Pregnancy, Birth, & Infant Care

In the Early Modern period, society regarded the bearing of children "as woman’s primary calling and children as her primary contribution to the family and the state."1 The role of motherhood began to be all consuming, even serving as a way to take women out of other societal roles which they had recently acquired. Conduct literature began to place a much larger emphasis on a wife’s role as a nurturing mother and caretaker of her young children "at the expense of other duties as household manager or producer of domestic goods."2

Despite the fact that motherhood was seen as the most ideal role for a wife, the process of childbirth itself was seen as an almost transgressive act, as it took place in a private sphere that was entirely separate from that of men and the rest of society. Nonetheless, obstetrics became a study in earnest during this period, and clergymen and physicians began to offer a new form of literature concerning labor and childbirth. They were often thwarted in their scientific endeavors, however, by the simple fact that they did not have access to a woman giving birth. Percival Willughby and William Harvey were influential figures in this early study of obstetrics, but only through a significant effort did Harvey himself become known as the "Father of British Midwifery." As Richard Wilson tells us:

The Harveian surgical regime exercises jurisdiction over death but has no power over generation. To witness a birth, indeed, Willughby confessed he had ‘crept into the chamber on my hands and knees, and returned, so that I was not perceived by the lady.’ Historically, therefore, the childbed would become the threshold of male science, where a tense struggle was to take place between doctor and midwife for authority over delivery.3

The battle for control of birth had been waged—ultimately a three way struggle among the doctor, who was still learning about the needs of women in labor, the midwife, who had learned by experience, and the mother herself, who ought to have more control over the process in the first place. In Renaissance literature, this conflict is represented in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. In both examples, however, the mother wins, as the births take place off stage, in the private sphere not represented by the play’s action.


Pregnancy & Birth

The midwifery and birthing literature of this time period tended to be quite specific as to the particular care expectant mothers were to take of themselves while with child. Although some of the birthing ideas and practices have a ring of familiarity with modern day obstetrics, it is unlikely that modern medicine would endorse all of them. It is surprising to see what ideas and medical practices were used in the unique area of pregnancy and childbirth. William Sermon’s The English Midwife offers a basic chapter on the ways in which a woman is to conduct herself during pregnancy. Sermon begins his chapter disappointingly, not with a discussion about the baby itself, but rather with a solution for the relatively cosmetic problems of the breasts, as they may sag, be pushed up, or may have too much "blood turned into milk, which may Curdle, etc.," (p. 43) after a woman’s delivery. As soon as women find themselves with child, therefore, they should wear "a chain of steel about their necks, or a small piece of steel between the two breasts: or else let a piece of cork be put there, and two pieces more under each arm pit instead of the steel. Let them that are able wear gold" (p. 44). Sermon goes through the months of pregnancy in this chapter, prescribing different types of care at each stage. By the third or fourth month, he becomes concerned with weight gain, and advises that women "may wear a swathe to support them," as he is aware of "the great burden and weight of the child, which stretcheth and enlargeth the skin, which follows pins both in the belly and groin."(p. 44-45) During the ninth month, Sermon advises taking baths with certain types of herbs, for at least fifteen minutes, and perhaps longer in the mornings.

Sermon's writings give a good example of most of the literature on childbirth during this time. It was unfortunate that these writers could do little research to support the validity of their findings. As we see from Percival Willughby's earlier account, the child-bed was not a place where men were usually welcome. As a result, those who wrote about pregnancy and birth seem to offer only cosmetic ideas to make an expectant mother's life easier, or perhaps some rudimentary medical advice which also included several recipes for medical concoctions which might be taken during pregnancy and delivery. Sermon gives several examples--this one in particular should be given to a woman in labor:

Take the distilled water of Cardus, and Pellitory of the wall, of each an ounce, syrup of Maiden hair, and white wine, of each drop one ounce, oyl of sweet almonds newly drawn one ounce and a half, mix them well together, and give it her all at one time to drink: this will not only mitigate and moisten the throat, etc., that have been made hot and stretched with groaning and crying, but will provoke their natural purgation, and hinder the violence of the after pains.(p. 109)

Giving birth to a child in this time period seems to have been fraught with confusion, pain and fear. Some of the descriptions that mothers have written tell of much suffering, and little if any joy that they had brought a life into the world. Physicians, midwives and mothers themselves, were all aware of the problems associated with childbirth, and there was a very real fear that the mother, the child, or both, would not survive the birth. To give examples of the difficulties of childbirth, Nicholas Fontanus, a physician, has described a number of conditions which makes a woman’s labor problematic. The first is simply premature birth, another is a birth in which an arm or a leg is the first part of the infant to present; a breech birth brings a similar result. Birth defects were also a problem during this time period, as the knowledge about pre-natal care was not substantial. Pain during delivery is also a concern, along with fainting, swooning fits, and "bitter torments about the bottom of the belly, and the secret parts." The last example Fontanus gives is that of "running out of water many dayes before the birth." This makes the birth canal dry out, an impediment to the birth. The most difficult condition surrounding a birth, however, would most likely be enduring the birth of a stillborn baby. Aside from one’s newborn child being dead, the practicalities of a stillbirth show that the infant would begin to "putrifie, infest the principall parts with noysome vapours, and poysonous exhalations, weaken their strength, and bring an unavoided death upon the woman."4



