical arena. Back then, medical meant doctor and doctor meant man, and suddenly men were in charge of labor and delivery.
Dr. John Snow – Rsabbatini at English Wikipedia [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A combination of the natural childbirth movement and the women’s movement finally invited fathers to join in the big moment. Although there are exceptions, the majority of laboring mothers want their partners there. I, for one, wanted an advocate and someone to monitor the care of our child while I was dealing with the aftermath, not to mention the comfort of a loving hand to hold. I imagine many women through history felt the same way. Queen Victoria, for example, did have Prince Albert by her side for many of her labors. (And she vaulted the use of anesthesia into the acceptable forefront by using chloroform during her last two labors, supervised by Dr. John Snow, in 1853 and 1857. Thank you, Queen Victoria! This has proven to be much more effective than poultices and magnets.)
If you’ve enjoyed our discussion of childbirth through history, here is more information about books where we bring these facts into our fiction.
Conquering Passion by Anna Markland
Here’s a brief excerpt from Conquering Passion by Anna Markland which tells of the birth of the son of Ram and Mabelle de Montbryce. Mention is made of a birthing stool and the picture above is of this medieval device.
“Fifteen hours later, sitting on the birthing stool brought days before in readiness, bathed in sweat and screaming loudly, Mabelle feared the hour of her death was at hand. But the experienced midwife told her calmly everything was normal, and saw no reason to be anxious. “It’s a good idea to scream. It will make you feel better.”
Bertha used simple and natural procedures, relying on pepper to provoke sneezing, which would in turn cause birth. She used various soothing herbal remedies and oils. “I’m confident you’ll not need the shroud you made for yourself, at the behest of the bishop. But it’s as well you obeyed his insistence on confessing your sins.”
Mabelle sought solace during her labors in praying to Sainte Margaret, the patron saint of pregnant women. As her child came into the world and her last cry of relief rent the air, Ram rode into the bailey.
Ram gasped her name as he threw open the door of their chamber. His wild eyes fell upon his wife as she lay back, spent and dishevelled, Giselle supporting her shoulders, and then their child made his presence known with a lusty wail.
“You’re beautiful,” he called to her as she smiled at him weakly.
“My Lord,” Bertha cried, ushering him out, “you shouldn’t be here. Don’t worry. You have a fine healthy son, but your wife needs to rest now. I’ll bring the child to you when we’ve cleaned him up. He too has had a long journey.”
As Ram was shooed out, the midwife said to Giselle, “Trust the father to turn up as soon as it’s over.”
The four women laughed, though Mabelle barely had enough strength left to do so as Myfanwy handed her a steaming bowl of chamomile tea.
Conquering Passion is available at Amazon http://amzn.com/B006FA0R02 and Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B006FA0R02
Where the Wild Wind Blows by Nancy Morse
Though Nancy Morse doesn’t describe a birth in detail in Where The Wild Wind Blows, you’ll want to check out this tumultuous love story between a white woman left alone in the world and a proud Oglala warrior. Find it on Amazon. http://amzn.com/B004Z1COXG
Jill Hughey, who talked about the rare involvement of fathers in the birth room, shares this brief snippet from Redeemed of a rather private and abrasive expectant father, left alone to wait, who can’t endure the sound of his wife’s suffering because he knows how little tolerance she has for pain.
Redeemed by Jill Hughey
When a new string of cries began with Philantha’s usual “Ow ow ow” then evolved into “no please do not make me!” Doeg could not stop himself. He burst into the room. Philantha was half reclined on the bed, her face contorted with pain, while the tyrant had one hand on each of his wife’s shoulders, apparently trying to hold her there.
“What are you doing to her?” he shouted.
“You should not be in here,” the tyrant answered calmly as she let go of her charge.
“Ow ow ow,” Philantha repeated as she rolled off the bed to stand, turning carefully to balance herself with her hands on the mattress. The ‘ows’ subsided into ‘ooohs’ as the pain apparently left her.
The midwife began to speak again, her wrinkled face jiggling in the candlelight. “Sir, she is fine – “
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Philantha?” he queried cautiously from the door.
“What?” she said shrilly.
“Should you not be in bed?”
“Bertha says I should but it is better when I am standing.”
He flicked his gaze back to the tyrant. He had forgotten her name, but yes, now it came back to him. Bertha. He glared at her.
Bertha held her ground. “She has hours to go yet, sir. She will need her strength and quite frankly, I am not sure I can manage her if she should begin to fall. We have tried the chair but she does not like it either. I cannot have her wandering all over the place and wearing herself out, sir.”
The two stared at one another and Doeg decided he did not like her at all. But he also did not know anything about childbirth or how to help his wife or whether she should be allowed to wander.
“Oh no,” Philantha moaned. “Oh no. Ow ow ow.” She leaned into the bed.
Mostly on instinct, he rushed to her, placing his hands at what used to be her waist and feeling every rock-hard muscle as her body did its work. “What can I do, Phee?” he asked softly. “Tell me what to do.”
He felt the contraction end and she straightened slightly. “I just want to stay on my feet. It is so much more tolerable.”
Doeg looked sharply over his shoulder at the midwife. “She wants to stand and so she will. If you are worried about her falling, do not be. I will stay here with her.”
Redeemed is available at the following.
Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007FDRV0M
Barnes and Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/redeemed-jill-hughey/1109753932?ean=2940014366120
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