Wise women

Modern attitudes about childbirth catching up to mediaeval times

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:12:38 PM

Attitudes about pregnancy and childbirth are changing. More and more women are hiring doulas and midwives to assist with the births of their children, and many obstetricians and gynaecologists are changing to a partnership approach to patient care.

“These ‘new’ attitudes are rightly associated with both the feminist and holistic healthcare movements,” observes Trent University historian Fiona Harris-Stoertz. “But few of us realize they are actually attitudes and practices that were the norm a thousand years ago in mediaeval England and France.”

Harris-Stoertz’s research shows that what we think of as ‘recent’ developments in care for pregnant and birthing women, actually harken back to the high middle ages (1050-1300 A.D.), when it was the pregnant women themselves, supported by female relatives and friends, who brought their babies into the world.

In fact, women managed all aspects of pregnancy and childbirth until the end of the mediaeval period when male physicians—trained in the recently-established universities and backed by the authority of church and state—wrested control away from them.

“Even though the men’s methods were no more effective,” says Harris-Stoertz, “they created a new standard, which viewed pregnant women and women giving birth as ill patients who needed medical intervention by male authorities. In fact, you could argue that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that physicians were really able to help women in childbirth.”

Determining what methods and medicines mediaeval women used during pregnancy and childbirth poses one of the major challenges for Harris-Stoertz’s research. Most women were illiterate and left no records, and any medical information that does exist has since been filtered through the writings of male doctors and priests.

To try and uncover first-hand examples of mediaeval pregnancy practices, Harris-Stoertz is studying legal documents such as proof-of-age depositions, which include sworn statements by witnesses that often refer to the person’s birth. “Miracle stories” that describe the birth of a saint, or miracles performed by a saint during a difficult birth, are also valuable sources of information.

“Because of the complexity and diversity of the sources, many medical historians have neglected this period,” she says. “Yet it is a pivotal era in Western history, and influenced the way many modern attitudes and practices evolved.”

Fiona Harris-Stoertz’s research on pregnancy and childbirth in the middle ages is supported by SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.