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.