Mothers and Midwives in the 17th Century: A Guest Post by Kate Braithwaite

Mothers and Midwives in the 17th Century by Kate Braithwaite

Alice Wandesford was born in Yorkshire in 1627 and in 1651, aged twenty-four, she married William Thornton of East Newton. Alice was soon pregnant and carried the child to term, but it died within half an hour of birth. Her second child, Betty, survived almost being ‘overlaid’ – smothered when her wet-nurse fell asleep on her – only to die at eighteen months of rickets and a cough. Alice then bore a son who died during childbirth, probably a breech baby, whose death was blamed on poor midwifery. Her next pregnancy produced another boy, Willy, but he survived for only fourteen days. Alice suffered ‘repeated haemorrhages’ giving birth to her next child, Robert, who, perhaps after the close call with Betty, she nursed herself. Four further pregnancies followed before William Thornton died and left Alice a widow. From her nine pregnancies, three of her children survived.

Alice’s story is not unusual. In the Seventeenth Century around one in four children died before the age of ten. The average woman gave birth to six or seven children. Half or fewer than half were likely to survive to adulthood. Women feared childbirth – for themselves as well as for their babies – and with good reason. Alice Thornton’s sister, Catherine, for example, gave birth to sixteen children, six of whom were stillborn, before she died in childbirth at the age of thirty. In 1622, as the birth of her first child drew close, Elizabeth Josceline, a twenty-six-year old Cheshire woman, wrote The Mothers Legacy to her Unborn Child, drawing together in one document the advice and wisdom she wanted to pass on to her child in the event of her own death during the delivery. It was a popular publication, going through several early editions and remaining in print until 1684.

Notwithstanding the clear risks, being ‘great bellied’ was the desired state of nearly all married women. Childbirth and the procreation of the species was a duty; an opportunity for a woman to fulfil her natural role and redeem the sin of Eve. But understanding of conception was limited by medical ignorance. It was believed, for example, that women carried seeds, as men did: the female egg was not discovered until after the invention of the microscope. The menstrual cycle’s role in fertility was also not yet known. Conception, it was thought, could take place at any time of the month, so long as both parties achieved orgasm and thereby released their seed. With condoms – or sheaths – not widely in use in England until the 1800’s, pregnancy was a constant theme of women’s lives and choice of midwife could be crucial to their own and their child’s health and well-being. It is also worth remembering that bacterial infection and sepsis were not yet recognised or understood.

The vast majority of women gave birth in their own homes and in the company of other women but midwifery was not a formal profession and there is no archetype of what it meant to be a midwife at the time. Some were experienced, skilled and sought after. Others less so. Some women were able to make a living from the task. Hester Shaw, a London midwife for several decades, had, by 1653, amassed a fortune of £3000 – although it is not certain that this was all proceeds from her midwifery practice. Others might simply be known in their locality to be skilled at helping other women during labour. Most midwives varied their charges in order to meet their client’s ability to pay. Quaker women, like Frances Kent of Reading, gained a reputation in the field, allowing many to put aside doubts about the women’s religion, to gain the advantage of their expertise. In theory, although there was no system to regulate or oversee this standard, it was illegal to practise midwifery without a bishop’s license. Licensed midwives were expected to have attended births over a period of years to learn the skills required and through the licensing process were allowed to play a role in baptism, important in a time of high mortality of infants during or just after the birth event. The oath sworn by licensed midwives included promises to help the rich and the poor equally, to use no sorcery, to perform baptism if necessary and, rather worryingly, not to perform any cutting or dismembering during the performance of their duty.

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It is not possible to put numbers on how many licensed or unlicensed midwives there were, or to make any firm assessment of the quality of midwifery care available to women in this century. Certainly, there were horror stories. In The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser cites a contemporary record of a case in Threadneedle Street in London where a midwife pulled a birthing mother in one direction while another woman pulled on her baby in another. But accomplished midwives were also celebrated. Aurelia Florio, wife of the surgeon John Molins, known for her part in the examination of the Lancashire witches in the 1630’s, was so successful in her work as a midwife that at least seven girls she delivered were named Aurelia in honour of her assistance in their safe delivery. Elizabeth Cellier, a Catholic midwife who spent nearly eight months in Newgate Prison and tried and acquitted of treason for her part in the Meal-tub Plot of 1679, spent her later years advocating for formal training for midwives. The medical profession, however, remained like all professions, male-dominated. At the very highest end of the social scale, women paid doctors to deliver their babies, or, in a small number of cases, a man-midwife. The most notable man-midwives of the period were the Chamberlen men, a family of doctors who invented the forceps but kept their tool so secret that knowledge of it died with them, only to be rediscovered in the nineteenth century.

Until Jane Sharp wrote The Midwives Book, or, the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, in 1671, texts giving instruction and guidance to midwives were all written by men. Sharp’s book was a small volume, its pages measuring 31/2 inches by 51/2 inches, and was sold for two shillings and sixpence. A reproduction copy, published by Oxford University Press in 1999 runs to 300 pages and makes for fascinating reading. Split into 6 sections, Sharp considers the anatomical differences and similarities between men and women; conception, signs of pregnancy and foetal development; infertility and the difficulty and pain of childbirth; guidance on labour and different techniques to deliver babies depending on circumstance, as well as procedures after the baby is born – for example, when to cut the “naval-string”; illnesses and treatments for women during and after labour; and breastfeeding and early childcare practices.

Sharp writes at the opening of her book that she has “often sate down sad in the Consideration of the many Miseries Women endure in the Hands of unskilful Midwives” and her advice and guidance is intended to change that. Her voice is authoritative and the text is thorough, although to 21st Century eyes, her ideas read as an at times entertaining mix of early modern medical beliefs, religious doctrine and superstition. For example, after providing 14 rules to help a woman decide if she is pregnant or not, Sharp offers the following advice:

“But if a womans courses be stopt, and the Veins under her lowest Eylid swell, and the colour be changed, and she hath not broken her rest by watching the night before; these signs seldom or never fail of Conception for the first two months… Also a needle laid twenty four hours in her Urine, will be full of red spots if she have conceived, or otherwise it will be black or dark coloured.”

Happily, Sharp is much more practical minded when it comes to the birth itself. She advises her sister midwives to reassure the labouring mother, to offer sustaining food like chicken and egg, and to soothe with words and gestures. All possible postures that children may present in during birth are considered with advice on how to intervene and manipulate the unborn child. Caution and gentleness are her watchwords, and if the modern reader cannot help but wonder at some of her suggestions – Sharp’s belief in the efficacy of an eagle-stone – a geode or stone within a stone – rubbed on a women’s body to hasten labour, for example, her insistence on cleanliness, calmness and the use of herbal preparations and natural lubricants such as oyl of sweet almonds, are all most welcome and reassuring.

Sources/suggested reading:

The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London by Doreen Evenden

The Midwives book, or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered by Jane Sharp

The Weaker Vessel, Women’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England, by Antonia Fraser

Women’s Worlds in Seventeen-Century England, a sourcebook, ed. Patricia Crawford & Laura Gowing.

Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Her first novel, CHARLATAN, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015. Her new book, THE ROAD TO NEWGATE, is now available to pre-order on kindle. Paperback coming soon.

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