05 November 2008

Social Taboos: Birthing Rituals in the Middle Ages

By Lisa Yarde

Childbirth could be especially dangerous during the Middle Ages, especially for women with complications. But a safe delivery and a healthy child were cause for celebration, as well as imposing a few restrictions.

Whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, the lying-in for the mother was a tradition that crisscrossed cultures and religions. The birthing room was the domain of women, where midwives assisted the delivery, and family and friends were on hand to encourage the mother. If some form of surgery was required, only then would a male physician intervene. In preparation for the child's arrival, women kept the birthing room warmed and clean, or purified with scented herbs. It appears many women used birthing stools or chairs in the delivery, supported by their female companions.

Medieval Christian Europe showed great concern about the spiritual well-being of mother and child. Many superstitions evolved about women before and after childbirth. The English believed that the newborn baby had to sneeze as soon as possible after its birth, to drive out any evil spirits lurking inside it. After birth, the churching took place, where the father, godparents and child went to church for the baby's baptism--the mother could not attend religious services until after 40 days. German folklore warned a woman recovering from childbirth may not look out of the window for six weeks, or else every wagon that passes will take a bit of luck with it. And, women could not draw water from any well for six weeks following childbirth, or the well would dry up for seven years.

In the Jewish quarters of European cities, women in childbirth had candles lit on their behalf. The men in the household recited various Psalms to ward of spirits and the evil eye, and her female companions brought the Scroll of the Torah to the birthing room. They also drew a sacred circle around the bed and inscribed the words, "Sanvi, Sansanvi, Semangalef, Adam and Eve, barring Lilit" on the walls and door of the room. After the birth of a son, Jewish mothers could not go outdoors until the rabbi circumcised their newborns, eight days after birth.

Muslim Spain evolved its own traditions. The birth of a daughter marked a muted celebration compared to the birth of a son. Midwives washed the baby's mouth with a piece of cotton dipped in a sacred potion. They also cleaned and wrapped the baby in a white linen cloth. After the highest-ranking male in the house whispered the profession of adherence to the Muslim religion into the child's ears, he returned to his mother's side. Salt scattered around the room warded off the evil eye. No one could pass between the child's bed and the fire lit in the room for three days. The mother lay confined to her bed, considered ritually impure for a period of forty days.

While some of these rituals may seem archaic, some were practical and beneficial for child and mother. Less exposure and handling for the child must have helped keep away transmissible diseases at a time when the newborn was vulnerable. And what new mother wouldn't have wanted to just rest after the ordeal of childbirth?