Childbirth is openly discussed in today's society. Images of pregnant women appear in magazines and women giving birth can be seen on television and in movies. Yet during the medieval period, childbirth was deemed a private affair. Giving birth in the middle ages was a dangerous time for women and childbirth did not discriminate. Young mothers, older mothers, poor or rich mothers, all could die not only in childbirth but also due to complications afterwards. Sadly, more than one in three women died during their child-bearing years.
Initially, some women would not have even known they were pregnant until they felt the first movement of their baby inside of them at around five months. This was known as the "quickening". It seems amazing to us that a woman would not know that she was pregnant for several months, but there were no reliable tests for pregnancy during the Tudor period. A woman may have turned to a doctor to see if she was pregnant, but the tests were far from reliable. One pregnancy test during the Tudor period was to examine the colour of the urine and if it was a pale yellow to white colour with a cloudy surface the woman may have been pregnant. Other tests involved examining a needle left in the woman's urine to see if it rusted, or seeing what happened when wine was mixed with the woman's urine. Also a women's lack of regular menstruation could be related to several factors including illness, breast-feeding, excessive fasting or even a poor diet.
There was no way of monitoring the baby's heart rate or to take blood pressures, and thus women replied heavily upon other experienced women to support and help them. Childbirth was predominantly women's business and physicians and doctors only attended under the most extreme circumstances, such as in Queen Jane Seymour's case when she was giving birth to the future king and had problems. More commonly if a woman had the funds or contacts she would have sought advice and support from a midwife, a woman who had a great deal of experience and knowledge in delivering babies.
There are very few accounts of what giving birth was like for the common, every-day Tudor woman, as not only was it a private affair but women generally did not write down or record their lives. However, if a queen gave birth, well that was a public matter as she could be giving birth to the next heir. Therefore we can turn to the pregnancies and births of royal women to see what giving birth might have been like for some women during the Tudor period.
Women of noble birth, such as the queen or of higher classes, would close themselves off from the world for a period before they gave birth. This was commonly known as 'lying in' or 'taking her chamber'. Before this, an elaborate service was held where the Church would ask God for his blessing for the birth. After the service and the prayers from the clergy, the queen went into her private rooms. The common woman may have gone to church or sought the blessing from the Priest before she too removed herself from the public eye for her own ‘lying in’. Other women, sadly those of the much lower class, may have had to work right up until they went into labour as there was no one to cover their daily responsibilities.
No men were allowed in this private room, or rooms, and the pregnant woman was only allowed to be attended to by other women. The mother's rooms would be closed off and tapestries would be hung over the windows to block out as much light from the outside world as possible. Only a single window would have been left open to allow fresh air into the room and only a small amount of light, as it was believed that too much light could damage the expectant mother's eyes. The room would have been hung with calming tapestries and images as not to upset the mother, which could in turn harm the unborn child. Crucifixes and other religious items would have been kept within the room to provide spiritual support for the mother. The idea was to recreate the womb: warm, dark and quiet.
England during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a devout Catholic nation. Religion and faith were part of everyday life and closely entwined with the act of childbirth. The pain associated with labour and childbirth was thought to be due to Eve's fall in the Garden of Eden. Her original sin meant that all women were to suffer great pain and without the pain killers that we have available today many women turned to religion to provide them with the support and relief they greatly desired. There was also the strong possibility that a mother in labour could die, so religion and faith played a hugely important role within the role of childbirth.
Women often clutched holy relics or recited religious prayers and chants to help them throughout the birthing process. Amulets and amber could also be placed upon the mother's stomach, or prayer rolls could be read or even wrapped around the stomach to help with the pain of labour and to aid safe delivery of a baby. Some mothers even clutched pieces of tin or cheese or butter which had charms engraved upon them. The church would have approved of these as they called upon God and that which He had created. Many women called upon St Margaret, the patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth. St Margaret was eaten by a dragon but spat out again due to the crucifix she had been holding. It was hoped that babies would be delivered as easily as St Margaret had come out of the dragon. Although physically these things could not have assisted in the birth, the faith and belief that women had in them would have helped them psychologically and could have helped them deal with their fear and worries over child-birth.
