Tuesday 24 June 2014

SALT AND CRUSHED ROSES - Medieval pregnancy and neonatal care By Elizabeth Chadwick

Last week we welcomed a new baby boy into our family. (left). At the same time I was reading up on pregnancy and the care of babies as part of my general research, so I thought I'd talk on the subject for my monthly posting.

In the thirteenth century, a Tuscan physician called Aldobrandino da Polenta, left his homeland to become personal physician to countess Beatrix of Provence who was the mother in law of King Louis IX of France. While thus employed he wrote and dedicated to his employer a medical text in French called the Regime du Corps, which translates as Regimen for the Body. (1256) Here is his Letter to her, dedicating the work.
His writings, particularly on the section concerning the care of the mother during pregnancy and then of the newborn child were principally sourced from Arabic works that had been disseminated through Europe in earlier centuries.

His view of pregnancy was that when it began it was like a tree when the fruit was first set and was vulnerable to wind and rain - what we now call the June drop where all the fruits that haven't taken, wither and fall. Then the fruit took a firmer hold on the branch and as it grew became more difficult to  dislodge. Once ripe, however, it was again ready to fall at the lightest touch.
As a result of these stages, Aldobrandino thought it was nto a good idea to bleed the mother or perform medical interventions in the first four months, but that it was all right for a while after that because the child was now firmly established. However,when the baby was at full term it was again inadviseable to bleed the mother.

As far as a mother's general regimen went, he advised her not to eat anything that was too salty in case it caused the baby to be born without hair or nails. She should not eat anything that might cause her to menstruate.  This included such items as haricot beans, rue, parsley - or lupins!  And she was never to gorge herself.  Instead she should eat small meals frequently and they should be easily digestible. Chicken was especially good.  He also cites partridge, blackbirds, kid and mutton as being beneficial.  She should not drink straight wine but cut it with water.  She should also keep calm and avoid anything that might cause stress and anger. Instead she should cultivate all things that gave her joy and comfort, again with particular attention to the first and last months.  She should also put herself in situations where the smells were nice. Her clothes should be fresh and clean and she should not remain out for too long in the sun.

 Aldobrandino suggested that a good tonic for a pregnant woman to take should be made from whole pearls that have never been pierced mixed with root of Spanish pellitory, ginger, mastic, zedoary root (not unlike ginger) cassia bark, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon, sea lavender and long pepper.  All of this should be powdered and put into a sugar syrup.  I should think the taste was very aromatic and ginger is good for sickness, but I'm not sure about the powdered pearls!
Zedoary plant

About three weeks before her delivery date, Aldobrandino said the woman should bathe every day in water that had been steeped with mallows and violets, linseed, fenugreek, barley and camomile.  Her thighs and genitals should be anointed with oil of camomile, chicken fat, foam from the top of butter and a compound called dialthea made from the marsh mallow plant.   She was to take fortifying drinks of balsam and wine - or if she was poor, roots of costus and artemisia cooked in wine with a two pennyweight of bull's bile added.
Thus fortified, she should make herself sneeze but hold her breath by the mouth and nose, and then force herself to walk, and go up and down stairs.  Having done her exercises, she should have her feet and hands rubbed and inhale nice aromas while this was being done.  She should also anoint her genitals with costus root and spikenard (for their olefcatory effect).

A mother to be should be kept warm when it was cold, and cooled down when the temperature was warm. Indeed, it was beneficial Aldobrandino said, for her to sit in a lukewarm bath up to her navel.
During labour Aldobrandino suggested an energy-giving drink should be presented to the mother, made from water in which dates had been cooked, and then flavoured with fenugreek. He also advised placing a cushion under the woman's belly to support and comfort her.
Once delivered (and this is assuming an untroubled birth) the woman should bathe and be given nourishing food to eat, and medicines administered for any after pains.

As a side note, what strikes me from the above details is how matter of factly bathing is taken, and how therapeutic. It's another strand of evidence to support the argument that actually yes, people did bathe in the Middle Ages and that it wasn't frowned upon.

So, onto the baby now that he or she had been born.  The next piece of advice from Aldobrandino is rather worrying to a modern mindset.  He advises that the baby should be wrapped in crushed roses with fine salt. This doesn't sound like a good idea but let's go on.  The umbilical cord should be cut and powdered 'dragon's blood' put on it. This is actually the gum of the East Indian climbing palm. Also sarcocolla (similar), cumin and myrrh and the whole covered with a linen bandage soaked in olive oil.  Aldobrandino doesn't actually say he has done this - it's just what's taught.  Or you can tie off the cord with a thread of twisted wool and cover it with an olive oil bandage.

Once the umbilical cord has dropped off, the area should be covered with a mixture of fine salt mixed with powdered costus or sumac or fenugreek or oregano. He then cheerfully advises the mother to salt the baby's whole body with this, particularly  the nose and mouth. (I'm amazed any child survived!).  Aldobrandino says that a newborn child is very tender and easily feels the heat and the cold, so may need this salting more than once to toughen it up!

