Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as â€˜abestetrix', echoing the Latin â€˜obstetrixâ€™, meaning â€˜midwifeâ€™. (Another hand has glossed this as 'heifmoederâ€™.) Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.
Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v
Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.
Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434â€“1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v
The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.
Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r
Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r
Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicusâ€™ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children.
Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v
Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb â€˜unharmed and without any painâ€™, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.
Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r
In the 14th century, relics of St Margaretâ€™s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process:
Se wÃfman, se hire cild Ã¡fÃ©dan ne mÃ¦g, gange tÃ³ gewitenes mannes birgenne and stÃ¦ppe Ã¾onne Ã¾rÃwa ofer Ã¾Ã¡ byrgenne and cweÃ¾e Ã¾onne Ã¾rÃwa Ã¾Ã¡s word:
Ã¾is mÃ© tÃ³ bÃ³te Ã¾Ç½re lÃ¡Ã¾an lÃ¦tbyrde,
Ã¾is mÃ© tÃ³ bÃ³te Ã¾Ç½re swÇ½ran swÇ½rbyrde,
Ã¾is mÃ© tÃ³ bÃ³te Ã¾Ç½re lÃ¡Ã°an lambyrde.
'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'
(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))
A charm for â€˜delayed birthâ€™ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r
It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval