With sky-high levels of maternal mortality, the science of obstetrics virtually nonexistent and the threat of infectious disease always around the corner, pregnant medieval women put their faith in talismans to bring them divine protection during childbirth.
From amulets to precious stones, the list of items that the church lent to pregnant women was substantial, but the most popular lucky charm was a “birthing girdle”.
Now researchers say they have definitive evidence that these girdles were not only revered in pregnancy – they were also employed during childbirth.
One such item held by the Wellcome collection – made of four strips of sheepskin parchment stitched together and dating to the late-15th or early-16th century – was analysed by researchers. The parchment, embellished by multiple symbols of divinity including a crucifix, showed signs of wear and tear, suggesting it had been touched, rubbed or kissed as part of religious veneration.
Using a noninvasive technique developed in tandem with conservationists a few years ago, the researchers used erasers to gently wipe the surface of the parchment and collect the crumbs that would normally blow away, said lead author Sarah Fiddyment, of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.
Previously, the technique was used to identify animal species by looking for collagen, the most abundant protein found in skin, but until now it had never been applied on a parchment document to look at other proteins, she said.
“I think, on one level, we thought there would be blood, and, on another level, we thought there might be mouse poop,” said author Natalie Goodison, of the University of Durham.
Instead, the researchers found evidence of cervicovaginal fluid, as well as honey, milk, eggs, leguminous plants – broad beans and possibly garden pea – as well as cereals, they wrote in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Scholars and historical texts have long suggested that such girdles were worn by pregnant women, and plant-based remedies were used during childbirth, noted Fiddyment. “[But], we won’t really know unless someone can go to a lab and analyse it and tell us. So that’s effectively what we’re doing,” she said.
Childbirth was perilous in medieval Europe. While only nine out of 100,000 women died from childbirth in England in 2013, it was thought to have been the main cause of death for women in early medieval England.
The latest analysis cements the idea that women were actively invoking ritual and religion, bordering on magic, to soothe their nerves during childbirth, even though at this time they were being forbidden by Christian reformists.
With the onset of the Reformation, some Christians moved away from the Catholic tradition of worshipping saints and endorsing superstition, said Goodison. “So, it also represents a time in history when … the authorities began to ban the use of birth girdles, but they were very much sought after.”
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