By Kathryn Walton
Don’t eat hare’s head or your child will have a split lip; don’t throw strawberries at the expectant mother’s face or the child will have marks on their body; clench your fist during sex if you want to have a boy. These are just a few of the wonderful and bizarre pieces of advice offered to pregnant women by a group of medieval peasant women.
If you have ever been pregnant, or spent any time with anyone who is pregnant, then you probably know that many rules and superstitions surround pregnancy and childbirth today. When I was pregnant, I was constantly reminded not to eat soft cheese, not to drink certain teas, not to take hot baths, and not to sleep on my back. I was also told by different people at different times that my high belly and cravings for fried chicken meant I was carrying a boy and/or girl (depending on who I was talking to).
Similar beliefs and superstitions circulated in the Middle Ages. Medieval pregnant women were also advised to eat or not eat certain things and to act or not act in certain ways. But what they were advised to not eat, and what they were advised to do looked quite different from today.
A fantastic body of folk superstitions, pseudo-medical advice, and folk beliefs can be found in one fifteenth-century French text. Quite wonderfully, this text records not the medical advice of male, university-educated physicians, but instead the wisdom of a group of local peasant women.
The Distaff Gospels: A Repository of Advice from Peasant Women
The Distaff Gospels, which was written sometime in the late fifteenth century in Flanders or Picardy, contains a sequence of popular advice from a group of peasant women. This wonderful text records six days of meetings between six women who get together to share their wisdom and advice. That wisdom is recorded by a male narrator who opens the text by telling us that he often stops in to visit the women in the evening.
While the text occasionally takes a disrespectful tone towards the women and their advice, it is thought to be a fairly accurate record of some of the popular and superstitious beliefs of medieval peasant women. The women advise future women on everything from female health, to choosing a good husband, to living a good life, to raising a successful family. But much of their discussion surrounds conception, pregnancy, and childbirth.
Here are some of their wonderful and bizarre pieces of advice.
Advice about Procreation
According to these women what you do when you conceive a baby matters. Here is what they suggest.
- Make sure your husband/lover does not have dirty or smelly feet when you sleep together. If you don’t, your child will be smelly their whole life. If the child is a boy, he will have smelly feet too. If the child is a girl, she will have a smelly rear end.
- Make sure your partner is sexually experienced because, if you are a virgin and sleep with a sexually inexperienced young man, your child will be “simple.”
- Make sure you’re not a nun or a priest. Children who come from a union between a priest or friar and a nun will have all kinds of problems.
- If you want a boy, you can do the following things:
- Get the father to turn his face towards the east during sex. That will ensure the child is a boy.
- Clench your fist during sex. If the mother clenches her fist “while her husband does nature’s work,” that will also ensure she will have a boy.
- Have sex in the morning. If you want to have a girl, have sex in the evening.
Advice for a Healthy Pregnancy and Baby
They also had plenty of advice about what women and those close to them should do during pregnancy.
- Don’t eat a hare’s head because if you do your child will have a split lip.
- Don’t eat fish heads or your baby will be born with a mouth slightly more turned up and pointed than normal.
- Eat white bread dipped in wine to ensure that your baby will be small.
- Don’t throw cherries, strawberries, or red wine in the face of a pregnant woman or the baby will have marks on their body.
- Don’t have swords and other sharp objects near pregnant women. If you do, touch the pregnant woman gently on the head with the flat of the sword to calm her. This will also ensure the future child will be brave.
- Give pregnant women the food they want! As the text reads… “I tell you also that God and reason forbid talking with any pregnant woman, or even any married woman of childbearing age, about any food which cannot be immediately obtained if needed, so that her baby will not have a mark on its body.”
Advice on how to Determine the Sex of your Child
If you want to determine the sex of the unborn child, here is what the women suggest you can do:
- Sprinkle salt on the head of the pregnant woman when she is sleeping very carefully so that she is not aware that you have done so. Then, when she wakes up, listen carefully for the name that she says first. If it is a man’s name, the child will be a boy. If it is a girl’s name, the child will be a girl.
- Talk to the mother and watch her response closely: when she asks you “what do you think I am having?” say “A Lovely Boy.” If she does not blush, then she is having a girl.
- Get the father to think about how he felt after the act of conceiving the child. If he felt nothing, it will be a boy. If he felt unwell for several days following, it will be a girl.
- Find out how the mother is feeling; if the mother is unwell during the first three months, it will be a girl. If she is unwell during the second three months, it will be a boy.
You can also look for the following signs:
- If the mother is carrying the child more on the right side, she is likely to have a boy.
- If the mother is carrying the child more on the left side, she is likely to have a girl.
- If the mother likes hearing of jousts and tournaments, she is likely to have a boy.
- If the mother likes dances and music, she is likely to have a girl.
- If the mother likes eating venison and poultry, she is likely to have a boy.
- If the mother walks with her right foot first, she will have a boy.
- If she walks with the left foot first, she will have a girl.
Things You Should do after the Child is Born
The women also offered their advice about the steps you can take right after the child is born to set them up for a successful life. Here is what they suggest:
- Touch the head of your child with the umbilical cord. That will ensure that they will have a long life, sweet breath, a good voice and pleasing and elegant speech.
- Give the newborn some cooked apple before any breastmilk. So doing will ensure that they are not greedy or gluttonous throughout their life and that they are courteous with women.
- If you want your child to have curly hair, wash their hair with white wine right after they are baptized.
- After your baby is baptized get two young, good-looking children to put their baptismal bonnet out on a sharp sword to dry. That will ensure that the child is handsome, bold, and welcome among the nobility.
- Touch your son with a sword or dagger right after he is baptized to ensure that he will be brave for the rest of his life.
- Have the priest read The Gospel of the Three Kings or the Prayer of Saint Charlemagne over your son after he is born to ensure he will be brave and victorious.
- Be careful not to carry your child with your left hand before baptism or they will be left-handed.
- Bring a boy child to his father after birth and place his feet on the father’s chest. That will ensure the son will not have a bad death.
- Bring a girl child to her mother after birth and place the baby on the mother’s chest. That will ensure that her body will never disgrace her.
An Attempt to find Control
We know today, of course, that most of this advice is ludicrous and would have been entirely ineffective. That the women offered it, however, and that there is so much of it shows that the same desire to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby that we have today existed in the Middle Ages.
In the face of all the uncertainty and discomfort that comes from pregnancy and childbirth, medieval women looked for a measure of control. These beliefs provided just that. They gave women tangible things to do to (in their minds at least) ensure the best possible outcome. We do the same thing today. By not eating soft cheese and not taking hot baths, we too hope to ensure the best possible outcome in the face of so much uncertainty.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
The Distaff Gospels were edited and translated by Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay, and published by Broadview Press in 2001. Click here to buy the book on Amazon.com
See also “Advice Concerning Pregnancy and Health in Late Medieval Europe: Peasant Women’s Wisdom in The Distaff Gospels,” by Kathleen Garay and Madeleine Jeay
Top Image: British Library MS Royal 20 B XX fol. 86v