Married Life: Childbirth and Baptism

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Married Life: Childbirth and Baptism


Childbirth as Punishment. Childbirth was one of the most significant and dangerous experiences that faced a medieval woman. Medieval ideas about childbirth may be traced back to ancient Hebrew and Christian beliefs. The theologians taught that a woman’s pain in childbirth was part of the punishment God inflicted on Eve for her role in the Fall from Paradise. Genesis records that God said to Eve, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3.16). The Virgin Mary, however, was considered to have liberated women somewhat from the anguish of childbirth, hence women called on her for assistance during labor.

Heavenly Intercession. Childbirth was particularly dangerous in the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary and St. Margaret were the patrons of women in childbirth. Female children were often named Mary or Margaret after the saints who aided in their delivery. The cult of St. Margaret, an especially old one, was promoted by women, particularly midwives. Women in labor often sought the intercession of local saints as well. In the period 1301-1417 more than 3 percent of the miracles reported in canonization processes pertained to cures for sterility or assistance in difficult childbirths.

Masculine Views. Many male ecclesiastical writers described pregnancy and childbirth with evident distaste. They focused on the physiological changes in a pregnant woman’s body, including the discomfort associated with an enlarged uterus pressing on other organs, aches and pains throughout the body, the swelling of the woman’s breasts, and nausea. They described labor as filled with torment, with little means of relief. Around 1250 Bartholomew the Englishman described pregnancy and delivery, commenting: “Mothers have nausea and vomiting and are heavy and cannot work. In labor, they are compelled to cry and are easily killed, especially young women with small and narrow members. The more woe and sorrow a woman has in childbirth, the more she loves the child when he is born.” Unlike Bartholomew, most male writers had little personal experience with the process of birth.

Woman’s Sphere. Childbirth was one area of life that was distinctly female; men, including the baby’s father, were generally excluded from the birthing chamber. Childbirth was presided over by the local midwife or wise woman, who cared for all the gynecological and obstetrical needs of medieval women. Female friends, neighbors, and relatives provided the mother with pre- and post-natal care, assisted in the delivery, and cared for the newborn. Limited medical intervention and the inability to provide a sterile environment meant that if the birth had complications there was a high likelihood that it would end in the death of mother or baby or both.

Midwives. Midwives or wise women were found both in small villages and larger cities. Their training tended to be through apprenticeship; younger women learned as they assisted older and more experienced midwives. While their knowledge was primarily practical rather than theoretical, as was usual among university-educated male physicians, this deficiency did not detract from the women’s expertise. The hands-on experience of midwives gave them a broad knowledge of all areas pertaining to pregnancy and child birth, including how to assist women in labor and how to cope with difficult and dangerous births. Their intervention was important because it was considered immodest and threatening to the prevailing moral code for a woman to be given a physical examination by a male physician. Medical treatises from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries make clear that midwives were trained and, in many locales, licensed. Untrained women who tried to perform the functions of midwives were widely criticized because they lacked the requisite expertise and knowledge.

Oral Traditions. Midwives’ techniques of their profession were handed down through oral tradition, so few of their specific techniques and prescriptions have survived. Generally, historians have had to rely on occasional references made by critical male practitioners or information in court cases prosecuting midwives for malpractice. While it was conventional to denounce midwives for superstition or ignorance, no pregnant woman would have wanted to face labor and childbirth without the aid of a trusted midwife from her community.

Advice for Midwives. Medical treatises provide some information on what a midwife might do to assist women in labor. Such books prescribed baths to relieve labor pains and walking to hasten the birth. Midwives were expected to reposition the child manually in the womb should it not be in the correct position to be born. One source, attributed to an eleventh-century Salernitan author known as Trotula, includes specific information on the midwife’s therapies and shows how religious and medical considerations intersected: Above all things when there is difficulty in childbirth one must have recourse to God. Descending then to lower means, it is helpful to the woman in difficult labor to be bathed in water in which has been cooked mallow, chick peas, flaxseed, and barley. Let her sides, abdomen, hips, and flanks be rubbed with oil of roses or oil of violets. … Let sneezing be provoked. … Let the woman be led at a slow pace through the house.” Abbess Hildegard of Bingen said that during childbirth a woman’s body felt as though it were being turned inside out.

