The information on popular *childbirth practices is too inadequate to allow us to judge whether the placenta was always formally disposed of (not just thrown away), but this seems likely. In 20th-century midwifery, the official rule was to burn it - on the fire in the living-room or bedroom for home deliveries, in an incinerator at hospital. Some said one could tell how many more children the woman would have by counting the pops it made while burning; *Aubrey said midwives predicted how long a baby would live by burning the afterbirth (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 73).
   Nowadays, women who give birth at home sometimes choose to have the placenta buried in the garden, with a shrub planted over it. This is a revival of an older custom, with continental parallels (Gelis, 1991: 167-71); some informants recall the practice from before the Second World War, and add that a placenta was the best possible fertilizer for rose bushes JS]. Others eat the placenta as a natural medicine to avoid post-natal depression, and this too may have a traditional basis, since French evidence suggests that it was sometimes eaten to encourage lactation (Gelis, 1991: 167-71). The National Childbirth Trust recently published a book, Placenta Special: Eat It or Plant It?, since it is 'a frequent topic among young mothers' (Independent (27 Nov. 1998), 3). A placenta can also serve as a dressing to promote healing of pressure sores and deep ulcers, and be rubbed on the mother's breasts to prevent chapping when breast-feeding [JS].
   In 19th-century Cheshire, some men believed they 'could gain the affections of a woman almost against her will by burying a placenta at the threshold of her house. This was actually done within living memory at Gatley (Cheshire) by a man named Gatley, he having procured one for two guineas. The charm failed in this instance, the woman being very self-willed' (Moss, 1898: 169).
   Some farmers disposed of a cow's or mare's placenta by hanging it in a hawthorn tree. In Hampshire in the 1930s this was done 'as a preventative of fever in the cow' (Vickery, 1995: 170); on a farm in Bilsdale (Yorkshire) it is still being done, to bring luck to newborn foals (FLS News 28 (1998)). They may also have wanted to thwart the animal's instinct to eat her afterbirth if (as in France) they feared she would then eat her offspring too (Gelis, 1991: 166).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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