By Danièle Cybulskie
Like most things in the Middle Ages, the process of giving birth was mired in both superstition and religion. There were specific charms, often replaced by suspiciously similar prayers, which were said to keep both mother and baby safe both during and after delivery. The most often-invoked intercessor between the delivering mother and God was, of course, the Virgin Mary, who had gone through the process herself. Mary’s experience in these matters made her more approachable to women, who prayed to her in all manner of circumstances, especially childbirth.
Although sex within marriage was acceptable (albeit grudgingly) for the purposes of procreation, because it began with lust, childbearing was a process always tainted with sin. As a result, women who had just given birth were forbidden to go to church until they were cleansed of the whole process. The postnatal “churching” of a woman occurred forty days after the birth, when she attended mass once again, this time bringing a candle with her. The unclean nature of childbirth even applied to the Virgin Mary herself (although this strikes me as a bit hypocritical, considering the immaculate nature of her pregnancy), and Mary’s churching was celebrated with a widespread holiday, called “Candlemas” in England, which occurred forty days after Christmas.
It seems to be a common belief that medieval people did not treat their children with the reverence we do now – after all, many children would not survive infancy. There is no real evidence to support this theory, though, and – I think – much more compelling evidence to the contrary. As the Middle Ages wore on, a religious trend (which we now call “affective piety”) emerged that saw women meditating on the birth and early rearing of Jesus (including nursing). These meditations were meant to affect women emotionally, so that they might feel more deeply connected to their religion. It seems to me that, if the birth of a child was so inconsequential, this movement would never have occurred.
Sadly, much of the ritual surrounding childbirth is lost to us now, like so many things, since both bearing children and delivering them was the domain of women. While we have books on etiquette that address the proper use of a napkin, the birthing process is shrouded in mystery, for the most part because the people doing the vast majority of the writing at the time were monks and priests; the subject matter would hardly have been of any use to them.
Googling “medieval childbirth” will reward you with images (many a little graphic) that show women undergoing this life-changing process. I’d encourage you to have a look, and see what differences and similarities you can find between the miracle of life then and now.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Medieval Childbirth – Detail of a miniature of the birth of Samson. British Library MS Royal 2 B VII f. 43