By Delores LaPratt
Symposia: The Graduate Student Journal of the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, Vol 2 (2010)
Introduction: A woman, when she travaileth, hath sorrow, for her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she thinketh no more of the anguish, for joy that man is born onto the world. I beseech thee therefore in the dangerous time of my travail, grant me speedie delivery, and joyful holding of my child.
Such a prayer might be recited by a woman with child in early modern England before her ‘travail.’ Childbirth is an integral part of life but in medieval and early modern England, childbirth occurred within an almost exclusively female domain. It was a complex event involving a number of rituals, including the use of prayers and charms, a ‘lying-in’ period of confinement following childbirth, and a subsequent ‘churching’ of the woman as she was reintegrated into the broader community in a church ritual. Through a study of childbirth prayers and rituals, one may get an impression of how childbirth was viewed by, and experienced by, its participants. Childbirth prayers and rituals also reflect societal beliefs and ideology. Thus, in comparing childbirth prayers and rituals used in pre-Reformation England with those used after the Reformation, one would expect changes in the types of rituals and prayers performed. Despite many changes in official ideology during this period, an analysis of childbirth prayers will demonstrate that this change was not so easily implemented by the Church and was, at times resisted by lay participants. The final outcome was that there was some continuity of childbirth prayers and rituals from the late medieval world into early modern England, not the least of which was the association of the ‘travail’ of childbirth with the ritual of prayer.
Childbirth prayers and rituals from the medieval period and early modern era shall be analyzed and compared with childbirth prayers and rituals in post-Reformation England. Despite recent interest in what can be seen as women’s history, there are very few comprehensive studies comparing childbirth prayers and rituals from the medieval period into the early modern era in England. This may be because historians tend to specialize within a particular era, such as the medieval period or the Reformation. The goal of this paper is to better elucidate what the particular childbirth prayers and rituals were, what aspects changed and why during these two time periods. In doing so one may gain a better understanding of the complex interplay between individual and church, popular culture and official state religion.