Helen Castor’s Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death – Episode 1: A Good Birth

Helen Castor
Helen Castor

Last night, I watched the first episode of Helen Castor’s three part series on birth, marriage and death in medieval times and I made notes so that I could share them with those who are unable to get BBC4. It really was an excellent programme.

Helen Castor set the scene for the episode by talking about how, in the medieval period, the Catholic Church and its teachings shaped people’s lives. She talked about how the next life mattered more to people than their earthly lives and how the pains of labour and childbirth were believed to be the penalty of original sin. Women, therefore, needed the blessing of the Saints and God’s help to get them through the ordeal.

Castor then talked about the Paston family from Norwich, England’s second city in that era. We have over 1000 letters written by this family, covering three generations, and they give us glimpses of what every day life was like and they speak to us across the centuries. Unfortunately, although Margaret Paston does talk about her first pregnancy in 1441 in letters to her husband, she does not give any details on her labour and the birth. Childbirth was a very private experience and Castor explained that we have to use lots of different clues to piece together the details and figure out what it was like. Some clues come from royal births because the birth of a potential heir to the throne was of public importance and so was not just a personal experience for the woman.

Castor went on to talk of Elizabeth of York’s first pregnancy, which resulted in the birth of Prince Arthur at Winchester. Before Elizabeth went into confinement, there was an elaborate service at Winchester Cathedral where God was asked for his blessing on Elizabeth’s confinement. After this magnificent procession and mass, Elizabeth and her ladies processed to an inner chamber and then a curtain was drawn across the door. The chamber walls were covered with tapestries, its floor with carpets and only a small window was left uncovered to let in a little light. It was meant to be womb-like – dark, warm, quiet and enclosed – and it was a woman-only environment. The chamber also gave spiritual comfort because it had an altar set up with holy relics. At 1am on 20th September, Elizabeth gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Arthur, Prince of Wales.

Castor then discussed exactly how the Church shaped ideas regarding the female body, sexual intercourse and birth. She spoke of how the Virgin Mary and Eve gave a divided image of womanhood (the Virgin and the fallen woman) and how there were paintings on church walls to help people understand their faith. Castor visited St Agatha’s Church in Easby, Yorkshire, which is known for its 13th century wall paintings showing Creation. People were taught that sex was tainted by the Fall and that Eve had brought shame to mankind by being tempted by Satan. It was believed that women were driven by their sexual appetites. Many clerics saw sex as a necessary evil that was only for procreation. Castor then listed all the times when it was forbidden to have sex – Lent, Advent, holy days, during menstruation, during pregnancy, Wednesdays, Fridays etc. This bit was quite funny and it made you wonder how many times a year you could actually do it! Another thing that was interesting was the belief that both the woman and the man had to produce a seed for conception to take place and, therefore, it was important for the woman to have an org*sm.

The Church taught that pregnant women should expect pain. Castor quoted from the Bible, from Genesis: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children…” This was because women inherited Eve’s shame and the burden of the Fall. The suffering of pregnancy and birth were caused by sin.

Castor pointed out that those who studied medicine were clerics and therefore the ideas regarding the female body and childbirth were the preserve of celibate men who had little contact with women. She then went on to discuss some of the medieval texts on “women’s matters”. The “Trotula”, which was written in part by a female healer in the 12th century, had chapters on birth, conception and things like how to choose the sex of your baby: “If she desire a man-child, they must take the womb of a hare, and the c*nt, and dry it, powder it, and drink it with wine.” Castor joked that at least wine was involved! Castor also mentioned a 13th century encyclopaedia by Bartholomew of England, which she described as a handbook of medieval thought and received wisdom. Bartholomew wrote of how the child in the womb was nourished with menstrual blood “of so vile matter”. She then went on to talk about a manuscript called The Welcome Apocalypse which brought theology and medicine together and which had diagrams of the female body. It was interesting to see how the female reproductive system was thought to be like a man’s, but inside out. The vag*na was depicted as an inverted penis and the ovaries as testicles. The woman was seen as an inferior being, as imperfect, unclean and even slightly toxic. And this was information coming from the clergy, the Church.

But the men who wrote these texts had no understanding of women and their bodies. Men were not allowed in the birthing room.

Helen Castor then talked about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, who married Edmund Tudor when she was 12 and, even though that age was deemed too young for consummation, she became pregnant and gave birth at the age of 13. Her husband died when she was six months pregnant. Margaret was petite and young, and was said to have had a traumatic delivery. Although she went on to re-marry (twice in fact), she never conceived again and it could be that her body had been damaged by that first traumatic birth. When her granddaughter Margaret Tudor was due to marry James IV of Scotland, Margaret argued for a delay because she was concerned that consummation would happen too soon and endanger her health.

