In Part 1 of our series, we looked at the concept of childhood in the middle ages and the importance of the child in medieval society. It is fairly clear from the laws designed specifically for the care of children that childhood was recognized as a distinct phase of development and that, contrary to modern folklore, children were not treated as nor expected to behave as adults. Laws regarding the rights of orphans are among the pieces of evidence we have that children had value in society, as well.
We also brought up a question that might surprise you: Did medieval parents love their children?
It is difficult to imagine that in a society where so much value was placed on children, and so much hope was invested in a couple's ability to produce children, children would regularly suffer from a lack of attention or affection. Yet this is the charge that has often been made against medieval families.
While there have been -- and continue to be -- cases of child abuse and neglect in western society, to take individual incidents as indicative of an entire culture would be an irresponsible approach to history. Instead, let us look at how society in general regarded the treatment of children.
As we take a closer look at childbirth and baptism, we'll see that, in most families, children were warmly and happily welcomed into the medieval world.
Because the foremost reason for marriage at any level of medieval society was to produce children, the birth of a baby was usually a cause for joy. Yet there was also an element of anxiety. While the childbirth mortality rate is probably not as high as folklore would have it,1 there was still a possibility of complications, including birth defects or a breech birth, as well as the death of mother or child or both. And even under the best of circumstances, there was no effective anesthetic to eradicate the pain.
The lying-in room was almost exclusively the province of women; a male physician would only be called in when surgery was necessary.2 Under ordinary circumstances, the mother--be she peasant, town-dweller, or noblewoman--would be attended by midwives. A midwife would usually have more than a decade of experience, and she would be accompanied by assistants whom she was training. In addition, female relatives and friends of the mother would frequently be present in the birthing room, offering support and good will, while the father was left outside with little more to do but pray for a safe delivery.
The presence of so many bodies could raise the temperature of a room already made warm by the presence of a fire, which was used to heat water for bathing both mother and child. In the homes of the nobility, gentry, and wealthy townspeople, the birthing room would usually be freshly-swept and provided with clean rushes; the best coverlets were put on the bed and the place was turned out for display.
Sources indicate that some mothers may have given birth in a sitting or squatting position.3 To ease the pain and to hasten the process of childbirth, the midwife might rub the mother's belly with ointment. Birth was usually expected within 20 contractions; if it took longer, everyone in the household might try to help it along by opening cupboards and drawers, unlocking chests, untying knots, or even shooting an arrow into the air. All of these acts were symbolic of opening the womb.
If all went well, the midwife would tie off and cut the umbilical cord and help the baby take its first breath, clearing its mouth and throat of any mucus. She would then bathe the child in warm water or, in more affluent homes, in milk or wine;4 she might also use salt, olive oil, or rose petals. Trotula of Salerno, a 12th-century female physician, recommended washing the tongue with hot water to assure the child would speak properly.5 It was not uncommon to rub honey on the palate to give the baby an appetite.
The infant would then be swaddled snugly in linen strips so that his limbs might grow straight and strong, and laid in a cradle in a dark corner, where his eyes would be protected from bright light. It would soon be time for the next phase in his very young life: Baptism.
Continued on Page Two: Baptism.
1. Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 43 and 234. The author cites 14.4 maternal deaths for every 1,000 births in 15th century Florence. This figure rises to approximately 20% when deaths resulting from complications of pregnancy or some condition related to child-bearing, rather than the birth process itself, are added.
2. Ibid., p. 44.
3. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 216.
4. Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London, p. 43.
5. Gies, Frances, and Gies, Joseph, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1987), p. 198.
Guide's Note: This article was originally posted in October of 2000 and was updated in May of 2009.