Medieval Midwives

Cradle

I mentioned in the first post in this series, yes, it’s now a series, that there were different types of medical practitioners and that those who had a university education couldn’t necessarily be considered practitioners. For the next few posts I’d like to have a look at the practitioners and how they differed from one another.

We’re starting with midwives, if only because that’s where most people’s experience of medical practitioners began and still begins. In the early Middle Ages women giving birth would have been assisted by older women from their family, but it became more usual by the twelfth century to have a professional midwife in attendance, in towns, at least. Villages would not have been able to support professional midwives, although there would always have been women around who were more experienced than most at assisting at births.

Some references suggest that 1 in 5 women died whilst giving birth or as a result of complications following the birth. Since most women had 5 or 6 children, a pregnancy must have brought almost as much terror as it brought joy. There are many instructions about the care of pregnant women and we might look at them in another post.

Here is some advice about childbirth from an Italian medical text written between the end of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth. If the woman was going to sneeze with force, she was supposed to hold her nose so that the strength went to her womb. She should be kept warm. Sweet-smelling things such as musk, amber, aloe, mint, pennyroyal, calementum and marjoram (depending on the wealth of the mother-to-be) should be held under her nose to make her womb ‘fragrant’. You begin to understand at this point why the pregnant woman might want to sneeze. The writer, Trota, somewhat surprisingly a woman, then gives some advice that she admits she doesn’t understand. She says that midwives do it, so it must work. The woman was supposed to hold a magnet in her right hand. Trota also admitted that she didn’t understand why having the woman drink powdered ivory or wear a piece of coral at her neck did any good, but recommended it. Her last recommendation was to give the woman a drink containing the white part of eagle dung or the dung of baby swallows.

It was believed that heat was a good thing when giving birth, so childbirth during winter was regarded as more dangerous. If the labour was difficult, the midwife was supposed to rub oil of roses or oil of violets onto the woman’s abdomen and sides – vigorously. She could also give the woman a drink of sugar and vinegar, or make her sneeze. Walking her slowly around the house was also recommended. Wealthier women could be put into a bath to make things easier.

Should the baby start coming out the wrong way, the midwife was to moisten her hand in a decoction of flax seed and push the baby back in and turn it the right way.

Sneezing was also prescribed if the afterbirth wasn’t expelled. It seems to have been quite a useful thing to do whilst giving birth. Alternatively, the mother could be made to vomit by being given a mixture of lye and powdered mallow seed.

Cesaerian sections were only carried out if the mother died. This was to allow the child to be baptised before it died, not to save its life. Death rates for babies were high as well and midwives were permitted to baptise a dying baby if a priest could not be found in time. Even healthy babies were usually baptised within 48 hours of birth.

Women didn’t just practise as midwives,  but also as physicians, although this didn’t please the authorities if they heard of it, even though they recognised that it was more seemly for sick women to be examined by other women.

Sources:

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell

Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine by Nancy G. Siraisi

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages by Conor McCarthy

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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23 Comments

Filed under Medieval Medicine

23 responses to “Medieval Midwives

  1. Losing the Plot

    Ugh! Childbirth is bad enough now in this supposed Age of Enlightenment, never mind back then. Though one very sensible difference was the birthing chair which allowed gravity to help the mother bear down.
    Once (male obviously) physicians became more dominant during childbirth, the birthing chair was dismissed and the mother to be was put on her back, where she has remained ever since.
    I have to thank some lucky stars though, I would definitely have died about a fortnight after the birth of my 1st son, from infection – placenta not coming away properly (taught me the true understanding of dreadfull) . Thank goodness for antibiotics

    Getting back to your post, I can understand the benefit of sneezing, but not the dung, what on earth did they think the benefit was?

    Liked by 5 people

    • One of the books did refer to a birthing chair in passing, but there wasn’t enough detail for me to include it. It turns out that not that much information about childbirth has survived, probably because not much of it was written down in the first place.

      I don’t know why they thought bits of dung would be any use. I should think that finding it would be tricky. Perhaps it was useful because it was rare.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Goodness, going through the birth with no pain relief, plus high mortality rate of mother and child- how scared they must have been to discover they were pregnant. That fear of death during childbirth continued-I remember going to my first anti natal class and the very first thing they reassured us about was that. I hadn’t even thought about it up until then so it was a bit alarming! I too, should like to know how they believed the dung to be beneficial….that one has me very puzzled. So looking forward to the rest of the series April.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s no wonder that wives of kings and nobles spent most of their lives pregnant. Even though they lived in relevant comfort, the mortality rate for their children was still high.

      I don’t know why dung was considered useful, but it might have been because it was not easy to get hold of.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Yes indeed, we had cupboards full of eagle dung when I did my midwifery training 😂. Fascinating post April, I’m really enjoying the medical series.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. ‘You begin to understand at this point why the pregnant woman might want to sneeze.’ Too true! I would’ve thought it better to sneeze…some of that advice makes sense though doesn’t it, the walking and the baths..great post as usual April.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. lydiaschoch

    Have you blogged about the mortality rates for infants and children here before? I know I’ve read somewhere that they were high, but I don’t remember the specific percentages anymore.

    A 20% mortality rate for women is quite high. I’d bet that everyone back then knew more than one person who died in childbirth or soon after. Wow. We are quite lucky to live in a time when such a thing is rare.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I haven’t blogged about mortality rates, because there aren’t really any records. Even the 1 in 5 isn’t really supported by anything and my source didn’t say where or when it applied.

      We are indeed lucky to live in these times, even if it doens’t always feel that way.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m also enjoying this series so far! I wonder why they thought making the mother vomit would help expel the afterbirth. Maybe through the force of it?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I realised when I was writing it that I had no idea. I’ve never had children and I can’t say that I’ve ever had any interest in finding out the mechanics of childbirth, although I have learned from television that it’s a mixture of panting, pushing and screaming.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I read that the Tudors, regardless of outside temperature, closed off the birthing chambers & stoked the fires, to the point of enervating everyone.

    Wonder how the slavish adherence to hot birthing chambers affected infant and maternal mortality?

    Being childless, and never in attendance at a birth, how warm SHOULD it be? Maybe our Fragglerocking would be kind enough to enlighten me?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The fact that very few midwives could read was probably an advantage, in that they learnt from observation and experience. David Cressy’s “Birth, Marriage and Death…” is very interesting on childbed and midwifery. Cressy is writing about Tudor and Stuart England, but the practices would have been handed down through generations of women. Things probably hadn’t changed much from medieval times – at least in the 16th century, although by then midwives were supposed to be licensed by the church to practice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re right about the observation and practice, although I suspect there was also a certain amount of doing it the same way it had always been done even if the results were variable.

      My sources were confusing about licensing, so I shall probably have to update this post if I come across anything more definite.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Medieval Dovecotes | A Writer's Perspective

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