His little cheeks are wet

Today’s snippets focus on childbirth in early modern England. The traditional assumption is that for most women, childbirth at this time posed a high risk of death to both mother and child, but recent research suggests that the risk of a woman dying during childbirth at this time was only about 6 or 7%. However there were other risks facing pregnant women, many of which were faced by unmarried and single mothers.

Unmarried women were stigmatised as ‘bastard bearers’ and punished as whores. In 1639, the clerk of an unknown London parish recorded money paid out to ‘the whore and her bastard’, and in some cases single pregnant women were subjected to physical punishment or ordered to spend a year in a house of correction, with or without their babies. In 1599, the Essex justices ordered a Frances Barker to be carted and whipped until her blood flowed for bearing a bastard. Often the authorities tried to force single women in labour to reveal the names of the father, threatening to remove the services of a midwife if she failed to comply. Confronted with this threat, one woman swore that ‘although she should be torn in pieces with wild horses she could accuse none other’, while another woman, abandoned by her wealthy lover, ‘cried woe to the bones of him that ever she knew him, but if he had kept promise with her she would never have betrayed him though she had been racked to death.’

Whether single or married, for most women childbirth took place in a separate, darkened room. Only adult women were permitted to attend. In addition to the midwife, the woman’s female relatives often played a significant role, although an unmarried girl was not allowed to be present. There were many remedies and folkloric treatments available for women to choose from, but essentially the woman underwent the birth of her child with no pain relief of any kind, relying solely on the expertise of the midwife. The midwife was usually a respected member of the community, one whose religion had to satisfy the Church, because should the newborn die before a member of the clergy could arrive, it was the midwife who would be expected to perform a baptism.

Once the baby had safely arrived, there was general celebration, and the midwife was rewarded with presents or payment in cash. The baby was washed and wrapped in swaddling clothes. In aristocratic circles a wet-nurse would be employed to feed the baby, but in most ordinary households, the mother would feed the baby herself. The following is a description of a fortunate aristocratic mother greeting her newborn child:

unswaddle him, undo his swaddling bands, give him his breakfast while I am here… wash him before me, have you clean water?  O my little heart! God bless thee, rub the crown of his head, wash his ears…wash his face; lift up a little his hairs, is that not some dirt I see upon his forehead? His little cheeks are wet, I believe you did leave him alone to cry and weep… How many teeth hath he? Pull off his shirt, thou are pretty and fat my little darling. His thumb and little finger are flea bitten… is there any fleas in your chamber?’

After the birth, mother and child would remain in the birthing room for up to a month, until they attended the churching ceremony organised by the father.  This was a Protestant thanksgiving for a safe delivery; signalling the woman’s status within the community as a mother, and allowing her and her family to celebrate both the birth of a new child and her own survival.

Sources & further reading, Mendleson & Crawford, Women in Early Modern England, Clarenden Press (1998); Liza Picard, Elizabeth’s London, Phoenix (2003)

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  • January 24, 2012 - 11:14 am | Permalink

    This is very amazing blog and information provided by the article of this blog is really nice and useful and i would like to visit the blog again.

  • April 16, 2010 - 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Childbirth is not always horrid. I had one completely natural childbirth and it was fine. The other two, with medical intervention, were not so fine.

  • February 5, 2010 - 8:22 am | Permalink

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  • Anonymous
    January 12, 2010 - 5:37 pm | Permalink

    6-7% before effective contraception, when women would (if they survived) have multiple childbirths is a scarily high percentage. Put another way, imagine a process which had a 7% mortality rate and you might be undergoing it, say, 15 times.

  • January 11, 2010 - 3:00 pm | Permalink

    At the time of composing the post, 6 or 7% seemed quite small, but your statistics demonstrate quite the opposite. Thank you, that really is thought-provoking.

  • January 11, 2010 - 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Another fascinating fragment.

    A pregnant woman in England or Wales currently has a risk of 14 in 100,000 (0.0014%) of dying during childbirth (direct or indirect causes). This is about 500 times less than in early modern England.


  • January 11, 2010 - 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I imagine the midwife would be paid regardless of the outcome, but gifts might not be forthcoming if the child died. It’s quite incredible that women went through the horrors of childbirth without medication of any kind.

  • January 11, 2010 - 11:50 am | Permalink

    Fascinating – I wonder were the midwives paid if the child died?

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