While some aspects of motherhood have remained unchanged for thousands of years, others have undergone a drastic transformation in recent years. With the advancement of medicine, empowerment of women, and changing attitudes it is no wonder that mothers today are quite different than they were in the Middle Ages. These days the focus is on the safety and comfort of both mother and child along with strong family bonds and precious childhood memories.
For a couple of thousand years life for the average person changed very little. People worked hard, died young, and had few opportunities. There was limited access to new information and people relied heavily on superstitions and word of mouth. Their lives were difficult, dangerous, and there was little time for the development of new ideas.
Humanity made little progress until the scientific revolution and the age of enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. At this time people began to make new breakthroughs which would lead to a shift in thinking paving the way to the modern era and leading the world to the contemporary philosophy of today. Humanity has come a long way and motherhood has not escaped the changing dynamics of our world. Most mothers today would never consider some of the practices that were common for those that came before them.
17 They Had Other Women Breastfeed For Them
It was common for mothers of the noble class to pay lactating women to help feed and care for their babies. These women were called wet nurses and they were generally expected to live with the family and be heavily involved in the lives of the children. Noble families employed wet nurses to take the burden off the birth mother but also because breastfeeding affects fertility and upper class women were under pressure to produce as many heirs as possible.
Peasant women would sometimes employ wet nurses too but more often out of necessity. These women did not come cheap and poor families would be unlikely to spend that kind of money unless they had to. Since formula was not invented yet, the only substitute for a mother's milk would be the milk of another woman. If a mother died or was unable to produce enough milk, a wet nurse would likely be employed to feed the baby.
16 They Died To Give Birth
While maternal deaths were certainly much more common in the Middle Ages, it is difficult to determine exactly how often they occurred as statistics are hard to come by. Some data reveals that deaths occurred around twice as often as they do in the poorest countries of today. Childbirth was fraught with danger and women would often write their wills and assign another woman from the village to take care of their newborn in case they died.
Poor nutrition and overly strenuous activity were contributing factors. The lack of prenatal care along with minimal medical assistance during delivery were also involved. Birthing mothers would not have a doctor present and would generally be attended by female family members and possibly a midwife. Above all, poor hygiene and no understanding of bacteria caused these women to perish. The most common cause of death was due to infection in the days after childbirth.
15 Children Were Sometimes Sold
The lives of peasant families were difficult and often dependent on circumstances beyond their control. Hard winters, droughts, insect infestations, and diseases could damage crops and kill livestock. With nowhere to turn for help, these events could easily cause a family to find themselves in a situation where there simply wasn't enough food to go around.
While most parents today couldn't fathom the idea of selling one of their children, in the Middle Ages it sometimes came down to a choice between selling one or watching the entire family starve to death. Parents were not unsympathetic and unloving towards their children and undoubtedly the choice to sell one of them would not be made lightly. They also generally chose their buyers carefully and would sell children that were old enough to work to be household servants or to work at a local business.
These arrangements were usually for a specific number of years after which they would be released from service and able to return to their families. They would not be paid as payment would be given to the family as a lump sum at the start of the agreement, but they would be fed and housed for free. The money given to the family would help feed the remaining family members and help them through the hard times.
14 In Place Of Doctors, They Had Superstitions
Pregnancy and childbirth were considered the domain of women and during the Middle Ages there were no female doctors. The most skilled women in this field were midwives and since there was no such thing as midwife school, all of their expertise relied on personal observations and stories told by other women. Much of the care of a pregnant woman was in the hands of female family members who relied on family experiences and traditions.
Since so much about conception, pregnancy, and childbirth was mysterious, dangerous, and out of their control, it is not surprising that women turned to superstitious rituals to ensure the safety of mother and baby. These rituals could include charms and meaningful objects being placed on the body. The written word was considered powerful and sometimes manuscripts were used as girdles during pregnancy and labour. Sometimes women would even eat words written in cheese or butter. If the birth was taking too long everyone in the household might be instructed to open doors, cupboards, chests, and drawers to help open the womb.
13 They Lost Many Babies In The First Year
While it's impossible to get reliable statistics, it is estimated that up to a quarter of infants born in the Middle Ages might have died before reaching their first birthday. There isn't enough data to know the exact numbers but infant mortality was certainly high. This is evident not only by the limited statistical data that does exist but also by the attitudes and beliefs of the people who lived during this time period. A healthy infant was seen as a special gift from God.
Most infant deaths occurred due to accidents or disease. It's not surprising since parents were busy, households were much more dangerous, and people didn't understand germs and had poor hygiene. The lack of prenatal care and limited access to medical assistance were also contributing factors. In poor families poor nutrition and lack of health care increased infant morality rates even more.
12 They Saw Their Children As Useless
Today's parents put great value on their children and have a desire to ensure that their childhood is an idyllic one. We see our children as contributing value to our lives and for us being parents is a rewarding experience. In the Middle Ages childhood was not idealized and children were seen as useless since they were unable to contribute to society and their only function was to survive.
The concept of being productive and a valuable member of society was important to people from the Middle Ages. Everyone had to pull their own weight but children were unable to contribute very much. They may have been seen as useless, but they were not considered worthless. People realized that children would grow up and become productive. The future potential of children was valued but childhood was not seen as a time to be enjoyed, but rather a period of time to wait out.
11 They Didn't Send Their Kids To School
During the Middle Ages the overwhelming majority of children would have been educated at home. Parents would teach their children what they knew, how to survive, and how the family business works. Although it is commonly believed that the average person from this time would be illiterate, that isn't entirely accurate. Most people knew basic math and could read well enough to pass on the skill to their children by reading the only book the family was likely to have, the Bible.
Wealthy families could afford formal education for their children. Almost all formal education was provided by clergy members. While both boys and girls could receive formal education, the things they would learn would vary greatly. If a child from a wealthy family wanted to pursue greater education and become a serious scholar, they would generally be expected to live a monastic life. Children of royalty were usually taught by tutors who would be paid to live at the castle and teach them.
10 Their Children Had A Lot More Accidents
Being useful was important to the people of the Middle Ages and children were expected to help with household chores as early as possible. These tasks would start out as simple things such as fetching water or feeding livestock. Being small and inexperienced it was not unheard of for children to drown in wells or streams and to be trampled by animals.
Mothers of the Middle Ages were busy with their work and had many children. Each individual child would have limited attention and would often be unsupervised or watched by older children. Furthermore the medieval household was full of dangers such as open fires, sharp tools, free roaming livestock, and wild animals. It was impossible to baby-proof when so many dangerous objects were part of everyday life. As a result accidents were much more common.
9 They Swaddled Their Babies Differently
Today's mothers swaddle their newborn babies in light blankets to replicate the womb and make their infants feel safe and secure. Swaddling in the Middle Ages was quite different and served a different purpose. It involved wrapping the infant tightly in strips of linen with the legs together and the arms close to the body. The idea was that keeping the arms and legs straight would help them grow that way.
This type of swaddling would immobilize a baby and had the secondary benefit of keeping the baby out of trouble. Of course babies were released from their swaddles often so that they could move around and practice using their new muscles. Swaddling was also not a practice which was utilized worldwide. While prevalent in some countries it didn't catch on in others.
8 They Did Not Have Any Relief From The Pain Of Labour
Today women have many options when it comes to pain management during labour. During the Middle Ages, while pain relieving options were available, they were not offered to women for the purpose of childbirth. It was believed that it was the woman's job to suffer that pain as a punishment for Eve's disobedience to God. Furthermore women who would consider their needs or comfort during childbirth were seen as unfit mothers.
The views surrounding women and childbirth continued until the Victorian period. It was Queen Victoria herself who did much to change the attitudes around childbirth pain when she used chloroform for the last two of her nine deliveries. It was this royal endorsement which began to dispel the stigmas and made it possible for common women to insist that if it's good enough for the queen and royal heirs, it's good enough for them.
7 They Gave Birth In Public
If you were a common woman during the Middle Ages, you would probably be able to endure the pains of childbirth with a level of modesty surrounded by your female family members and possibly a midwife if you were lucky enough to have one. If you were a queen, you might have to give birth with many spectators present. The birth of a future monarch was a huge event and the queen would be expected to share the experience with the court. This practice was partly for the purpose of celebrating the birth and partly to ensure that there was no infant imposter being smuggled into the royal cradle.
The spectators might be more than just a small crowd. In 1688 Mary of Modena gave birth to James Francis Edward Stuart in front of 200 witnesses. Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child in 1778. When it was announced that the baby is coming the rush of people into the birthing chamber nearly killed the Queen. The room was packed making it impossible to move around and some people went as far as to climb the furniture to get a better view of the Queen. Weather it was the heat, lack of fresh air, or if she was simply overwhelmed, the Queen lost consciousness. After the incident the number of people in attendance at a royal birth was limited to ministers and a few key individuals.
