I normally prefer reading a good ‘who dunnit’ to a historical novel, however based purely on the title, I picked up the book, The Red Queen, by Phillipa Gregory and whilst I am not racing through it, the author is a good story-teller and I will probably read more of her books.
The Red Queen is the story of Margaret Beaufort and while I haven’t yet warmed to her, (as a precocious nine year old she is a pain in the arse, believing in her ability to talk with God), I cannot help but feel sorry for this child. Married before she was twelve, giving birth to a son at thirteen, before being widowed in her early teens. The synopsis tells of her singled-minded obsession to get her son onto the throne of England and whatever plotting or inconvenience this may mean her determination will carry her through until she succeeds.
Now anyone that follows my blog regularly will know that I can be easily distracted and it only needs one small incident to send me off at a tangent. The incident in this case was the description of the young Margaret giving birth. She spent hours in labour and I was fascinated to learn that in order to speed things along the women in attendance put her in a blanket and bounced her up and down.
I have watched enough graphic scenes in Hollywood movies of sweaty, young women screaming in pain while frantic women flutter about the room with towels and hot water to know the profound dangers of childbirth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downplaying it because “back then” death in childbirth was indeed more common than today and in medieval times producing an heir was a serious business – a woman was expected to provide a male heir.
Childbirth was so deadly that the Church told pregnant women to prepare their shrouds and confess their sins in case of death. Long before hospital delivery rooms with all the paraphernalia close to hand, the medieval woman gave birth at home with the aid of female friends and neighbours. These women were known as ‘gossips’, as they spread the word in the community when someone went into labour. From images it would appear that women delivered their babies while kneeling or squatting directly on the ground or using a birthing chair. The pregnant woman would be propped up in the chair while one woman would sit below her, ready to catch the baby, and the other women comforted her. After the delivery, the exhausted mother would then be lead back to her bed. These birthing stools were coveted pieces and passed down as family heirlooms.
Many women suffered greatly regardless of whether they were rich or poor and other than prayer, there were few options available to ease labour pains and assure a safe delivery. These consisted of bouncing in a blanket which is what made me first start looking into birth in the Middle Ages, herbal poultices, drinking vinegar and sugar, placing a magnet in the mother’s hand and rubbing with rose oil. In cases of difficult births a girdle would help alleviate the pain, although none of these distractions were particularly effective.
The business of giving birth must have been truly dire and providing you survived, not too good after the baby was born either.
In situations where a baby’s birth position slowed its delivery or it was breach, the attendant turned the infant or shook the mother (as per the Red Queen) to attempt to reposition the foetus. And heaven help a woman who failed to deliver a dead baby. This infant would be dismembered in the womb with sharp instruments and removed with a “squeezer.” A retained placenta was delivered by means of counterweights, which pulled it out by force. All of this is supposed to be helping the women, it sounds more like torture.
Newborns were wrapped in swaddling clothes. We still do this today, when we snuggle babies in a shawl however the original swaddling clothes consisted of a square of cloth and bandages for securing. The baby was bound tightly from feet to shoulders as it was believed this would encourage the limbs to grow straight. The baby was in this form of clothing until it was about eight or nine months of old.
Rituals included burning of the newborn’s umbilical cord. The purifying fire was seen as a way of counteracting the sinful origins of conception, and new mothers were also forbidden to prepare food until they had attended church for the post-birth ritual of churching.
Whilst anyone giving birth today realises they are not in for a walk in the park thank goodness we are no longer in medieval times.