Childbirth could be especially dangerous during the Middle Ages, especially for women with complications. A safe delivery and a healthy child were cause for celebration, as well as imposing a few restrictions.
Whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, the lying-in for the mother was a tradition that crisscrossed cultures and religions. The birthing room was the domain of women, where midwives or other women who were mothers assisted the delivery, and family and friends were on hand to encourage the mother. Fathers were not present during the birth of their babies. If the mother required some form of surgery for the health or life of herself or her baby, a male physician would intervene. In preparation for the child’s arrival, women kept the birthing room warmed and clean, or purified with scented herbs. It appears many women used birthing stools or chairs in the delivery, supported by their female companions.
Medieval Christian Europe had varied concepts about the creation of children and the development of fetuses. The Franciscan friar Bartholomew Glanville theorized in the thirteenth century that a child formed from a father’s seed by some contribution from the mother. An embryo developing on the right side portended a son and if on the left, a daughter. There was a strong preference for sons over daughters. Christians showed great concern about the spiritual well-being of mother and child. A month before delivery occurred, the mother withdrew from public life, but not before she took communion in case she did not survive her ordeal. Birthing required a shuttered chamber with cloth hung over the windows. The midwife and other women assisted in bringing the child forth. If it lived, a sprinkling of salt and baptism closely followed, with exceptions in England during the week before Easter and Pentecost.
Many superstitions evolved about women before and after childbirth. The English believed that the newborn baby had to sneeze as soon as possible after its birth, to drive out any evil spirits lurking inside it. The After birth, the churching took place, where the father, godparents and child went to church for the baby’s baptism–the mother could not attend religious services until after 40 days or six weeks. German folklore warned a woman recovering from childbirth may not look out of the window for six weeks, or else every wagon that passes will take a bit of luck with it. Women could not draw water from any well for six weeks following childbirth, or the well would dry up for seven years.
In the Jewish quarters of European cities, motherhood became one of the most important aspects of female life. It is easy to imagine to sorrow of barren Jewish women, like the biblical Rachel, lamenting their state in a society that emphasized the importance of children. For a woman so blessed, the creation of a fetus required constant prayer from the father; in the first three days that the child should not die in utero. From day three to forty, the father prayed for a male child, and then later that it should not be stillborn. According to the Talmud, the mother contributed the child’s skin, blood and hair, while the father gave the child its bones, nails and brain.
Jewish women in childbirth had candles lit on their behalf. The men in the household recited various Psalms to ward off spirits and the evil eye, and her female companions brought the Scroll of the Torah to the birthing room. They also drew a sacred circle around the bed and inscribed the words, “Sanvi, Sansanvi, Semangalef, Adam and Eve, barring Lilit,” on the walls and door of the room. The midwife swaddled the newborn after salting and kept the child with its mother. Jewish mothers of sons could not go outdoors until the rabbi circumcised their boys, eight days after birth. On that occasion, the father formally recognized his son.
Muslim society in the Middle Ages extolled the virtues of motherhood, especially those who birthed sons, as did their Christian and Jewish counterparts. “Paradise is at the mothers’ feet.” Women wore charms and amulets to conceive, or relied on aid from homemade remedies like khitmi, an extract of marshmallow root steeped in hot water.
Several traditions evolved for the birthing. The mother withdrew to a room where the midwife, family and friends gathered around her as she sat on the birthing stool. The arrival of a daughter marked a muted celebration compared to the delivery of a son. Midwives washed the baby’s mouth with a piece of cotton dipped in a sacred potion. They also cleaned and wrapped the baby in a white linen cloth. After the highest-ranking male in the house whispered the profession of adherence to the Muslim religion into the child’s ears, he returned to his mother’s side. Salt scattered around the room warded off the evil eye. No one could pass between the child’s bed and the fire lit in the room for three days. The mother lay confined to her bed, considered ritually impure for a period of forty days.
While some of these rituals may seem archaic, some were practical and beneficial for child and mother. Less exposure and handling for the child must have helped keep away transmissible diseases at a time when the newborn was vulnerable. A woman confined to the birthing room ensured as much as rest as possible. What new mother would not have preferred to relax after the ordeal of childbirth?
Lisa Yarde, April 1, 2013