The Woman in the Straw

The birth of a baby is incredibly influenced by culture. I know that seems odd, since it is a biological reality that appears to transcend cultural differences, but it is true nonetheless. In modern Western and Westernised culture birth has been centered around the technological achievements of biomedical practitioners, although that is changing as the growing popularity of natural birthing movements has encouraged hospitals to offer delivery care that does not marginalize the woman in labor. Before it became customary to have hospitalised deliveries (which wasn’t common until less than 70 years ago) having a baby was more of a sociocultural phenomenon than a medical event.

During the Tudor era, when a woman went into labor her baby was, with very few exceptions, delivered by a midwife. Midwives were special. They could cross social boundaries and converse with nobility and beggars alike. Unlike other married women, midwifes had the legal power to testify in court. Midwives were also authorised by the church to perform emergency baptisms, if it appeared the mother or baby might die before a priest could be summoned. Since childbirth wasn’t considered a medical issue per se, midwives and not physicians were the source of authoritative knowledge about any obstetrical and postpartum matters.

Contrary to current beliefs, midwives were very good at their jobs. For one thing, they knew to wash their hands. Obviously they didn’t know what “germs” were, but they did believe that dirt an/or foul odors brought sickness and thus they were very clean in the habits. They were also skilled in delivering even difficult birthing presentations. Historical records show that on average only one percent of women died from giving birth. This is, of course, an astronomically high number of women when compared to the maternal mortality rate today, but considering the absolute minimum of tools the women had to work with their achievements are incredibly impressive.  Furthermore, doctors would not be able to best or even equal the midwives success rate until the 1920’s.

Midwives would not be the only women helping the expectant mother have her baby. Other female family and friends, called “gossips” (so now you know why that word is applied to women!), also came to assist the laboring mother. Male family members, even the baby’s father, were not allowed to attend the birth. The men wouldn’t even have asked; it simply wasn’t done. The exclusion of the father would continue to be the norm even after male doctors and a hospitalized birth had replaced midwives and home deliveries, simply because it was “traditional”. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that men began to be welcomed into delivery rooms. For the Tudors, the father’s main job was to provide his wife and the women attending her with lots of nice food and drink. Men who failed to provide adequate hospitality were punished for their stinginess by unfavorable “gossip” about their lack of generosity.

Typically the midwife and the gossips would help the mother get out of bed to give birth, because laying on your back is a really, really bad way to have a baby. It constricts the pelvis, while it also makes pushing harder and less effective. When doctors supplanted midwives as birthing attendants the prone position became the “normal” way to have a woman give birth, possibly because it had been popularized by a French king who like to see his mistresses give birth; you can see the baby come out better if the mother is lying flat. This is, obviously, a horrible reason to chose a birthing position. What is more likely is that doctors preferred this position because they didn’t want to kneel or sit at a woman’s feet while she pushed. It was too undignified for a man to crouch in front of a mere woman that way.

However, while midwives were still in charge of labor and delivery, the mother would give usually give birth in a squatting position or using a birthing chair/stool, ideally placed in front of the fireplace for warmth.

Alternatively, the woman would stand up and hang onto straps to deliver the baby, so that gravity would help her push out the baby.

Either way, the gossips would usually put straw under the birthing chair to sop up all the goo and liquids and semi-solids that come into the world with an infant. That’s another good reason why the mother didn’t stay in bed to give birth; only an idiot would get that much gunk on their bedding. I’ve had vaginal births with all three of my daughters so trust me when I tell you that it is a mess and nothing you want to have to wash off your linens. The practice of putting rushes under the labouring mother is the reason that “the woman in the straw” was a popular euphemism for a birthing mother in the medieval time period.

Although midwives did a great job delivering babies prior to modern biomedical care, there was nothing they could do to ease the pain of childbirth. They tried blessed girdles and putting a knife under the bed to ‘cut the pain’, but that didn’t really help much. It wasn’t until 4 November 1847 that Scots physician James Young Simpson and his assistants, Dr George Skene Keith and Dr James Matthews Duncan, found out that chloroform worked as an anaesthetic on humans, as well as large animals. Simpson, an early midwifery advocate who specialised in obstetrics and had improved forceps while still a young doctor, immediately saw that chloroform might be a dandy thing to give to a labouring mother to lessen the agony of birth.

People, many of who had penises and should have shut up, didn’t think it was right that women be allowed pain relief during delivery. Hadn’t God chosen to punish all women for Eve’s naughtiness by causing them to suffer during birth? Wouldn’t it go against God to relieve a woman’s suffering? Then, in 1853, Queen Victoria “with the strong encouragement
of her husband Prince Albert” told her physician, Dr.John Snow, that she was going to have chloroform for her 8th confinement … or else. Thus, Prince Leopold came into the world with “complete ease”.  There may have still be nay-sayers to pain relief during childbirth after that, but they henceforth said their nays very quietly.

Nowadays, we can both get out of bed to deliver by medically trained midwives or obstetricians AND have pain relief during labour, but there are still some people who try to interfere with the process of childbirth. For all our technology and all out advances in feminism, birth is still as much as sociocultural event as a personal or medical one.

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