Castor then moved on to talk about childbirth and midwives. She showed a picture of a birthing stool from The Birth of Mankind manual and pictures from the Trotula’s section on delivery showing how the foetus may present, along with advice on how to deal with the different scenarios, such as oiling/buttering the hands and manoeuvring the baby . Castor spoke to a midwifery expert, Dr Janette Allotey, who said that these texts and diagrams were not practical because they had no bearing on reality. Midwives did not, and could not, learn from such books, they learned from practical experience. Castor then commented that God may help where a midwife couldn’t and explained how faith and religious relics could help women. She told of how there were stories of miracles performed through the intervention of Thomas Becket. For example, a difficult labour where one of the baby’s arms came out first, instead of its head, and how the baby got stuck. The woman laboured for a long time and the priest who was called even suggested cutting off the baby’s arms. However, the woman was saved after she was given water from the shrine of Thomas Becket. The arm went back in and although the baby was stillborn, the woman lived. The Church, and a woman’s faith, gave comfort and hope in the delivery room.

Castor visited the Museum of London and was shown a jet bowl which is thought to have been used to help women during labour. Jet was believed to have special properties and was thought to ease pain during childbirth. It may have been used for drinking from because the liquid would have taken on the properties from the jet. Amulets and girdles, stones like amber and coral, and the chanting of charms were all thought to help women in labour. The Church didn’t disapprove of this at all because it saw such objects and actions as natural magic and part of God’s creation. St Margaret was the patron saint of women and childbirth. She was a virgin martyr but she had been swallowed by a dragon and then disgorged out of its belly when her crucifix became stuck in the dragon’s throat. A prayer roll parchment telling her story was used as a girdle to help women during labour.

Castor commented on how it is easy for us today to dismiss what medieval women did as superstition, but we shouldn’t. She spoke to the midwife who performed her homebirth and who is now a parish priest, and she spoke of how objects and affirmations can be important during birth. Fear is not good during childbirth, and faith can help ease that fear. The presence of God and the Saints was important to medieval women, it was vital.

Childbirth was dangerous, but the danger did not stop for mother or baby after delivery, they were both vulnerable. Castor talked about how people would go on pilgrimages to give thanks. The shrine at Walsingham was associated with childbirth because it was said to be a replica of the house in Nazareth where the Virgin Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel had told her that she was carrying the baby Jesus. Henry VIII went on pilgrimage to the shrine in 1511 to give thanks for the birth of his and Catherine’s son. He walked barefoot for the last mile, in submission. He and Catherine had already lost one child, a daughter, so Henry was elated that he had a healthy son. Unfortunately, his son died. Castor then explained that although infant mortality was high, such losses were not taken lightly by families. There is even evidence of infants being buried in homes, rather than in consecrated ground, and these were carefully prepared burials and not “heartless disposals”. The loss of a baby had a huge emotional impact. There are also examples of women who died in childbirth being buried with the foetus still intact. This was against the Church’s ordinances because a baby who had not been baptised was not supposed to be buried in consecrated ground and should, therefore, have been removed from the womb before the woman was buried. This shows families going against the church’s rules.

It was important for a baby to be baptised because it was believed that an unbaptised soul could not enter Heaven. This was because babies were thought to be born in a state of original sin and baptism was needed to remove that stain. Priests were, of course, barred from the birthing room but midwives were allowed to baptise a baby in an emergency, if the baby was very weak. Castor commented that the midwife held the power of eternal life in her hands. A midwife could also perform a caesarean if the mother had died, to save the baby or to save its soul by baptising it before it too died. In the 16th century, midwives had to be licensed by the Church and had to be of “good character”.

The Catholic Church had shaped the way that birth was understood, and the rituals associated with it, for centuries but then the power of the Church was broken by the Reformation. In 1535, Thomas Cromwell sent out men to monasteries to confiscate superstitious objects, such as relics. These confiscated objects included those that women borrowed for help with childbirth. Women’s comforts had been snatched. The new Church also started telling women and midwives what they could and couldn’t do in the birthing room. Suddenly, women were not allowed to wrap themselves in prayer rolls, use water from shrines or relics, all they could do was call on God in prayer. The Reformation, therefore, had a major impact on women and childbirth.

Castor then went on to discuss Edward VI’s birth in October 1537. Jane Seymour had three physicians outside her chamber and she had a very long labour, lasting from 9th October until 12th October. She gave birth to a healthy prince but then died on 24th October. Thomas Cromwell blamed her death on those who cared for her, but Castor said it is more likely that she died of septicaemia or a haemorrhage. Her husband, Henry VIII, mourned for three months. Castor commented that childbirth was unpredictable and dangerous for all women, whether you were a queen or a commoner.