At least as important as dealing with pregnancy and labor was dealing with the lack of them. Barrenness was an increasingly large concern because wives were truly duty-bound to have children during this period. Those who offered advice on conception, as Nicholas Culpeper did in his Directory for Midwives, were therefore also important in the genre of childbed literature. Like other authors of literature on childbirth, however, Culpeper probably did not have many test subjects to attest to the validity of his suggestions. Therefore we have several basic ideas that may fit better into the realm of common sense than in what we might call matters of fertility today. The following are some of Culpeper’s recommendations:

Medicines for a woman that would have children:

--Let the time be convenient, for fear of surprise hinders conception.

--Avoid eating or bearing about you all things as cause barrenness: such be the bone of a stag’s heart, emeralds, sapphires, ivy berries, jet, burnet, leaves and roots, hart’s tongue, steel-dust, mints, &c.

--Let it be after perfect digestion; let neither hunger nor drunkenness be upon the man or woman.

--Women are most subject to conceive a day or two after their monthly terms are stayed.

By way of precept:

--A plaster of laudanum spread upon leather and applied to the region of the womb, mightily disposeth it to conception.

--A load-stone carried about the woman causeth not only conception, but concord between man and wife.

--The roots of eryngo, peony and satyrion, being eaten cause conception.5

Sarah Jinner’s almanac is the only existing one written by a woman during this time period. Like Culpeper, Jinner also gives advice on conception and pregnancy and provides recipes for gynecological medicines:

A potion to further conception in a woman:

Take wormwood, mugwort, of each a handful: boil them together in a quart of goat’s milk till almost half be wasted, and let the woman drink thereof first and last, every morning and evening, a good draugt.6


Infant Care

With death claiming such a large percentage of infants, it would perhaps make sense that during the Renaissance, many books would be published prescribing their care. However, this was not the case. What little information there was could usually be found only in short appendixes to midwifery books.7 The reasons for this lack of information were relatively simple. To begin with, fathers, and male writers of most birthing literature, did not have the hands-on responsibility of infant care, or very easy access to mothers or wet nurses who did. There was also the fact that, in the Early modern culture, children were not treated as children at all, but as little adults. Even in terms of dress, or something as serious as medical care, there was little difference between the treatment of infants, children, or adults. As discussed in the parenting conduct literature of the period, Piety seemed to encompass all rules governing the raising of one’s children. The supreme being also seemed to be the most important aspect of birth and infant care. The survival of a human being—baby, child, or adult—was believed to be in God’s hands only--it did not matter what any person did, wished, or wrote about medical care. Parents were expected to be grateful to God whether their child lived or died.8

Two somewhat controversial aspects of infant care stand out during this period--one being breast feeding, the other being the wrapping of the child in swaddling cloths. Men usually gave nurses and mothers advice on the latter, as is evident in Roesslin’s Byrth of Mankynde, one of the most popular midwifery books of the time.9 Roesslin warned that the infant is to be wrapped most carefully, "not crookedly and confusely," for if the child is correctly swaddled, "then it shall grow straight and upright." James Guillemeau’s book on midwifery deals with the differences of swaddling girls versus boys. Men wanted girl babies to be thought of as future mothers, even as they were newborns themselves. "Some also bind the hips so hard that they become very small, and that hinders them from growing and waxing big, which doth much harm, especially to maids who should have large hips that when they come to age they may bring forth goodly children." 10 Writers advised freeing the infant from swaddling anywhere from four months to a year after their birth. Breast feeding as well, was a relatively controversial practice in infant care. Most writers endorse the mother providing her own breast milk to her children, including William Gouge, the noted religious reformer. Robert Cleaver seems to endorse Gouge’s view as well. Of the duties that a Christian wife ought to perform, Cleaver concludes "that it belongeth to her to nurse her own children which to omit and to put them forth to nursing is both against the law of nature and also against the will of God."11 Cultural practices, however, tended to go against these recommendations, as families particularly in the nobility, would give babies out to wet nurses with enough milk to feed their own child and a second one as well. Care would be taken in choosing this wet nurse, for fear that the baby would adopt "the coarse ways of an unsuitable woman."12 Encouraging mothers to nurse their own children is particularly important, as it begins to change societal behavior. Conduct manuals on birthing and infant care practices, therefore, may teach readers how to be better than the nobility who still used wet nurses. Nursing one's own child developed into a new value to be espoused by what would ultimately become the middle class.

Despite the relatively discouraging amount of advice on infant care and childbirth, however, babies did live to adulthood. The population in England grew significantly in the seventeenth century—though it may not be clear whether that fact can be attributed to writers like Guillemeau or Roesslin, or simply to the will of God.13

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