Daily Life in Chaucer's England

By Jeffrey L. Singman; Will McLean | Go to book overview

3
The Course of Life
Birth

The basic biological facts of birth in the fourteenth century were of course much the same then as now, but the human context was rather different. A useful glimpse is offered by John of Trevisa's late fourteenth-century translation of the thirteenth-century encyclopedia De Proprietatibus Rerum by Bartholomeus Anglicus:

A midwife is a woman that has the craft to help a woman that labors with child, that she may bear and bring forth her child with less woe and sorrow. And so that the child should be born with the less labor and woe she anoints and balms the mother's womb, and helps and comforts her in that manner. Also she takes the child out of the womb, and knots his navel four inches long. With water she washes away the blood of the child, and balms him with salt and honey to dry up the humors and to comfort his limbs and members, and swathes him in cloths. 1

As Trevisa suggests, birth was in the hands not of a physician but of a midwife. A physician would not be involved unless there was a pathological complication. The setting was also different, since childbirth almost invariably took place at home. Hospitals in this period were principally a place for long-term care of the infirm poor, rather than for short-term intervention in acute medical circumstances.

Another difference was the degree of risk to the mother. We have no accurate figures for childbirth deaths in England during this period, but they were certainly higher than they are now. Some historians have suggested as high as 20%, but this is a gross overestimation--England would soon have been empty at so catastrophic a rate of maternal death, and the evidence of wills suggests that a majority of women survived their husbands rather than vice versa. No certain data exist for England during

-39-

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