Search This Blog

Friday, September 16, 2011

Guest Elizabeth Chadwick: Medieval Pregnancy and Childbirth

Linda Banche here. My guest today is Elizabeth Chadwick and her medieval historical novel, Lady of the English, set in 12th century England.

Leave a comment with your email address for a chance to win the copy of Lady of the English which Sourcebooks has generously provided. Elizabeth will select the winner. Check the comments to see who won, and how to contact me to claim your book. If I cannot contact the winner within a week of selection, I will award the book to an alternate. Note, Sourcebooks can mail to USA and Canada addresses only.

And the winner Elizabeth selected is catslady! Congratulations, catslady, and thanks to all for coming over.

Welcome, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Chadwick:

Thank you ladies for inviting me onto your blog to write a guest post!

I thought I'd talk a little bit about pregnancy and childbirth in the period of Lady Of The English.

Lady Of The English is about two Medieval women, Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England and Adeliza of Louvain, Matilda's stepmother, who was a couple of years younger than Matilda herself. In political terms, it's the story of Matilda's struggle to gain the English crown after it is usurped by her cousin Stephen, and how Adeliza helped her in this endeavour, while treading a difficult path of her own due love and loyalty. In the emotional sense, it's about how these women coped with their lives in very difficult circumstances - some of their own making. It’s also about how they dealt with the physical hardships that were the lot of women in the 12th century, not least bearing children.

Today in Western society we have contraception as a matter of course. We have access to excellent healthcare both preconception and throughout pregnancy, childbirth and afterwards. We have drugs to control the pain and medical intervention on hand should there be an emergency. But in the 12th century it was a very different state of affairs. Contraception, although known, was haphazard and frowned upon by the church. Sexual intercourse was supposed to take place for the purpose of procreation, and to indulge without that expectation was to commit a sin. I'm sure people did have sex for fun, and followed contraceptive practices. I'm sure it was a rule that was treated with differing levels of gravity depending on a person's attitudes, but nevertheless it did exist. One suggested contraceptive trick was for the woman to tie the testicles of a weasel round her neck. Other than keeping her partner away, I can't see this it would have been very effective! Putting lettuce leaves under the man’s pillow would also seem to be a dubious way of preventing pregnancy. However, coitus interruptus and pieces of moss soaked in vinegar and appropriately inserted may have had more success.

For the aristocracy, producing numerous children seems to have been the approved norm. Women married young and by their mid-teens were usually embarked upon a breeding program. The age of their husbands was more variable. Adeliza of Louvain was perhaps seventeen or eighteen when she married Henry I. He was well into his fifties and she was his second wife. He had two legitimate children from his first marriage, and at least twenty bastards born of various other women. Adeliza and Henry had no children during their fifteen year marriage. Empress Matilda had been married to the Emperor of Germany who was about eleven years older than her. She may have had one child with him, but it died soon after birth. When her husband died, she returned to Normandy where her father married her to Geoffrey of Anjou who at the time of their marriage was only fourteen years old to Matilda's twenty six. It was going to be five years before they had any children, although some of this time was spent in separation from each other. The marriage doesn't appear to have been a happy one.

Eventually, the couple got back together, and Matilda bore their first son, the future Henry II in spring 1133. Producing a son would have been a feather in Geoffrey’s cap, not just because male heirs were valued, but because it was believed that if the male seed was the strongest, then a boy child would result. If the female seed was dominant, the baby would be a girl. So a boy child was even more a reflection on a man's virility.

Aristocratic women and those from wealthier families would retire into confinement in the later stages of pregnancy. This meant that for perhaps the last month they would be shut away from the world in a special room that had been prepared for them to give birth. Perhaps it was a bit like going back into the womb! At the best it was an enclosed and secure women's enclave where the expectant mother could rest and relax with companions and attendants. At worst it must have felt claustrophobic and perhaps like a prison. Peasant women didn't have a choice and just got on with their daily lives.

After the baby was born, the new mother would continue to remain in her chamber for another 40 days before emerging for her churching ceremony, for which she would receive gifts and have lovely new clothes to wear. The churching ceremony welcomed a woman back into society and gave thanks for the safe delivery. It made her ‘clean’ again, and able to resume all the duties of a wife. In the aristocracy this meant handing the baby over to a wet nurse and getting back into the breeding programme.

