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Childbirth in Tudor England

an article by Deborah de  Aréchaga

     When there was an impending birth and financial circumstances permitted, the birth room was made as comfortable as possible. The linens were clean, and the room was kept warm, dark, and snug.  Midwives, always female, were in attendance and brought the following items with them-----a stool or chair, a knife, binders, and linens.  Almond oil that had been warmed may have been used to anoint the womb of the laboring woman.  Additionally, the midwife may have provided herbal infusions, poultices, and ointments to ease the process.  Friends brought gifts during the `lying-in’, and may have been saying a last goodbye given the mortality rates for childbirth.  After the baby was born, bathed, and anointed, he was swaddled and placed near his mother’s heart.  If the child was Catholic, he would be `crossed,’ and sprinkled with salt.  In gentry households, the mother was kept for three days post-birth in a warm room and given restorative libations and treated with plasters and salves, as needed.












The tapestry room at Agecroft Hall, arranged as it would have been for a birth.


     In some instances, midwives and mothers were aided by a birth chair, specifically designed for delivery. The seat of a chair would have a cut out, or key hole section where the midwife would have delivered the newborn.  The chairs also had a straight back that assisted gravity and moved the birth process forward to completion.  These two ergonomic elements are consistent in all of the chairs during this time.  However, the design of birth chairs varied in height, size, and materials. Function was pivotal and any decorative application followed popular regional motifs.

    These chairs were predominantly used by urban women, however; written accounts of birth chairs and the number of extant chairs points to widespread use .  This may have been attributable to midwives like  Louise Bourgeois  who practiced at the Hotel Dieu in Paris in the 16th century .  She wrote a midwifery text manual that advocated the use of the birth chair. 

    The birth chair continued in popularity until medical doctors gradually replaced midwives during the 18th and 19th century.  During this time doctors increasingly rejected the knowledge of midwives.  The birth chair was still used by doctors, but many changes were made to the design including a reclining seat back.  This eventually led to the idea of giving birth in a typical sick bed, and correlates with the change in attitude about childbirth, from a natural event to one that connoted `illness' or `sickness'.


Fevers, Agues, and Cures Medical Life in Old Virginia  by Todd L. Savitt, The Virginia Historical Society,1990

Birth Chairs, Midwives, and Medicine  by Amanda Carson Banks, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, 1999  



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