by Sam Thomas
When we think about the difference between the past and present, our minds often turn to medicine, and with good reason. Who in their right minds would want to return to a world of leeches and blood-letting, of pregnancy without doctors and high death-rates for both mothers and children? But as so many of the writers on this blog have made clear, there is far more behind the history than modern stereotypes, and childbirth is no exception.
If you were to peek in on a woman in labor (or “in travail” as she might have said), the first thing you might notice is the people in the room. There would be a midwife rather than a doctor, of course, and you’d not find her husband – until the eighteenth century at the very earliest, childbirth was the business of women.
Rather than doctors, nurses, and bright lights, the mother would be surrounded by her female friends and neighbors – her god-sibs or gossips – who came to help, socialize, to see and be seen, and at a more general level, just to make sure that everything went right. (Before we join hands and start to sing Kumbaya, it’s worth noting that sometimes gossips argued with each other, with the midwife, and even with the mother. Imagine if your own mother were present – and giving you advice – when you were in labor.)
Unlike today, when most women deliver while lying on their backs (good for the doctor, not so good for the mother), early modern women gave birth in a more upright position, either held by two of her gossips or sitting on a birthing stool, or both. While other women could participate in the delivery of the child, only the midwife had the right to touch the mother’s ‘privities.’ Once the child was born, the midwife would cut the umbilical cord (for boys, the longer the cord, the longer his, um, equipment; for girls the shorter the cord, the tighter her privities), swaddle the child, and hand her over to the mother.
The question of maternal mortality has been much discussed, and our best guess is that 5-7% of births ended in the death of the mother. In some cases, death might be caused by an obstructed birth, but more often mothers died some weeks after delivery, usually of puerperal fever, a bacterial infection contracted during childbirth. Thus while individual incidents of maternal death were not terribly common, most women would know a woman who had died in labor.
After giving birth, the mother would enjoy a period of lying-in. During these forty days, she would be confined to her room, free from the demands of household labor. During this time, her neighbors would visit, but she did not go out into public. At the end of her lying-in, the mother would go to her parish church and give thanks to God for her survival, and resume the heavy work of a wife and mother.