Empress Matilda bore Henry II in March 1133. By September of the same year she was pregnant again with her second son, Geoffrey, who almost cost Matilda her life. We don't know what happened but following the birth she was so seriously ill, that she made provision for her own funeral. She wanted to be buried at the Abbey of Bec. Her father wanted her to be buried in Rouen Cathedral and there was something of an altercation between father and daughter - so at least even in extremity Matilda still had the strength to argue! In the event, she survived her ordeal, but that must have been down to her strong constitution. Medical interventions for women struggling in labour, or suffering complications after the delivery, were few, rudimentary, and steeped in superstition. The Trotula, a compendium of women's medicine written in the 11th century, advises a woman having difficulty giving birth to take a warm herbal bath, and that her ‘sides, belly, hips, and vagina be anointed with oil of violets or rose oil.’ She was also to be rubbed vigorously and given a drink made with sugar vinegar and pomegranate juice. She was to be encouraged to sneeze and to be led at a slow pace through the house. If none of this worked, other remedies included drinking the milk of another woman, eating butter or cheese into which special words had been carved, or having a snakeskin tied around the loins. But basically, if you didn’t push the baby out on your own, you’d shot it. If you succeeded, you then had to hope you didn't suffer severe bleeding, a retained placenta, or develop a fever.

Despite her ordeal, Matilda, on returning to a husband became pregnant again and gave birth to a third son, William in 1136 (How virile that must have made Geoffrey of Anjou feel!). After that, there were no more children. One suspects that with three sons in the bag, this might well be a conscious decision on the part of the parents.

Adeliza of Louvain was barren throughout her fifteen years of marriage to Henry I, and this despite the fact that he was still merrily siring bastards on other women. We can only speculate on the reasons he and Adeliza were not fertile with each other.

After he died, she married again to William D’Albini, a royal steward, and immediately became pregnant. She married him in 1138, and when they parted 10 years later she had borne him at least six children - perhaps seven, risking herself year upon year in pregnancy and childbirth. I suspect that her inability to have children with Henry I probably put Adeliza in the mindset of those in the population who thought that sexual intercourse should be open to the possibility of conception every time it happened, and that quickening with a child was a gift from God and to be welcomed. It must have taken a toll on her health though. She would have been about thirty five when she bore her first child. She entered a nunnery in 1148 and died in 1151, when her oldest son would only have been about twelve, and her youngest perhaps three or four. William D’Albini did not remarry although he survived her by twenty five years.

All in all, previous centuries were fraught times for women. Men went to battle, and so did their wives and mistresses. Even today outside of societies with access to good medical care, women and their babies continue to be at high risk during the birth process. Having borne two healthy sons myself and having had the choice of when and where and how, I have enormous respect and admiration for my sisters and I am so glad I did not have to go through what they did!

Matilda, daughter of Henry I, knows that there are those who will not accept her as England’s queen when her father dies. But the men who support her rival Stephen do not know the iron will that drives her.

Adeliza, Henry’s widowed queen and Matilda’s stepmother, is now married to a warrior who fights to keep Matilda off the throne. But Adeliza, born with a strength that can sustain her through heartrending pain, knows that the crown belongs to a woman this time.

In the anarchy, in a world where a man’s word is law, how can Adeliza obey her husband while supporting Matilda?
How long can Matilda fight for the throne that she has struggled so bitterly to win?

About the Author
Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of 17 historical novels, including The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, A Place Beyond Courage, For the King's Favor, Shadows and Strongholds, The Winter Mantle, The Falcons of Montabard, and To Defy a King, six of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Awards. visit her at her website at


Cathie Dunn said...

Fascinating details, Elizabeth! I've recently started reading Lady of the English and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

cherrychnagan said...

Wow! The various ways birth was brought on, is fascinating.
Thanks for this info. I've never seen it at any other source.

Linda Banche said...

After all that, it's amazing any women have survived to this day!

Lindsay Townsend said...

I agree, Linda! Medieval women had to be a tough lot!

Thanks to you and Elizabeth for some fascinating insights.

Lilly Gayle said...

Excellent post! I miscarried my first child and got pregnant again almost immediately. It was the 80's and doctors encouraged natural child birth. Fool that I am, I went along with it. OMG! But then my BP spiked. If not for modern drugs, I would have had a seizure and died. I got a little demerol then, but combined with the spiking BP, it just made me puke between contractions. I'm also RH neg. My husband is RH pos. And because I miscarried the first time, my daughter was considered my second birth. Which put my child at risk if her RH factor was positive. So, I had to have a RhoGam injection during pregnancy and after delivery because my daughter was RH pos. Had I given birth prior to the early 1970's my daughter might not have survived. I can't imagine giving birth in the dark ages!
God bless modern medicine!

Unknown said...

I love reading about medical history. It is very interesting and makes me glad I live now.