The programme ended with Helen Castor saying that the comfort of relics and the Saints was gone forever. The Reformation had even affected this most private of rituals.

For those of you interested in seeing this episode of Helen Castor’s series, it is going to be repeated on BBC4 on Sudnay night at 10.40 or you can see it on YouTube at http://youtu.be/qBqP6XLiyEE, although I’m sure that will be removed soon.

I’ve also written a chapter on pregnancy and childbirth in my new book The Anne Boleyn Collection II. I talk about the rituals and superstitions involved in pregnancy too.

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13 thoughts on “Helen Castor’s Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death – Episode 1: A Good Birth”
  1. Thank you so much for drawing my attention to this excellent series! Unfortunately, I will have to rely on Youtube to see it, so can you let us know when the second and third parts of the series are out and, hopefully, up on Youtube so we who don’t have access to BBC4 can watch them.

  2. I think Helen Castor is lovely and does excellent programs. I loved her She wolves series as well. Of course, she does all my favorite subjects about history, the females and daily life. Can’t wait to watch episode 2!

  3. The Brits have the very best historical documentaries. But maybe that is because I am most interested in British history. The idea of women being somehow ‘unclean’ is found in the three main Middle Eastern religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, so I think there is something cultural there. I also was interested in the idea of the next life being more important than this life. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776, that men were entitled to certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,. this was very radical stuff. The idea of the pursuit of happiness was not consistent with the next life being more important. Of course, Jefferson only mentions men.

  4. Weird, I was just reading the Trotula a few weeks ago and here it comes up again — fascinating stuff, especially the diagnostics :). I’ll have to look this documentary up. One thing I should point out with midwives baptizing babies is that under Catholicism, technically anyone can baptize a baby, especially in a dangerous situation — it’s not like midwives had to get special permission. However, they were certainly the most likely people to perform them outside of priests, since a labouring or newly-delivered mother wouldn’t really be in shape for performing one.

    1. I’ve been researching pregnancy and childbirth in Tudor times too. I’ve got a section in my latest book on it and I say:

      “If a priest was not available, any Christian male or female was permitted to conduct a baptism; the 1549 prayer book had instructions for a private baptism. In 1537, Bishop Rowland Lee instructed his clergy to “teach and instruct your parishioners, at the least twelve times in the year, the spiritual manner and form of christenings in English; and that the midwife may use it in time of necessity; commanding the woman when the time of birth draweth near, to have at all seasons a vessel of clean water for the same purpose.” ”

      I don’t think Castor was saying that only midwives could do it, I think she was just saying that it was part of what they did if a baby was born weak. As you say, the mother wouldn’t have been in any shape to perform the baptism and I expect the other women present would have been looking after her.

      It is a fascinating subject.

      1. I see, that clarifies things. Do you know if there’s any truth to the story that a midwife could baptize an in-utero infant with a sponge in case it looked like it couldn’t be born alive, or if saving the mother meant it had to be effectively killed? I’ve seen it in fiction but have no idea if there’s any factual source for it or if it’s one of those things like Prima Nocta, where it’s one of those stories people tell about the Horrible Old Days but which can’t be pinned down to any specific time or place.

  5. Just watched this first episode and it was excellent: the comparrison between ordinary women and royal women and how little changed over the years. The most telling comment I thought was that all agreed that women needed to enjoy sex that is have an org*sm to conceive and that both men and women had sperm. Odd, but at least it acknowledged that unlike the Victorians women had to do more than just lie back and think of England in order to conceive a child and have a successful sexual and married life. It was also very telling that despite the presence of doctors, the banishment of saints, prayers and so on from the comfort of the birthing room, most likely such things continued but birth was just as dangerous as it had always been. I also found it interesting that although I have always known midwives had the authority to baptise a child in danger; that they had a special license from the church to do so and to testify to their charactor. What the programme did not mention was the midwives oath that she took right up to the 18th century; that she would honour God and the Church and that she would keep the secrets of her trade and honour her midwives tradition and profession. I do not agree either that the texts were not very helpful; the drawings showing women being delivered were accurate and the way women gave birth for centuries till some idiot decided we have to lie back to give birth. Women used the force of gravity to give birth and the midwife used a stool to deliver of a delivery chair. Only royal ladies gave birth in a bed and that made it harder for them.

  6. Does anyone know, where the parchment roll, with St Margaret’s life story is kept? The one used as a birth girdle. I’m having to write something about medeival birth & it would be so useful to know.

  7. Fascinating programmes, but a word of caution: Castor, distinguished historian though she is, is neither an ecclesiastical historian nor a theologian. Not to mince words, she seemed clueless about the theology of baptism, representing as a strange medieval oddity what remains the baptismal doctrine of both the RC Church and the dear old C of E. Eamon Duffy might have been a safer pair of hands.

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