Medical Remedies. Medicines were also recommended to help to prevent miscarriages, and prescriptions were available for potions to help expel a fetus that died in the womb, so that it would not kill the mother because it could not be delivered. Medical authorities did not advise that the mother’s life be sacrificed to try to save the child. One anonymous fourteenth-century treatise observed, “When the woman is feeble and the child cannot come out, then it is better that the child be slain than the mother of the child also die.” Treatises also discussed remedies to ensure that the mother could expel the afterbirth. The same herbal remedies tended to be recommended to hasten a slow birth, expel a dead fetus, and expel a retained afterbirth.

Folk Medicine. There were several folk remedies and spiritual aids designed to help women in labor. Herbal remedies could be drunk or mixed into salves to anoint the body, especially the stomach or vaginal areas. Special prayers and incantations would be said over the woman. Certain stones and crystals were believed to have a healing effect. Some women sought to have the relics or tokens of saints brought to them to aid in the delivery. For example, in the thirteenth century Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III of England, had the girdle of the Virgin Mary, which was kept at a church in Westminster, brought to her as she went into labor and later credited the power of the girdle for her safe delivery. Along with invoking saints, women engaged in special ritual actions, such as measuring the pregnant woman with a thread that was subsequently used as the wick in a special candle donated to a saint’s shrine. Sometimes the woman in labor, or her family,

promised to visit a saint’s tomb or to make a special donation to the shrine.

Hospitals. From about 1100 onward hospitals were founded in cities and towns. Pregnant women, especially poor or single women without friends or family to help them, were able to go to hospitals and receive care throughout the process of giving birth. The baby was then baptized by the hospital chaplain, and the mother received postpartum care. The normal hospital stay was three weeks. If the mother died in childbirth, her child was brought up in the hospital; if the newborn died, it would be buried nearby.

Dangers. The danger of childbirth was widely recognized. Pregnant women were urged to confess their sins before they went into labor. There was a fear that if the birth were difficult, the woman might die without the benefit of a priest to hear her confession. Religious writers urged that water always be present in the birthing chamber and that midwives know the proper formula for baptism. That way, should it appear that the baby might die in childbirth or shortly thereafter, the midwife could baptize it, even in the womb. If the mother died in the process of giving birth, the midwife was expected to perform a Caesarian section immediately, in case the child in the womb was still alive. This practice was documented as early as the beginning of the eleventh century, indicating that knowledge of this medical procedure had endured from antiquity.

Postpartum Purification. The safe delivery of both mother and child was a cause for celebration; for the mother, it took the form of churching, or purification. This practice was a religious ceremony that took place roughly a month after the woman had given birth. The justification for this activity was found in regulations inherited from Jewish practice, which prescribed periods of abstinence prior to ritual cleansing for new mothers. The length of the period depended on the sex of the child born: thirty-three days after a boy and sixty-six after a girl. In the sixth century Pope Gregory I (the Great) taught that this process should be understood allegorically rather than literally. He believed that if a woman got up from her childbed and ran to the church to give thanks, she did nothing wrong. In customary practice, churching was the first time after giving birth that a new mother went to church and had the opportunity to give thanks for a safe delivery. She partook of a liturgical ceremony to purify her of the blood that was believed to have polluted and tainted her in the process of giving birth. A married couple was expected to abstain from sexual relations until at least after the churching, although it was thought preferable to wait until the child was weaned. In medieval society, the social function of churching was more important than its religious rationale. Though churching was not an ecclesiastical requirement, the laity practiced the ritual long after the Church had officially dispensed with it. Among the wealthy the purification ceremony could be an occasion for celebration and excess.

Infant Baptism. If a child did not appear so fragile as to warrant an emergency baptism by the midwife, it was usually baptized when it was about one week old. Infant baptism was inspired by the doctrine of Original Sin and the notion that no one, not even the youngest and most innocent of newborns, was completely free from sin. Consequently, baptism was needed to cleanse the infant and welcome it into the community of believers. Given the high infant mortality of the medieval period, parents quite naturally wanted to ensure their young child would be saved should it die shortly after birth. Until the twelfth century it was commonly believed that unbaptized children would be condemned to Hell. In the course of the twelfth century this belief was replaced by the more moderate one that, although an unbaptized infant could not go to Paradise, it would not suffer in Hell either. Rather, it would remain in limbo for eternity.