Maria D. said...

Wow...pretty scary to have been a woman during those years! Lady of the English sounds like a fascinating book. The birth control method of the "weasel" was just amazingly for the giveaway.

catslady said...

All very fascinating. I'm pretty sure my grandmother on my mother's side used the vinegar on something method because she came from a very large family herself and after her mother died in childbirth and her father remaried she ended up caring for quite a few children. She had only 3. My other grandmother had problems too and was able to have only one child. And my husband's mother had 7 miscarriages, my husband, and an ectopic pregnancy that almost killed her. And really that wasn't that long ago!

I probably wouldn't have survived my first pregnancy having complications but my second was totally natural - quite a difference lol.

Historicals are always my first book of choice with medievals being my favorite. And when they're based on fact, I find it even more intriguing. I appreciate all the research that goes into it!

Kara King said...

fascinating Elizabeth- thanks for writing this post! I couldn't help but think of my experiences giving birth, and how grateful I am that they all took place in the 21st century!

Anonymous said...

What interesting facts. I am glad my children weren't born during that period as they were both breech and they nor I would have made it. Progress is a wonderful thing.

Debra Brown said...

I think all womankind is grateful for modern perinatal care. Your article revives that gratitude.

I also appreciate the research you have done on your characters lives. It must have taken quite some digging; there can't be much available on them. I'm sure your novels have brought them back to life, and I would love to read them.

Monya Clayton said...

Thanks for the fascinating info, Elizabeth. Have you ever read Evan Hunter's 1950s book "The Cry And The Covenant"? It's a real eye opener. Women had been dying of childbed fever, i.e. post-natal infections, forever and it was considered one of the normal risks of birthing. The book is the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who in the 1840s first broached the idea that to prevent it was simple. The doctor needed only to wash his hands. He was laughed at and hounded into resignation and insanity. Yet his discovery paved the way for the discovery of bacteria and the steps taken by Lord Lister and Louis Pasteur to eradicate them from medical and general situations.

And I was reading today about fistula in the developing world, when a mother in a primitive society has no access to a necessary caesarian. The birth tears her bladder and she loses control over her urine, is declared unclean and cast out of her home. While this issue begins to be addressed in various parts of the modern world, it must have been a similar situation for medieval women.

And Caesarians: Julius Caesar's mother survived hers, which must have been pretty rare. But Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour didn't. She was pretty well butchered so that her son, later Edward VI, could enter the world, and barely survived his christening. After all, Henry's marital adventures were simply a search for a male heir. He had no way of knowing his daughter Elizabeth would be one of the great monarchs of history.

This is already a long post and I hope not boring, but there's another fact which added to female post-birth fatalities. Midwives delivered children until about the end of the 18th century, when male doctors began to take over the job. And they had their patients lie down, for their own convenience, which is when serious complications began to be noted. They hadn't heard of the law of gravity; female midwives had always required the mother to sit on a birthing chair. In the 1960s I read an article about a doctor who researched the odd fact that so many babies were born in taxis on the way to hospital. Mum was sitting, of course. And that led to a return to the old ways of women giving birth in an upright position.

I gave birth to my own four between 1960 and 1970, and there was a big change in method during that time. Thank goodness.

End of lecture!

Unknown said...

Pregnancy and childbirth were such scary ordeals back then! Every bit as risky as war. I'm so glad I'm a mother nowadays instead of a few hundred years ago (or even a few decades ago, really). But they might have had one thing right back then - letting the mothers rest for 40 days. Nowadays you're expected to pop out of childbed and zip around as soon as you push the kid out, as if your body didn't just get ripped apart! My grandmother, who had 11 kids, said that back when she was of childbearing age, women stayed in the hospital for weeks afterward. She said she looked forward to those times as vacations from the responisibilities of caring for her home and many kids. lol I woudln't want to be in the hospital for that long, but it sure would be nice to have people helping out at home for a couple weeks!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Sorry not to have returned and droppped in, but I'm on 'on the ground' book tour in the UK at the moment.
I just want to say thank you for all your fascinating and lovely replies, and to say to Monya that I haven't read The Crown and the Covenant, although I have read some of Evan Hunter's novels - wasn't he a prolific thriller writer too - Ed McBain?
I knew about fistulas - horrific.
I've read several articles. I wouldn't be surprised if Margaret Beaufort ended up compromised like that after the birth of Henry VII. I didn't know that about Jane Seymour, although I did know she died after giving birth.

catslady said...

I just wanted to thank Linda and Elizabeth. This sounds like a wonderful read!