The midwife also played an extremely important role during birth. Midwives had years of experience delivering babies and thus had a great deal of knowledge. The midwife had to be a woman of good character who was greatly trusted, she had to take an oath which dictated that she would not keep anything from the childbirth, such as the umbilical cord or placenta, which could possibly be used in witchcraft. The role of the midwife might be to suggest different ways to deliver the child, such as sitting in a birthing stool or being cradled from behind. The midwife also had knowledge on how to turn a child if it was not in the right position to be delivered.
It is interesting to examine medieval texts to see what they say about what happened during childbirth. Most of these texts were written by men, many of whom were clergy and members of the church. This is rather ironic as these men had taken a vow of celibacy and thus could neither have sex or, as men, enter the birthing chamber. Many men of the time believed that the female sexual organs were male organs turned inwards. Women were deemed subordinate to men as their sexual organs had not grown outside of the body and so were not fully formed or developed. In essence, they were inferior versions of men. Some people even believed that they could choose the sex of their baby by the types of foods they ate, things they drank or medicines they concocted. They had no concept that it was the male sperm that dictated the sex of the child. It all lay heavily upon the shoulders of the woman.
What happened behind closed doors with the midwife would have been very different from what was written within the medieval text books. It would have been more like what happened today, with the midwife supporting and providing advice to the pregnant mother and helping to deliver the child.
The English Reformation had a dramatic effect not only upon the church but it also filtered down to the delivery room. Holy relics and other Catholic practices were destroyed. Many women no longer had access to holy relics, images or icons to reply upon and draw strength from while they were giving birth. Women were also banned from promising to go on pilgrimage for the safe delivery of their unborn children. Instead of relying upon the saints and relics, women were only allowed to call upon God for support and help. One cannot help but wonder if some women still turned to their Catholic relics and other items for support without the knowledge of the larger community.
If a woman and her baby survived the birth there were still dangers ahead. The midwife was allowed to baptise a baby so if it was sickly or close to death then its soul would go to heaven. The act of baptism would remove the natural sin and cleanse the soul. It was the only time that a woman was ever allowed to deliver one of the sacraments and only to be done if the child was going to die. Caesarean sections were not a common occurrence and were only performed if the mother had died, in the hope of saving the unborn child. The loss of a child no matter the time is a traumatic experience that has huge emotional impacts upon the family.
During the medieval period, men believed that a woman's purpose in life was to get pregnant and have babies. Childbirth during this period was a very dangerous time for women and many wrote their wills before they gave birth in case they did not make it through the delivery. However, despite the dangers many women gave birth multiple times and had large families of healthy children who, lucky for us, would grow to become the next generation.
See also the Claire Chats video on Pregnancy and Childbirth in Tudor Times.
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Sarah Bryson is the author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. She is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours and currently works with children with disabilities. Sarah is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. Visiting England in 2009 furthered her passion and when she returned home she started a website, queentohistory.com, and Facebook page about Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing, Tudor costume enactment and wishes to return to England one day.
- Licence, Amy (2012) In Bed with the Tudors: The Sex lives of a dynasty from Elizabeth of York to Elizabeth I, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
- Licence, Amy (2013) "How Times Change! Two Royal births: Edward V (1470) and Prince George of Cambridge", viewed 18 July 2015, http://royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/how-times-change-two-royal-births-edward-v-1470-and-george-prince-of-cambridge-14075.
- Licence, Amy (2013) "Christopher Marlowe's family and the birth of Modern English midwifery in Elizabethan Canterbury", his story, her story, viewed 18 July 2015, http://authorherstorianparent.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/christopher-marlowes-family-and-birth.html.
- Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage and Death 2013, BBC Scotland.
- Rendfeld, Kim (2015), Midwifery: Magic or Medicine in the Dark Ages, viewed 10 July 2015, https://kimrendfeld.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/midwifery-magic-or-medicine-in-the-dark-ages/.