Medieval childbirth was a fearful time for women. Dangers were many, and little could be done if there was any kind of medical problem. Women routinely wrote their wills prior to going into labour as the death rate was so high. Out of this fear came the use of many charms and rituals meant to ease the birth pains and bring the child and woman safely through travail. Early in pregnancy, some women made pilgrimages to shrines such as that at Walsingham, which was said to hold a vial of the Virgin Mary’s milk. One labour began, sard , amber, and jasper stones were clasped or rubbed on the thighs to ease the pain, while all hair was unbound and belts undone to ‘help’ unbind the womb. St Margaret was also often invoked by women in labour, as she had been spat safely out of a dragon’s mouth! Very wealthy ladies and royalty could ask for Margaret’s or Our Lady’s Girdle to be brought from the abbeys that held these relics.

There were other, less famous birthing girdles, however, sewn together pieces of parchment covered with written prayers, which were wrapped around the pregnant woman’s body. One of these rare survivals dating from the 15th C has recently undergone modern forensic testing and has shown amazing results of actual use–honey, eggs and milk traces were on the goatskin parchment, as well as human fluids specific to childbirth, making it clear the woman who wore the girdle 600 years ago kept it on for the duration of her labour.


Detail of Birthing Girdle


  1. We’re too soft now. My one and only experience of childbirth put me off for good! I have nothing but admiration for our female forebears and everything they suffered. They had no choice, I know, but if they felt they had to write their wills before going into labour, it’s a sure sign that they knew they’d be fortunate to survive. Another excellent post, hoodedman.

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  2. It is only really in modern times that childbirth has become (relatively) safe. I don’t think there was even any pain relief until the time of Queen Victoria. In a way, it is remarkable that any of us are here.

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  3. Yeah, it is a wonder the human race survived. Note how many men outlived 4, 5, or even 6 wives, while no woman ever had multiple husbands – in succession, I mean. (Mother of 4 here.)
    Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely glad I live now instead of 5 centuries ago!

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    1. I can think of quite a few women with several husbands. Off the top of my head, Elizabeth Hopton, Countess of Worcester had three – albeit two were beheaded. It seems to come down to luck (for want of a better word). Some women seem to have had children with relative ease; (and yes I know it’s easy for me to say that as a man living in modern times) they birthed numerous babies, outlived their husbands, and lived to be old (by the standards of their time). Cecily Neville is a good example. Her mother, Joan Beaufort, is an even better one. There was of course very little in the way of modern medical science, certainly no careful prenatal care, little concept of hygiene, and if the midwife couldn’t handle any complications it was good night Vienna.

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