Category Archives: Women

Custom Family Medicine Women

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)

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Love Marriage Women

Danger hid under a Petticoat

The poetry of Katherine Philips celebrates a woman’s love for her female friend in the seventeenth century in such poems as To My excellent Lucasia, on our friendship:

I did not live until this time
Crown’d my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but Thee

In the 1630s, Constantia Fowler became acquainted with Catherine Thimelby through her brother, Herbert Ashton, to whom she wrote of Catherine:

I canot hide from you the many, and great obligations, that I have received from Mrs Thimelby: truely, I never gained so much by the acquaintance of any, as of her; therefore a thousand times have I blest, and allmost adored the time, that I first saw her.

Later, Constantia writes:

I have bin more deadly in love with her as ever lover was… For never creature was more fortunate than I in gaining affection from her. For I believe I am blest with the most perfectest and constant lover as ever women was blest with.

Single women who cohabited were often objects of suspicion. Four women of South Milton who occupied themselves ‘by their own honest employment of spinning which they followed many years’ were ordered to put themselves into service. Jane and Anne Wright, ‘both single persons living only upon their labour’ were taken from home.

One way in which women disguised their relationships with each other was by cross-dressing. On 12th September 1680, in the parish of St-Martins-in-the-Fields, Amy Poulter, ‘representing herself to be a man’ named James Howard, was married to 18-year-old Arabella Hunt. Amy had courted Arabella in the guise of a ‘young heir, not yet of an age’. By day she went about disguised as a woman. When Arabella began to realise that her husband ‘went under the suspition of one of a double gender’, she immediately appealed for an annulment. The case came to court in 1682, and a jury of five midwives examined Amy Poulter and found her to be a ‘perfect woman in all her parts’. The marriage was annulled and both women were free to remarry. Arabella, who went on to become a famous lutenist and soprano at the court of Queen Mary II, insisted on her role as the innocent deceived, but it is more probable that she was quite aware her husband was not a man.

Aphra Behn’s play of 1682, The False Count, may allude to Arabella and Amy. In the play, an elderly husband is troubled by his wife’s relationship with her sister and her maid: ‘I have known as much danger hid under a Petticoat, as a pair of Breeches. I have heard of two Women that married each other – oh abominable, as if there were so prodigious a scarcity of Christian Mans Flesh.’ While this remark suggests contemporaries may well have thought a shortage of men the reason for the marriage between Arabella and Amy, it is possible that Behn was using public discourse to air the possibility of lesbian marriage.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Crime Women

The Scold’s Bridle

Today’s snippets follow on with the theme of female transgression in early modern England.

Over time, specifically female crimes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came to be divided into three principle categories; scolding, witchcraft, and whoring. Punishments meted out in response to these’crimes’ often involved painful humiliation. One punishment consisted of the ‘cucking stool’; a chair-like device into which the offending woman was strapped before being dunked in water over her head. The cucking stool went by several names and had originally been used for both men and women as a punishment for cheating weights and measures in the marketplace. The cucking of scolds was often something of a carnival event; the device  was used primarily to shame the woman, and the process of cucking usually involved the scold being paraded through the streets, often to the accompaniment of music, jeering and denigrating shouts.

According to a legal summation of 1675, ‘A Scold in a legal sense is a troublesome and angry women, who by her brawling and wrangling amongst her Neighbours, doth break the publick Peace.’ The Scold’s Bridle, or Brank, shares an interesting, if horrific place in early modern history.

A device of containment designed to prevent a woman from speaking, it is today regarded as an instrument of torture. In its earliest form, the Bridle consisted of a hoop head-piece of iron, opening by hinges at the side so as to enclose the head, with a flat piece of iron projecting inwards so as to fit into the mouth and press the tongue down. Later it was made, by a multiplication of hoops, more like a cage, the front forming a mask of iron with holes for mouth, nose and eyes. Sometimes the mouth-plate was armed with a short spike. With this on her head the offending woman was marched through the streets by the beadle, or chained to the market-cross to be gibed at & pissed on by passers-by. It was solely dependent upon the gentleness of the man leading the woman in the bridle as to whether or not her teeth and jaws were permanently injured or even smashed. The Scold’s Bridle does not appear to have ever been a legalized form of punishment; but corporations and lords of manors in England, town councils, kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland assumed a right to inflict it.

A male account of the usefulness of the bridle from 1686:

I look upon it as much to be preferred to the Cucking Stoole, which not only endangers the health of the party, but also gives the tongue liberty ‘twixt every dipp; to neither of which is this at all lyable, but brings shame for the transgression, and humility thereupon, before ’tis taken off…which, being put upon the offender by order of the magistrate, and fastened with a padlock behind, she is lead round the towne by an officer to her shame, nor is it taken off, till after the party begins to show all external signes imaginable of humiliation and amendment.


Dorothy Waugh, who had been moved to ‘speake against all deceit & ungodly practises’, recounts her personal experience of being forced into a Scold’s Bridle in The Lamb’s Defence Against Lyes (1656):

The Mayor

was so violent & full of passion that he scarce asked me any more Questions, but called to one of his followers to bring the bridle as he called it to put upon me, and was to be on three houres, and that which they called so was like a steele cap and my hatt being violently pluckt off which was pinned to my head whereby they tare my Clothes to put on their bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of Iron, & three barrs of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable big a thing for that place as cannot be well related, which was locked to my head, and so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of Iron upon my head and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking; And the Mayor said he would make me an Example… Afterwards it was taken off and they kept me in prison for a little season, and after a while the Mayor came up againe and caused it to be put on againe, and sent me out of the Citty with it on, and gave me very vile and unsavoury words, which were not fit to proceed out of any mans mouth, and charged the Officer to whip me out of the Towne.

I have drawn on several secondary sources for this post, especially Linda Boose’s Scolding Brides.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
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