During my sister’s pregnancies, I came to realise that I was being very annoying; repeatedly saying to them “just be thankful it’s the 21st Century” – not taking into account that for anyone who hasn’t been reading the records I have, this is not exactly a self explanatory statement.
I think my sisters took it to mean that it is because of the leaps and bounds in medical care that we have experienced in the past few decades…but it wasn’t just that which I had been referring too.
What first got me thinking was the following excerpt, from the Old Bailey records dated 15th October 1679:
“A poor young Wench lodging about Thames street, betrayed by a promise of Marriage and getting with Child, which being perceived by the Woman that she lodged with just when she came to fall in Labour about 9 or 10 a Clock in the Night, cruelly turned her out of doors, and set her in another Parish, telling her that now the said Parish were bound to provide for her. In this sad condition in the street, and without any help was this poor Creature delivered, and being found lying as one half dead by the watch, a midwife was called, who found the Child dead, but not separated from her Body , asking her if it were still-born, the Prisoner both then and now said it was not, for she heard it, cry, but denied that she intended to make away the Life of it nor were there any signs of Violence appear save only some little spots or marks of a Bruise or Pinch which some conceive might be occasion’d Involuntarily in struggling to Promote its Birth; by an ignorant Woman in her circumstances: however being a Bastard Child, and the law makeing it death in that case for any woman to be delivered alone without calling help, she was thereupon found Guilty.”
This poor woman was abandoned by her apparent seducer, and then kicked out in the middle of labour by her landlady. She was left on the street to give birth alone, was found half dead, and freely admitted that her baby was not dead when it was born. Yet because she did not ‘call for help’ (whilst she was half dead, and who’s to say she didn’t and people ignored her?), because of the law she was found guilty, and sentenced to death.
I checked the records and she was not later pardoned. She was hanged.
Although members of the wealthier classes received medical attention whilst pregnant, the poorer classes struggled and even worked throughout their whole pregnancy and resumed directly after giving birth.
Source: writingwomenshistory.blogspot.com, en.wikipedia.org
Although this may seem an extreme example, the reality was that women were held responsible for all aspects of the birth, and also how the child turned out. Hare lips were rather simplistically believed to be caused by a woman being frightened by a hare, and many people believed that sudden shocks, becoming pregnant during your menstrual cycle and looking too long upon a disabled person would cause your child to be born deformed.
Interestingly, a letter dated 13th February 1708 to the British Apollo (granted, it was not the most highbrow paper available at the time), enquires as to why black children were born, well, black. The British Apollo responds with as ludicrous an answer as you could wish for; that mothers smeared a dark coal paste on their children to protect them from the sun, and as time passed, the women started to give birth to dark skinned children. It further relates that if women are ‘always beholding such’ whilst pregnant, it affects their child ‘by force of their imagination’ (who knew women had such awesome mind powers?).
The British Apollo magazine…not always a trusted source!
The article goes on to say ‘a famous precedent we have in history, of a white lady’s conceiving a black child, from her continual looking on a Negro’s picture hanging in her home’. It seems the fact that this woman (if she ever existed) clearly used this notion, which was usually utilised to blame the woman for a child’s disability or even death, to her advantage. I can imagine she and her lover breathed a sigh of relief when she apparently got away with it!
Some women, to avoid such accusations, would have a gaggle of ‘gossips’ around her; women who were family members or friends to protect the expectant mother from suspicion should her baby die…solidarity in numbers and all that.
Most women were not so lucky, and there are too many cases of women found guilty of infanticide in the Old Bailey proceedings. A large number of the babies seem to have been found in public “houses of office” – toilets, perhaps in the hope that they would not be traced back to the mother who delivered them. I can only imagine how awful it must’ve been for these poor women, delivering without a midwife, unable to save their babies from the many complications that can arise during the birthing process.
Of course there are also the scientific factors, and yes, we have certainly come a long, long way. But for me, 1600’s or 2014, there are still enough potential hazards that I think I’ll pass on pregnancy for the moment – and let my sisters go through it all instead!