Tuesday, November 27

One Born Every Minute

Exactly nineteen years ago today, our beautiful daughter came into the world. And my goodness, we had a battle getting there. Don’t worry- there will be no detail: although childbirth detail is fascinating to women, it is run-out-the-door-screaming to (most) men. It’s enough to say that there had to be an emergency section, and all turned out well in the end.

But without modern medicine, it would have been entirely the opposite. Had we inhabited the world of the 1170s, then we would both have died. That’s not an over dramatic statement. Childbirth always has been and probably always will be a risky process for humans. The statistics for the medieval period are stark: in the 1400s (which is one of the earliest records), 14.4 maternal deaths for every 1,000 live births. Other records state two percent. That doesn’t sound a lot, but statistics are a funny old thing.

Ian Mortimer, in ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’, sums it up brilliantly:
‘That statistic- one in fifty- does not sound a high proportion, but most married women give birth more than once, and many loyal wives do so more than a dozen times. Every single pregnancy is thus like a game of Russian Roulette, played with a fifty-barrel gun. A dozen children is like firing that fifty barrel gun a dozen times. Twenty-two percent of women will not survive that number of pregnancies.’

Now that we have the medical knowledge to understand childbirth and to make it as safe as we can, the medieval interventions seem in turn hilarious and tragic. Hilarious is the idea that ‘twenty pangs’ is all that’s needed for a natural birth. Not hilarious, but definitely one to raise a wry smile (among women anyway), was the medieval patron saint of childbirth. She was Saint Margaret, and never actually gave birth herself. Instead, she was martyred for her faith. Part of her torture was being swallowed, then spat out by, a dragon. Listening to readings of her ordeal was apparently a comfort to women in labour. Hmm. Ladies: dragon swallowing or three days of contractions? You decide.

Miniature of Margaret emerging from the back of a camel-like dragon.
1401-1415, British Library
The medicinal treatments were not a lot better, when we think about what women faced. Henrietta Leyser’s ‘Medieval Women’ provides a fascinating insight. For post-partum haemorrhage, she cites records that state various herbs and plants should be boiled in wine. Then the instructions for the ailing woman: ‘And let her sit over the smoke of them, so that it reaches her privy member.’ For those of you who are wondering, a ‘privy member’ is precisely what you are imagining. As for that particular balancing act, I have no idea.

And of course with every difficult or unsuccessful birth, there is more than likely to be the other tragedy: the death of a baby. Many, many medieval children died before the age of five. The figure is estimated to be as high as one in five. For a child who died during childbirth, the medieval imperative was to baptise her or him to save them from the fate of Limbo. Any soul who was not baptised was shut out from heaven, staying instead in Limbo for eternity. So medieval midwifes were trained in emergency baptism. Fresh water needed to be at hand, and they could perform the sacrament in the absence of a priest, as could any lay person. Incredible as it may seem, the concept of Limbo was only abolished by the Catholic Church in 2007. As a child in a convent school in Ireland in the 1970s, the nuns instructed us in how to perform an emergency baptism, just like the medieval midwives.

But fortunately for me and my girl, there was no tragedy. And holding her in my arms for the first time, nineteen years ago today, was the best moment of my life. You could have offered me the sun, moon and stars (and a Lottery win) in return for her and you’d have had no chance. Still wouldn’t. She’s the light of our lives, and we have that joy because of when and where we live.

I’m sure medieval women would be unable to believe that they no longer have to call to St Margaret or crouch over a pot of steaming herbs. But I said earlier that statistics are a funny old thing. Well, for the UK, maternal mortality is around 8 per 100,000. The US is around 16. It doesn’t matter that they’re low. Each of those figures will represent deep, profound loss and grief. And for those at the bottom of the global list? The figures are these: Central African Republic, 1570 per 100,000. Afghanistan, 1575. For some women, it’s still a medieval world.
For my medieval thrillers, visit my author page at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

1 comment:

  1. Enlightening stuff - so many things to be grateful for, these days.


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