Friday, September 16, 2011
Guest Elizabeth Chadwick: Medieval Pregnancy and Childbirth
Linda Banche here. My guest today is Elizabeth Chadwick and her medieval historical novel, Lady of the English, set in 12th century England.
Leave a comment with your email address for a chance to win the copy of Lady of the English which Sourcebooks has generously provided. Elizabeth will select the winner. Check the comments to see who won, and how to contact me to claim your book. If I cannot contact the winner within a week of selection, I will award the book to an alternate. Note, Sourcebooks can mail to USA and Canada addresses only.
And the winner Elizabeth selected is catslady! Congratulations, catslady, and thanks to all for coming over.
Thank you ladies for inviting me onto your blog to write a guest post!
I thought I'd talk a little bit about pregnancy and childbirth in the period of Lady Of The English.
Lady Of The English is about two Medieval women, Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England and Adeliza of Louvain, Matilda's stepmother, who was a couple of years younger than Matilda herself. In political terms, it's the story of Matilda's struggle to gain the English crown after it is usurped by her cousin Stephen, and how Adeliza helped her in this endeavour, while treading a difficult path of her own due love and loyalty. In the emotional sense, it's about how these women coped with their lives in very difficult circumstances - some of their own making. It’s also about how they dealt with the physical hardships that were the lot of women in the 12th century, not least bearing children.
Today in Western society we have contraception as a matter of course. We have access to excellent healthcare both preconception and throughout pregnancy, childbirth and afterwards. We have drugs to control the pain and medical intervention on hand should there be an emergency. But in the 12th century it was a very different state of affairs. Contraception, although known, was haphazard and frowned upon by the church. Sexual intercourse was supposed to take place for the purpose of procreation, and to indulge without that expectation was to commit a sin. I'm sure people did have sex for fun, and followed contraceptive practices. I'm sure it was a rule that was treated with differing levels of gravity depending on a person's attitudes, but nevertheless it did exist. One suggested contraceptive trick was for the woman to tie the testicles of a weasel round her neck. Other than keeping her partner away, I can't see this it would have been very effective! Putting lettuce leaves under the man’s pillow would also seem to be a dubious way of preventing pregnancy. However, coitus interruptus and pieces of moss soaked in vinegar and appropriately inserted may have had more success.
For the aristocracy, producing numerous children seems to have been the approved norm. Women married young and by their mid-teens were usually embarked upon a breeding program. The age of their husbands was more variable. Adeliza of Louvain was perhaps seventeen or eighteen when she married Henry I. He was well into his fifties and she was his second wife. He had two legitimate children from his first marriage, and at least twenty bastards born of various other women. Adeliza and Henry had no children during their fifteen year marriage. Empress Matilda had been married to the Emperor of Germany who was about eleven years older than her. She may have had one child with him, but it died soon after birth. When her husband died, she returned to Normandy where her father married her to Geoffrey of Anjou who at the time of their marriage was only fourteen years old to Matilda's twenty six. It was going to be five years before they had any children, although some of this time was spent in separation from each other. The marriage doesn't appear to have been a happy one.
Eventually, the couple got back together, and Matilda bore their first son, the future Henry II in spring 1133. Producing a son would have been a feather in Geoffrey’s cap, not just because male heirs were valued, but because it was believed that if the male seed was the strongest, then a boy child would result. If the female seed was dominant, the baby would be a girl. So a boy child was even more a reflection on a man's virility.
Aristocratic women and those from wealthier families would retire into confinement in the later stages of pregnancy. This meant that for perhaps the last month they would be shut away from the world in a special room that had been prepared for them to give birth. Perhaps it was a bit like going back into the womb! At the best it was an enclosed and secure women's enclave where the expectant mother could rest and relax with companions and attendants. At worst it must have felt claustrophobic and perhaps like a prison. Peasant women didn't have a choice and just got on with their daily lives.