Absent Mother. The child’s mother was generally not present at her child’s baptism, either because she had not completely recovered from giving birth or because she observed the custom of not entering the church prior to her churching. It was common for the godparents and relatives to send the absent mother presents, which might include cakes and sweets, candles, rich fabrics, or elaborately decorated trays celebrating the baby’s birth. Female friends and relatives also visited the mother and kept her company during her recuperation.

Baptismal Rituals. When the baptismal party arrived at the church door, the priest asked the godparents for the child’s name and their qualifications to be godparents. Naming practices differed in various locales and at various times. The child might be named after its parents, grandparents, godparents, or a special saint, such as one whose intercession had aided in the birth. The priest then performed a variety of rituals designed to banish evil spirits and protect the infant, including the laying on of hands and anointing the child with holy oil. Salt was placed in the child’s mouth to symbolize the reception of wisdom and the banishment of evil.

Cleansing the Spirit. The baptismal group then moved into the church to the baptismal font. In the course of the tenth century, there was a gradual transition from the practice of immersing the child’s whole body in the baptismal font to pouring water over the baby’s head. Full immersion was still being performed as late as the thirteenth century. Infants were baptized naked, despite the threat that this practice represented to their health. The godparents lifted the child from the font after it had been baptized, and the godmother clothed it in a white garment. The godparents promised to teach the child the basic tenets of the Christian faith, answered the priest’s questions on behalf of the child, and recited the Creed in its name. This ceremony was fairly time consuming and uncomfortable for the attendees. It was common for children to cry throughout the ceremony, and it was not unknown for an infant to urinate in the baptismal font. Although canon law prohibited it, some priests expected payment for baptizing an infant.

Folk Superstitions. Popular beliefs about baptism included the notion that a baptized infant was better able to fight off illness and disease. Moreover, some superstitions suggested that an unbaptized child could be stolen away by fairies or wood spirits and another child substituted for it. Thus, along with baptism, people invoked various incantations and charms to protect their children from dangers. An unbaptized child that died might also be perceived as dangerous to the living. In the eleventh century, Burchard of Worms recorded that the laity would bury an unbaptized infant with a stake through its heart so that the dead child could not leave the grave. This practice was vehemently condemned by the Church.

Conditional Baptism. Baptism was considered a sacrament that should be administered only once in a lifetime. If a child had been abandoned and no one was certain if it had been baptized, the priest would administer a conditional baptism. Similarly, a foundling hospital would baptize infants left at its door, especially if the baby appeared to be only a couple of weeks old.

Godparents. Every baptized child had godparents. Baptism created an important and lifelong familial bond between a godchild and its godparents. Families took care in selecting the godparents because the choice was one means of extending a person’s kinship network. Customarily, a female child had two godmothers and one godfather; a male child had two godfathers and one godmother. Godparents were expected to participate in the child’s religious education, as well as in its physical and spiritual upbringing. The Church, however, warned against the relationship becoming too intense or intimate and roundly denounced the sexual abuse of children by their godparents. The importance of the spiritual relationship seemed to vary according to age. Godchildren do not figure largely in the wills of young adults who had their own families. Older people, however, tended to include their godchildren quite frequently in the list of beneficiaries in their wills. Godparents could also act as patrons and help their godchildren find their way in the world, either through providing financial aid, helping them finding jobs, or standing surety in court. Thus, although the exact nature of the relationship varied with the individuals involved, there were some social expectations about godparents’ responsibilities and the kind of support they should provide.


Daniele Alexandre-Bidon and Didier Lett, Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth-Fifteenth Centuries, translated by Jody Gladding (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

Clarissa W. Atkinson, The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Peter Biller, “Childbirth in the Middle Ages,” History Today, 36 (August 1986): 42-49.

Barbara A. Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Bernhard Jussen, Spiritual Kinship as Social Practice: Godparenthood and Adoption in the Early Middle Ages, translated by Pamela Selwyn, revised edition (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000).

Shulamith Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages (London &c New York: Routledge, 1990).

Fiona Harris Stoertz, “Suffering and Survival in Medieval English Childbirth,” Medieval Family Roles: A Book of Essays, edited by Cathy Jorgensen Itnyre (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 101-120.

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Married Life: Childbirth and Baptism

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