23 January 2011
Pregnancy & Childbirth: Tudor style
The mortal risk that maternity carried in Tudor days was certainly significant. Were it not bad enough that medicine was comparatively, in a dark age, it was coupled with superstitious myths and beliefs that increased peril faced by mothers and infants. There are records of Tudor women so thoroughly terrorized by the prospect of dying in childbirth, that they simply elected to avoid marriage. Queen Elizabeth was thought to have a strong fear of childbirth, though the reasons for her firm avoidance of marriage are not clear, and seem to have been complex. *(No doubt that having witnessed firsthand her sister's horrifying experience with two hysterical pregnancies did little to sweeten Elizabeth's views on the matter of childbearing.)
For Tudor women, the experience of childbearing was one that might cause elation for one woman, and abject misery for her neighbor. There existed no reliable tests to determine if a woman were pregnant, or not. Housewives' tales abounded, such as the belief that the veins beneath a pregnant woman's tongue would be greenish in hue. Strong food cravings were also thought to be related to pregnancy, as they still are today. Prenatal care was virtually non-existent. Tudor women followed a very odd dietary regimen prescribed by the physicians and midwives of the day. A strange but common belief at the time was that pregnant women should carefully avoid viewing, or even thinking about any disturbing subject. Having suffered a fright or disturbance during pregnancy was thought to cause monstrous births, that is delivery of a severely deformed child. One can only imagine the sorrow of women who were unfortunate enough to have delivered such children, given the ignorance and lack of empathy of the times. Worse, such mothers were often accused of being evil, or at blame somehow for such a birth. Women were often held responsible for the very sex of their infant, a woman being a "good wife" for birthing sons, and by contrast a "bad wife" who only brought her husband daughters. One famous example of this cruel, misogynistic attitude is that of King Henry VIII, and his severe displeasure when Anne Boleyn found herself unable to give her husband a son.
The number of children desired by Tudor women was usually related to socioeconomic status. Wealthier families were typically desperate to product mail heirs; poor families often experienced severe anxiety and deprivation with each new addition to the family.
Pity the poor woman who became pregnant outside of marriage in those days, as she would be heavily sanctioned by her community, and often her family as well. An unmarried mother might have to rely solely on the church for support, and this inevitably resulted in bad feelings across the board.
Though the majority of pregnancies in Tudor times did result in delivery and live birth, women dying in childbirth was not a rare occurrence. The majority of women knew, or even witnessed a women who had died in her child-bed, and due to lack of effective medical intervention, those deaths were often prolonged and painful.
Queen Jane Seymour was one such woman who would die of complications related to childbirth. After an excruciatingly painful labor lasting days, and finally culminating in the birth of Edward, in 1537, Queen Jane would die of child-bed fever shortly afterward.