6 Women Were Confined Before And After Childbirth
Women who had the means would have a “laying-in” period before going into labour . They would be locked in their chamber with only women in attendance. The space would be dark, warm, and quiet to replicate a womb. Tapestries would be hung over the windows and often surrounding the birthing bed to keep out the light and wind. Women were advised to avoid sunlight and fresh air during this period.
Women would often remain in confinement for as long as a month after giving birth. How long she remained in confinement, what she did during this time, and what had to happen before she could leave varied from one culture to another. In China a woman would have a 30 day confinement and she would have to follow certain rules regarding diet and activity. In England a priest was required to purify a woman at the end of her month long confinement before she could rejoin the public.
5 They Shared Their Beds With The Family
In the Middle Ages people didn't sleep alone. Having your own bed was a luxury which most people could not afford. Even in wealthy families siblings often shared a bed. However even the wealthiest who could afford a bed for each person and a room for each bed still shared their bedrooms with servants. Sleeping alone was considered odd, lonely, and sad.
Poor families would not be able to afford a bed for each member of the family. Often the family would have only one bed that everyone would share. Sometimes it wasn't even a bed but rather a heap of straw piled on the floor and covered with linen. Many peasant homes consisted of a single room which was shared between the family, pets, and occasionally livestock. On cold nights all occupants of the home might find themselves sleeping together.
4 They Sent Their Children Away
As a continuation of their education children were often sent away for the purpose of some sort of employment. This generally happened around the age of 12 or 13 and the child would be placed in a household where they would be in the care of another family while providing some form of service. These years of work would allow the young people to gain new skills, learn new trades, acquire new social and business connections, as well as learn more about how society conducts itself while earning a bit of money.
Children of noble families would either be sent to the homes of other noble families where boys might learn how to be valets and landowners while girls learned how to be a lady's maid as well as how to run a household. Well connected noble families had the option of sending their children to serve in the royal court where they would learn how to be courtiers and ladies in waiting.
Peasant families would send their children to the households of friends, business partners, or other family members. In a household these young people could be grooms, maids, or help out in the field or on the homestead. They could be trained to assist in a skilled trade such as weaving, brewing, baking, or blacksmith work. Ultimately these teens would be utilized wherever their new household required their service.
3 Women Had Children Out Of Necessity
During the Middle Ages a woman's main job was to bear children. Among nobility male heirs were required to perpetuate the family name and inherit the family wealth. Daughters, although less desirable, could be useful in forging alliances though strategic marriage.
For peasants children were an economic necessity. Families relied on children to provide free labour and sons were required to help in the fields or to run the family business while daughters were needed to help with the household. Even though families had a tendency to send their teenage children away to other households, they would also take on the children of other families. As time went on at least one of the children would take over the family business and as parents got older their children would be expected to take care of them.
2 They Gave Their Babies Honey
Most modern mothers know that honey is not safe for babies to consume before their first birthday. The concern is infant botulism which is a rare but serious and potentially fatal condition. Infant botulism is caused by toxins which are released by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria in the small intestine. Honey may contain these bacteria spores and has been linked to infant botulism. After the first year it is safe for children to consume honey as their intestines are mature enough to fight off the bacteria before they can release the harmful toxin.
During the Middle Ages people were not aware of the existence of bacteria and the link between honey and infant botulism had not been discovered. It was not uncommon to rub honey on an infant's palate to give the baby an appetite. Honey was also believed to assist with lung function and help babies breathe better. Just as today, in the Middle Ages honey was a home remedy for the common cold and babies who got sick might have been treated with honey.
1 Mothers Did Not Attend The baptism Of Their Baby
During the Middle Ages the church played an important role in the lives of most people and the sacraments were considered important, significant, and necessary. The first sacrament is baptism and it was perhaps the most important because it removed original sin and allowed a soul to enter heaven. It was so significant that in some situations women were allowed to perform the ritual which was the only exception the church allowed. This right was bestowed upon midwives who delivered babies that were not likely to survive so that they might perform the baptism before the infant died.
In less extreme situations babies were baptized by a priest. Not wanting to take any chances with their newborn's immortal soul, babies were generally baptized on the day they were born. The mother would stay at home not only to recuperate, but also because she would likely be in confinement. If the family could not afford to have her in confinement and out of commission for a month, it was customary for women to not be allowed into holy places for several weeks after giving birth. The mother would therefore have little to do with the baptism and it would be the father who assembled the godparents and brought the baby to church.