Anyway, after the mite has endured the salting, it gets a wash thank goodness.(that is of course from my modern perspective!).  Aldobrandino tells his readers that the nurse must have trimmed nails so that she doesn't harm the baby.  She should help it urinate by pressing lightly on its bladder. Of its own accord, a healthy baby will 'fill its bottom nicely.'

When swaddling the baby, the members should be arranged to give them a good shape because it's like forming wax and whatever shape you give a malleable baby now will impinge on its future physical development, so a mother should employ a wise nurse to do this. 'you should know that beauty and ugliness are due in large measure to nurses.'

Having been swaddled, the baby was then put in its cradle to sleep. The cradle was not to have hard things in it (unspecified) but soft things that would comfort it and keep it warm.  It should sleep in the dark because bright light might damage its eyes.

After sleep, the baby should be taken up and washed if necessary. The baby should be washed around 3 times a day and gently massaged and stretched before being dried in soft towels and put back to sleep.

Interestingly when it comes to feeding the child,  Aldobrandino is all for the mother doing it herself as the natural mother's milk is the best source (this rather flies in the face of the aristocratic habit of employing wet nurses, although the latter seems to have been strongly ingrained culturally). The reason for the mother's milk being best for the child comes from the notion that this milk nourished the child in the womb and once the baby was born, the milk reverted naturally to the breasts.

 Aldobrandino 's advice was to put a little honey into the baby's mouth, then press on the breast to squirt out a small amount of milk, and then put the infant to nurse.  The baby should be fed about three times a day, but not to the point where it was bloated.

A good wet nurse, should one need to employ such a person ought to be around twenty five years of age when her health would be at its best. She should have a good colour and be buxom with a good bosom, but not too much flesh.  It was a well known fact that nurses whose breasts were too large were the cause of snub-nosed children! She had to be in excellent health because it was well known that a sickly nurse would kill a child straight away. She ought to be of sound moral character and have a sweet nature. A nurse who was hot tempered or nervous might pass those traits onto the child if one was not not careful.

The prospective employer should also examine the milk produced to make sure it was of good quality.  This involved checking the colour, appearance and taste. 'To know if it is too gross or too thin, take a drop and put it on your fingernail, and if it drops off without your moving the nail, it is too thick. So take a nurse whose milk is neither too thick nor too clear.'
 Aldobrandino also thought it preferable that the prospective nurse had borne a boy child of her own and it should be at least two months since she had given birth.  She should not lie with a man while nursing the child and must certainly not become pregnant (although that might prove less likely because lactation inhibits ovulation) because that would kill her nursling.

A baby should be breast fed until it was two and then weaned, the nurse first chewing up the food herself to soften it for the child. Porridge too could be given made with breadcrumbs, honey and milk. Teething pains and the need to gnaw in order to teethe were to be alleviated with liquorice root or gladioli root because they were thought to strengthen the gums.  The gums might also be anointed with butter and chicken fat.

All this advice by  Aldobrandino  is an interesting mix of lore, some of it very different from our own way of treating pregnancy, childbirth and infancy, and some of it still very recognisable.  I found  Aldobrandino's  notes on the matter fascinating and informative and I hope you do too.  I shall certainly be searching out the rest of his work in translation.
You can find the full translation of the Aldobrandino's thoughts on pregnancy, childbirth and care of the infant in this wonderful book that I'd highly recommend to anyone interested in the culture of the Middle Ages.


Libby said...

Realy fascinating article Elizabeth I enjoyed it very much, am tempted by the book too,

amazing how some things change and some very similar

Carol Drinkwater said...

Elizabeth, I read this with bated breath. As one of my specialities is olive oil (we grow from our own organically tended olive tress), I was fascinated by the use of the oil here. Thank you.
My husband works a great deal in China so I have heard of powdered pearl treatment for inflammations and I found this on internet. I thought you might be interested:

"Pearl powder is a finely milled powder made from freshwater pearls, which contains a number of amino acids and several minerals. It can also be made from saltwater pearls. It is considered by its proponents to help improve the appearance of the skin. A typical dose is 1 gram of pearl powder taken by mouth, traditionally mixed into water or tea, twice weekly.
"It is widely used as a treatment for acne as it is thought to have a purifying effect on the skin, to be good for sensitive skin, and to be effective at fading acne scars."
So, perhaps it was to help with scarring?
Congratulations on your family's new baby. A laughing, gurgling addition, judging by pic, and a very happy soul by the look of it. Must be all those crushed roses!

Joan Lennon said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Elizabeth, absolutely fascinating - he was quite advanced for his time wasn''t he?

Becca McCallum said...

That was a very interesting read! My mother is a health visitor and former midwife so going to pass this onto her too.

Unknown said...

Wow! This was both interesting and unexpected. Great insights into the early middle ages and maternal health!

Sharon Smith said...

All right ladies, a little medical info for you with these covers. Need to allow some air flow so baby won't rebreathe the carbon dioxide. These are wonderful coverings. I am going to make one for my next shower gift. Read more information. Thanks!