Childbirth; spiritual vs natural?

By Lucy Pyner

It is common place for us, in the twenty-first century, to associate the process of conception and childbirth with nature, regardless of any technological advances that may have to aid nature in certain situations. However, in early modern England, they often deemed these events a spiritual occurrence, instead looking to religious authority, divine intervention and even magic to the process of reproduction.

To understand why these childbirth rituals became so important, we must first look at the way in which the people of the early modern period viewed childbirth as a ‘spiritual construction’ rather than a natural order. It was thought that to see childbirth as a natural occurrence only was to deny God’s honour and it was through this belief that the sixteenth and seventeenth century view on childbirth became primarily associated with religion.[1]

There are many documented rituals that occurred throughout a pregnancy during this time, but these often varied between social and religious groups and were susceptible to change over time. Some of these rituals involved the use of concoctions such as the Caudle, a warm drink usually prepared in the birthing chamber and services held by the church after the birth of the baby, also known as churching, but the form of the Protestant Reformation did much in the way of condemning many and so the process of adaptation in the way we think of pregnancy now, begins.

These documents, although proven to provide some insight in to the beliefs and goings on during and after the birthing process in this period, were written and dominated by men, as many important events in history were as there were many illiterate woman – men whom had no business in the secrets of the birthing room. So it must be taken in to consideration that the rituals and practices that were deemed as necessary, might not have actually been taken into the birthing room at all but were instead just ideals.

It was believed by those who practised Catholicism, that a woman who fell pregnant was not only to experience the grace of Christ, but also the Curse of Eve – a woman suffered as she was drenched in previous sin, an explanation as to why childbirth caused so much pain.[2] After the Reformation, this idea of a women being contaminated and sinful was discredited by the Protestants and thrown out as superstition. However the ritual of churching, used by the Catholics as a way of a women repenting for these sins, was still used by the Protestants but was renamed to Thanksgiving, showing that regardless of religious authority, these rituals were still deemed important for those bearing children.

L0037432 Childbirth, woman being delivered on a bed, c. 1601

Woodcut illustrating a birth scene and demonstrating position for delivering the child.
The pregnant woman lies on a canopied bed with cushions heaped up beneath her so
that her pelvis is raised higher than her head. A midwife kneels on the bed, preparing to
deliver the baby.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

These beliefs helped to define the rituals that were used both during a woman’s pregnancy and after the baby was born. One of the most common ways to take preventative measures, to ensure a healthy pregnancy in the Catholic faith, was to look to religious relics and to call upon certain saints, like St Margaret or the Virgin Mary. [3] By doing so, the woman would be assured that she was being watched and taken care of and that her pregnancy would be healthy and the labour hastily shortened.

Another key ritual was the use of the Holy Sacrament, The Sarum Missal was a service that held masses for woman who were labouring with child and the Catholic church insisted that all woman with child attend these services to ensure that she saw out a healthy pregnancy and baby. [4] These rituals were universally held by all in both England and Europe until the Protestant Reformation came in to being in and discredited the ‘superstitious beliefs’ that had been prominent before it.

During Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, when Protestantism was at its strongest in England, unauthorised practices did occur, despite the condemnation from the Protestant church, but strict new obedience was found when midwives were made to swear an oath that all sorcery would be avoided during the process and that if one suspected another, they would tell. [5]

M0018189 Lying-in scene showing bath and cradleWoodcut of Lying-in scene showing bath and cradle for a new-born child.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This new change in religious belief and practice would have taken quite a heavy toll, as it was common for all women, regardless of wealth and profession, to understand the workings of pregnancy and childbirth and had been taught those traditions through many generations, meaning that this new change would have posed unfamiliar situations. For example, midwives, before the oath, would have used many rituals of their own to lessen a woman’s pain during pregnancy, like concoctions of ingredients that would be consumed by the patient. A midwife would often keep a garden that would be occupied with plants such as lilies and roses that were known to ease pain and hasten delivery. These midwives would often have remedies for all manners of issues and not just for pain relief, but for nourishing the child and even for conception. [6]

Although not a ritual, one magical object that resided regardless of your spiritual or religious belief and that was ‘The Eaglestone’ which consisted of a rock that was inside of a rock. The necklace, as it was so often turned in to, was worn to symbolise the baby inside of the womb and was used as a method of reassurance and belief that the baby would be kept safe inside.[7]

These rituals, though farfetched to a twenty-first century audience, would have provided a great comfort to those who practiced them. Although today, we look towards science and medication that has undergone testing in a scientific environment, people in the early modern period looked to tried and tested methods that had instead been passed down through generations of experience and looked towards religion and divine authority for their reassurances.

[1] David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion  and the life-cycle in Tudor and Stuart England  (1999) p. 16

[2] Ibid. p. 17

[3] Ibid. p. 22

[4] Ibid. p. 22

[5] Ibid. p. 21

[6] Ibid. p. 23

[7] Ibid. p. 24

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