For many women of the upper classes, pregnancy rituals began outside the birthing chamber. Very public pilgrimages to pray for conception or a safe delivery were common, particularly to religious sites associated with the Virgin Mary such as Our Lady of Caversham and the shrine built in 1061 at Walsingham by Richeldis de Faverches which was reputed to house a vial of the Virgin's milk. Once her time drew close, however, childbirth became a secluded affair from which men, unless the circumstances were exceptional or the child was royal, were very much excluded.
|Woodcut, Der Swangen Frauen, Rosslin, 1513|
|15th century illustration, midwife at birth|
The whole process of labour was embedded in ritual. The mother, who would deliver sat on a birthing stool not in a bed, might wear a gemstone on a girdle such as amber, sard or jasper which had first been rubbed against her thighs to ease the pain. The German Benedictine abbess Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote down a form of words to be used during the application of the stone to help summon the child, a wonderful example of religion and 'magic' overlapping:
Just as you, stone, by the order of God, shone on the first angel, so you child, come forth a shining person, who dwells with God.
|Lacnunga, MS Harley 585 f.185 r.v|
Once the baby was safely delivered, the rituals continued. The cord had to be burned to get rid of the sins thought to be transmitted with conception. Herbs would be used to make the baby sneeze to expel any last remaining sin. Vinegar would be rubbed on the baby's tongue to ensure speech would follow. These were all purposeful, happy rituals: birth had been survived by both mother and child and, although dangers remained, the midwives' main task had been completed successfully.
It is impossible to determine whether or not any of the methods employed to relieve pain actually worked - I am definitely on the fence when it comes rubbing gemstones to ward off speeding-up contractions and can just imagine the reactions of most modern women if it was suggested. That, however, is not the point. With child and maternal death rates so high, a medieval midwife's main aim was to get labour completed as quickly as possible thus minimising the chance of complications. The best way to ensure this? A calm, trusting mother who believed herself to be in safe hands. Some things, at least, do not change.