Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Birth, babies and midwives

In light of the birth of the Royal baby on Monday and the newly breaking news that he will go by the name of George Alexander Louis, I thought that now is a particularly apt time to reflect on how our ideas, and indeed experiences, of birth have changed (or not, as the case may be!) over the centuries from the early-modern period.

Much medical and gynecological knowledge available in the seventeenth-century stemmed from translations of classical sources, including Galen and Hippocrates. In a culture dominated by male translations and reflections on these works, such as those of Nicholas Culpeper, Jane Sharp's achievement in The Midwives Book (1671) is perhaps one of the most remarkable in terms of helping our understanding of labour and birth in the seventeenth century. Though her treatise is an amalgamation of voices since she essentially cuts and pastes sections from other midwifery manuals and classical sources, her own voice and tone is often unmistakable.

Though midwives (thankfully?!) do not now 'annoint [their] hands with Oyl of Lillies, and the Womans Secrets' (p. 153) and instead favour latex gloves for internal examinations, much of what I have transcribed below certainly still has echoes with the modern practice of midwifery.

In Book IV of her text, Sharp sets out 'Rules for Women that are come to their Labour':

- 'When the Patient feels her Throws coming she should walk easily in her Chamber, and then again lye down, keep her self warm, rest her self and then stir again, till she feels the waters coming down and the womb to open; let her not lye long a bed, yet she may lye sometimes and sleep to strengthen her, and to abate pain' (p. 145).

- 'Take notice that all women do not keep the same posture in their delivery; some lye in their beds, being very weak, some sit in a stool or chair, or rest upon the side of the bed, held by other women that come to the Labor' (p. 153).

- 'The danger were much to force delivery, because when the woman hath laboured sore, if she rest not a while, she will not be able presently to endure it, her strength being spent before' (p. 156).

As we can see from these excerpts, though our medical knowledge surrounding labour and its complexities has of course changed dramatically, some of this most basic, yet credible, advice for a woman giving birth is really not so different to what mothers are told today.

Whilst here I have spoken about the intrapartum element of childbirth, if you are interested in what Sharp recommends for the postpartum care of new mothers, I would definitely recommend that you head over and have a read of Jennifer Evans's blog on this very subject! Take a look at it here:

1. Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, ed. by Elaine Hobby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
2. Frontispiece image taken from the electronic edition of The Midwives Book on EEBO.
3. An engraving of a pregnant woman on a birthing stool, surrounded by her midwife and gossips. Source:

© Jenna Townend 2013

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