childbirth


childbirth
   Books on British folklore are sadly inadequate on this topic. This must be due partly to women's natural unwillingness to discuss intimate details openly, and partly to their fear that traditional practices would be scorned as 'superstitious' or unhealthy by middle-class researchers; moreover, until recently folklorists rarely published any 'unpleasant' material they encountered. Certain related topics were freely mentioned (e.g. the harelip, the *caul), but not childbirth itself.
   Some English information comes from Protestants confiscating relics, including those to help women in labour; thus, a Bristol convent had a red silk 'girdle of Our Lady' and a white 'girdle of Mary Magdalene' (Forbes, 1966: 125), which would have been lent to women to tie round their waists, to speed delivery and guard against evil forces. Continental evidence shows cords and ribbons blessed during *pilgrimage were similarly used, and *candles lit. Some late medieval verbal *charms from English sources are lengthy adjurations to the baby itself, in Latin, urging it to come out of the womb: 'Christ said, Lazarus, come forth! ... O child, whether alive or dead, come forth, because Christ calls thee to the light' (Forbes, 1971: 302-3).
   Early treatises on midwifery, such as that ascribed to Trotula, a woman gynaecologist in 11th-century Cordoba, Nicholas Culpeper's A Directory for Midwives (1653), Jane Sharp's The Midwives' Book (1671), and her The Compleat Midwife's Companion (1724), were intended for educated readers, and some of their prescriptions require expensive ingredients - powdered ivory, coral, or pearl, for example (Forbes, 1966: 76-7). But information from these books, adapted to suit simpler households, spread into the wider community, either orally or through family 'recipe' notebooks - for example the use of *eagle-stones, and the idea that during pregnancy a male child lies more on the right. Sometimes learned writers incidentally reveal current 'vulgar' practices by sneering at them; Culpeper, discussing prolapse of the womb, remarks: 'My own Magnetick Cure is this. Take a common Bur leaf (you may keep them dry if you please all year) and apply to her Head, and that will draw the womb upwards ... whereas the vulgar way of Cure is to push it back, bind it in, and fumigate.' Citing this, Mary Chamberlain (1981: 191) comments acidly that manipulation plus antiseptic fumigation might work, but a leaf on the head never would.
   Until well into the 19th century childbirth was generally a neighbourly affair, supervised by a local midwife whose knowledge came from experience rather than formal training, and attended by the pregnant woman's female relatives and friends - a situation where traditional advice and beliefs would flourish. According to a Warwickshire journalist in the 1940s, having many people present used to be thought a protection against *changelings (M. H. Powis, Birmingham News (13 November 1944)); the distribution of the *'groaning cheese' reflects communal jollity after a safe delivery. But women of the upper and middle classes turned increasingly to doctors and trained registered midwives, so by the late 19th century only working-class mothers called in 'the handywoman'; by the mid-20th century, home births were rare.
   See also *babies, *cauls, *conception, *placenta, *pregnancy.
   ■ Chamberlain, 1981, examines the history of women as healers and midwives, including oral information from London and East Anglia in the early 20th century. Forbes, 1966, has chapters on several birth-related topics, using learned sources. Cf. Gelis, 1991; his material is French.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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