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.
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