Eagle-stones, holy girdles, cheese and cake and a coral rattle: all were meant to aid childbirth and keep the newborn baby safe. Quaint superstitions to us, perhaps, but sensible approaches when facing the danger of giving birth, Martine Bailey, author of The Prophet, argues.
“When a woman conceived she was launched on a roaring wave of fate,” writes Amanda Vickery in The Gentleman’s Daughter. In researching my new novel, The Prophet, I learned that an ‘average’ mother like my protagonist, Tabitha, might face the ordeal of childbirth six or seven times in her lifetime with little hope of pain relief or competent medical assistance.
Each time she entered her ‘travail’ or ‘groaning time’ her own and the child’s life would hang in the balance. Across her lifetime she faced a six to seven per cent risk of dying in childbed.
If we think of superstition as a belief or custom based on fear of the unknown it is unsurprising that childbirth has attracted a wide range of strange notions and beliefs.
The power of an amulet
Before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had offered mothers a plethora of comforts, from religious relics, girdles and amulets to fragments of the consecrated host. An amulet was generally worn close to the body to prevent evil, mischief, disease, or witchcraft. Many religious houses lent out talismanic objects such as a birthing girdle, a scroll of parchment to be placed around the mother’s belly.
Gold rings have long been used in supernatural ritual, so it is not surprising that Tabitha uses her wedding ring to try to predict the sex of her unborn child. The pendulum test, in which the ring is suspended over the mother’s stomach, is said to foretell a girl if it circles, or a boy if it sways to and fro.
Another amulet I gave to Tabitha is an eagle-stone. Aetites are formations of iron oxide enclosing a smaller rattling stone, which were said to work by sympathetic magic, the nesting stone signifying the child in the womb. Supposedly found in eagle’s nests, they were expensive to buy; aristocratic owners commonly lent them out to friends and family.
For poorer mothers-to-be a copy of ‘Our Saviour’s Letter’ could be bought cheaply at a market and pinned above the maternal bed. First appearing in the 1790s, the letter supposedly written by Jesus, promised that if a woman kept it about her, “she shall be safely delivered of her birth.”
The shock of maternal impressions
As recently as 1967 Sybil Marshall published her mother’s words in Fenland Chronicle: “When I were a child I had a white lock down the back o’ my head – where it growed because my mother were frightened by a white bear at Peterborough Fair.”
The concept of ‘maternal impression’ was the idea that extreme distress could cause physical defects in an unborn child. This might take many forms, such as a birthmark from touching blood, or a hare-lip from being frightened by a hare. The idea was popularised by Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a pastiche treatise on sex and pregnancy. A picture of a ‘maid all hairy’, deformed because her mother was fixated on an image of John the Baptist wearing a camel-hair shirt, lent the theory some popularity.
By the 18th century the idea was being challenged following the exposure of a hoax perpetrated by Mary Toft who claimed to give birth to rabbits following a fascination with the creatures. Yet still some physicians such as Tabitha’s medical man continued to argue against the perils of sudden shocks.
Tabitha naturally struggles against her doctor’s advice, being eager to uncover the murderer of a young woman she finds dead in the forest, and anxious about a charismatic preacher’s prophecy that a second saviour will be born – at the same time as her own confinement.
Gossips and groaning foods
In the early modern period, childbirth brought together female friends and relatives known collectively as ‘gossips’ (originally God-sibs or ‘siblings in God’). Caudle was served to strengthen the mother: a warm mixture of oatmeal, water and spices fortified with ale, wine or even gin. Some male doctors even complained of mothers rendered incapable during the birth due to drunkenness. It seems that raising a glass to ‘wet the baby’s head’ was more than a euphemism in some northern regions, where the new-born’s head was indeed carefully washed in rum.
A gift from godparents of a silver caudle cup or set of apostle spoons was a ceremonial wish for good fortune – and proof of the proverb that “one man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and another with a wooden ladle”. The importance of propitious beginnings is fundamental in superstition, so we see other symbolic gifts presented at birth alongside the silver coin pressed in a baby’s hand.
Eggs, bread and sugar were given to ward off want, and a little salt in the baby’s mouth was not a pagan survival as might be expected, but based on Old Testament scripture.
The baby’s first taste of food was intended to ensure a lifetime of strength; it might extend to rum butter, wine, or even a little blood from the end of the umbilical cord to be extra sure of physical health.
Traditional foods now lost to memory were a large cheese and ‘groaning’ or Christening cake. The careful division of foods among the exact number of guests would hopefully avoid bad luck. The groaning cake was also said to bring good luck and fertility, especially after being tossed in the midwife’s smock and given to unmarried women to place beneath their pillows.
Clothes and corals
The baby’s first clothes were also fraught with secret rules. In The Prophet the hand-stitching of the coming infant’s gowns, wrappers, bibs, belly bands, and clouts, is a vast endeavour for the women of the household. Hollie or holy point lace was made exclusively for babies, incorporating protective religious symbols such as doves, oak trees and lilies.
Alternatively, if the infant’s first wrapping was the father’s shirt, this was said to confer strength, or dressing a boy in women’s clothes, or a girl in men’s costume, was believed to confer a great attraction to the opposite sex when an adult.
An accessory made from some form of coral was often looped into the clothes; this was first recorded by Pliny in AD77 as a means to keep witches at bay. A silver and coral rattle was kept by many noble families, combining a charm, plaything and a soother to ease teething.
Thankfully, these days superstitions are merely a light-hearted way to tap into old traditions. Yet what struck me in researching superstitions in pregnancy was the mother’s inner terror at her coming ordeal.
To deliberately avoid distress, to clutch or pray upon a solid object, and to share the pains of labour in cheery female company, all seem to be eminently sensible approaches to the fearful dangers of childbirth.
Martine is the author of historical crime novels An Appetite for Violets, The Penny Heart and The Almanack. She tweets historical riddles and folklore each #FolkloreThursday from @AlmanackTweets
Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter (Yale University Press, 1998)
Steve Roud, Monday’s Child Is Fair of Face… And Other Traditional Beliefs About Babies and Motherhood (Random House, 2008)
Laura Mason, Editor, Food and the Rites of Passage (Prospect Books, 2002)
For an account of dedicated immersion in historical research, read about the year Martine spent living by almanack time.
Childbirth from the series Le Mariage à la ville by Abraham Bosse, 1633: via the Met
Part of parchment birthing girdle, cross with red heart and shield (Wellcome Images L0074224): via Wellcome Creative Commons
Aristotle’s Masterpiece, frontispiece: via Wellcome Creative Commons
The Holyoke Caudle Cup, c1690: via Wikimedia Commons
Silver and coral rattle, East Lothian Museums, via Flickr