28 November 2012

Medicine: Medieval Childbirth

How risky was childbirth in the Middle Ages? Risky enough that expectant mothers were encouraged to confess their sins before they went into labor. Risky enough that midwives were the only laypeople permitted to baptize newborns if the baby was likely to die.

In fact, more than one of every three adult women died during their child-bearing years. With that kind of statistic, it’s easy to imagine that everyone knew someone who died in childbirth or from its complications.

Children were born at home. If they were peasants, babies would be delivered in a one or two room house. The aristocracy, however, had special lying-in chambers, to which the mother would retreat when her time was close. The low-ceilinged room would have fresh rushes or strewing herbs on the floor to make the place smell nice, and the best coverlets were used. Wealth was on display, and candied nuts and fruits were set out for guests.

In a society where girls married as young as age 12, many of the mothers were teenagers. For instance, Charlemagne’s third wife, Hildegard, might have been 14 when she gave birth to her first child. After eight more children, she died in her mid-20s.

A 16th century illustration of a woman
using a birthing chair to deliver a child
(public domain image from
Wikimedia Commons)
When the mother went into labor, the entrance to the lying-in chamber was shut, and the windows were sealed to block out light. With the mother were a midwife, who had learned her craft from her own mother, and five or six female friends and relatives.

No men were allowed, not the father, not even a doctor. Medieval folk considered childbirth a part of life not related to medicine. Considering that medieval medicine was based on the ancient philosophy of humors, it might have been for the best.

The midwife’s duty was to ease the mother through childbirth. She would rub an ointment on the mother’s belly to speed up the delivery. If the labor was difficult, the mother’s hair would be loosened and all pins removed. Doors and cupboard drawers were open; knots were untied. The midwife might have used charms such as jasper or the right foot of a crane. She might have whispered magic words into her patient’s ear.  Cesareans were done only as a last resort.

As the time to deliver drew near, the mother might sit on a birthing chair, whose seat is shaped like a horseshoe. When the baby was born, the midwife would tie the umbilical cord and tie it at four fingers’ length. She bathed the child, rubbed them with salt, and used honey on their palettes and gums to stimulate their appetite. Then the infant would be wrapped in swaddling, which would be changed every three hours.

After the birth, the mother would remain in her lying-in chamber for a month, during which her only visitors were the midwife and her female companions.

An impending birth in the Middle Ages often was greeted with great joy, especially if it meant a longed-for heir. Yet it likely also carried an almost equal share of anxiety.


Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000 by Julia M.H. Smith

“Capturing the Wandering Womb” by Kate Phillips, The Haverford Journal, April 2007

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon, whose heroine, Alda, is frustrated that her lying-in chamber remains unused. Her yet-to-be-published second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, has two scenes in a lying-in chamber, one that goes well and one that goes horribly wrong. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit www.kimrendfeld.com.