After the baby was born, the new mother would continue to remain in her chamber for another 40 days before emerging for her churching ceremony, for which she would receive gifts and have lovely new clothes to wear. The churching ceremony welcomed a woman back into society and gave thanks for the safe delivery. It made her ‘clean’ again, and able to resume all the duties of a wife. In the aristocracy this meant handing the baby over to a wet nurse and getting back into the breeding programme.
Empress Matilda bore Henry II in March 1133. By September of the same year she was pregnant again with her second son, Geoffrey, who almost cost Matilda her life. We don't know what happened but following the birth she was so seriously ill, that she made provision for her own funeral. She wanted to be buried at the Abbey of Bec. Her father wanted her to be buried in Rouen Cathedral and there was something of an altercation between father and daughter - so at least even in extremity Matilda still had the strength to argue! In the event, she survived her ordeal, but that must have been down to her strong constitution. Medical interventions for women struggling in labour, or suffering complications after the delivery, were few, rudimentary, and steeped in superstition. The Trotula, a compendium of women's medicine written in the 11th century, advises a woman having difficulty giving birth to take a warm herbal bath, and that her ‘sides, belly, hips, and vagina be anointed with oil of violets or rose oil.’ She was also to be rubbed vigorously and given a drink made with sugar vinegar and pomegranate juice. She was to be encouraged to sneeze and to be led at a slow pace through the house. If none of this worked, other remedies included drinking the milk of another woman, eating butter or cheese into which special words had been carved, or having a snakeskin tied around the loins. But basically, if you didn’t push the baby out on your own, you’d shot it. If you succeeded, you then had to hope you didn't suffer severe bleeding, a retained placenta, or develop a fever.
Despite her ordeal, Matilda, on returning to a husband became pregnant again and gave birth to a third son, William in 1136 (How virile that must have made Geoffrey of Anjou feel!). After that, there were no more children. One suspects that with three sons in the bag, this might well be a conscious decision on the part of the parents.
Adeliza of Louvain was barren throughout her fifteen years of marriage to Henry I, and this despite the fact that he was still merrily siring bastards on other women. We can only speculate on the reasons he and Adeliza were not fertile with each other.
After he died, she married again to William D’Albini, a royal steward, and immediately became pregnant. She married him in 1138, and when they parted 10 years later she had borne him at least six children - perhaps seven, risking herself year upon year in pregnancy and childbirth. I suspect that her inability to have children with Henry I probably put Adeliza in the mindset of those in the population who thought that sexual intercourse should be open to the possibility of conception every time it happened, and that quickening with a child was a gift from God and to be welcomed. It must have taken a toll on her health though. She would have been about thirty five when she bore her first child. She entered a nunnery in 1148 and died in 1151, when her oldest son would only have been about twelve, and her youngest perhaps three or four. William D’Albini did not remarry although he survived her by twenty five years.
All in all, previous centuries were fraught times for women. Men went to battle, and so did their wives and mistresses. Even today outside of societies with access to good medical care, women and their babies continue to be at high risk during the birth process. Having borne two healthy sons myself and having had the choice of when and where and how, I have enormous respect and admiration for my sisters and I am so glad I did not have to go through what they did!
LADY OF THE ENGLISH by ELIZABETH CHADWICK
Matilda, daughter of Henry I, knows that there are those who will not accept her as England’s queen when her father dies. But the men who support her rival Stephen do not know the iron will that drives her.
Adeliza, Henry’s widowed queen and Matilda’s stepmother, is now married to a warrior who fights to keep Matilda off the throne. But Adeliza, born with a strength that can sustain her through heartrending pain, knows that the crown belongs to a woman this time.
In the anarchy, in a world where a man’s word is law, how can Adeliza obey her husband while supporting Matilda?
How long can Matilda fight for the throne that she has struggled so bitterly to win?
About the Author
Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of 17 historical novels, including The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, A Place Beyond Courage, For the King's Favor, Shadows and Strongholds, The Winter Mantle, The Falcons of Montabard, and To Defy a King, six of which have been shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Awards. visit her at her website at http://www.elizabethchadwick.com/