Medieval Women and Children

Life in the Middle Ages always seems pretty grim, and Henrietta Leyser’s book Medieaval Women – A social History of Women in England 450-1500 provides much to make me grateful that I did not live then (or at least not that I know of).

She talks of the patron saint of childbirth being St Margaret who was appealed to for help as she had been swallowed and spat out by a dragon, so had special powers of empathy for women in their struggles; her life was often read aloud during labour. There are also links with Jonah, which shows how little childbirth was understood – the emphasis should have been with the woman -ie dragon/whale rather than the critter that was spat out.

Baptisms usually were done within 8 days of the birth but the high infant mortality meant they were often done the following day, so the mother was rarely present. They were pretty drastic events, suggesting they were to ensure the child was tough enough to survive, with 3 immersions – front side and full face. Welcome to the world! now survive this.

The Virgin was claimed to have attended Christ’s circumcision 8 days after giving birth, which was seen as a miraculous recovery. So even with midwives and friends ad relatives to help, the new mum was laid up for a long time.

Unlike 17th century purifications post birth, there was no distinction between boys and girls; the mother usually  had to wait a mere month to attend church, and a celebration of the birth was held, akin to Candlemas when candles were lit and women dressed up.

In 14th century England, it seems childbirth was avoided. The poor often used coitus interruptus as abortifacients were mentioned in penitential manuals for priests. It seems poverty was the main factor in England, whereas in Europe it was more about shame of giving birth. There is very little evidence that infanticide was practiced as few were taken to court for it.

England had small scale charities where unwanted children were cared for and their mothers recovered from the birth, and buried those who didn’t survive. Unlike France, there was no monastic order dedicated to the care of foundlings and orphans.

Leyser also cites Isidore of Seville’s book of the 7th century, ‘Etymologies of Words’. This clarifies the ages of children, as they were infants till 7, a child till 14, and an adolescent or youth till 28. Whilst these terms varied over time, these ages were continued in England. Children were generally apprenticed at the age of 7 till 14, then qualified in a trade, furthering their skills, and 28 was the commonest age for men to marry. I think 7 was also the age at which boys were breeched, ie began wearing trousers, which seems late to me as I thought they wore dresses until they were what we now call toilet trained.

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