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Why did pregnant women and women in labor in the Middle Ages wear parchment belts, and what was depicted on these accessories
Why did pregnant women and women in labor in the Middle Ages wear parchment belts, and what was depicted on these accessories

Five hundred years ago, not everyone could boast of having a grandmother; most women simply did not overcome a certain age threshold. Forty to sixty percent of women in labor in the Middle Ages died during or immediately after childbirth. It is not surprising that pregnant women were ready for anything to avoid this sad fate. It was not yet necessary to think about a breakthrough in the field of medicine and obstetrics, they turned to higher powers.

How they carried and gave birth to children in medieval Europe

Childbirth five centuries ago often ended tragically

The news of pregnancy caused not so much joy as anxiety in the expectant mother, because it was a risky business. Not to mention the extremely high rates of infant mortality (and most babies born did not manage to live in the world for more than three years), the likelihood that a woman will safely overcome the difficult period of pregnancy and give birth to a child without sacrificing her life was rather small. Almost nothing was known about the physiology of childbirth in those days, therefore, there was no question of observing the rules natural for our time.

Isabella of Aragon, daughter of Catholic kings, died after giving birth

Childbirth became dysfunctional in a variety of cases: whether multiple pregnancies became the reason, or breech presentation, or even the fact that in the process, seemingly elementary hygiene rules were not followed. Later, when the first numbers and the first analyzes will appear, a striking, at first glance, fact will come to light: women who were helped in childbirth only by midwives survived more often than better-off women in labor, to whom a doctor was invited or who ended up in hospitals …

Lucrezia Borgia, with the light hand of writers who received an ominous reputation, also did not survive the last birth

The mystery was explained only in the middle of the 19th century thanks to Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, "the savior of mothers." Several decades later, his findings were accepted by the medical community. Indeed, doctors often appeared next to the woman in childbirth immediately after other activities, including the dissection of corpses, after which they limited themselves to only formal rinsing their hands or even simply wiping them with a rag. As a result, when examining a woman, an infection entered her body, which caused fever, sepsis.

The daughter of Peter I and Catherine, Anna Petrovna (married Duchess of Holstein), also died of childbirth fever

This is a consequence of difficult childbirth - fever, ognevitsa - which took the lives of women in labor of any class, did not spare even the august persons. After several days in agony, princesses and queens died, both awaiting the birth of their first child and those who had already become mothers. For wealthy families, there was even an unspoken tradition of inviting the artist to capture a pregnant woman in a picture - in memory of her, in case of unsuccessful childbirth. But then the family - and the women themselves, of course, resorted to any means to increase the chances of a successful pregnancy outcome.

Medieval maternity belt

Prayers, amulets, rituals, more reminiscent of witchcraft than Catholic rituals, seemed to be salutary to pregnant women in the Middle Ages. Among other things, they also wore belts, which, on the one hand, helped to support the stomach, and on the other, performed this important function - to call on higher powers to help the expectant mother.

Fragment of the inscription on the maternity belt

The "maternity belt", made of silk or parchment, was painted with prayers, images of Christ and saints, and once the Catholic Church welcomed the practice of wearing such an accessory during pregnancy. And the woman believed that the presence of such an accessory would help to give birth to a child in due time, and herself to preserve her life and health. In fact, about how exactly the medieval maternity belt was tied, one can only speculate, accurate data on this matter has not been preserved … The women themselves did not leave biographies at that time and did not often possess the skills of writing, while men did not mention such trifles as ancestral amulets.

The late 15th century manuscript, which once served as a maternity belt, was examined by scientists

Until recently, it was believed that the maternity belt was worn only during pregnancy, but as a result of research carried out by scientists, it turned out that this talisman was part of the birth process itself. The object of analysis was a belt created in the late 15th - early 16th centuries in England, a piece of parchment four inches wide (about ten centimeters) and ten feet long (a little more than three meters).

Found on 500-year-old parchment

The manuscript, which is now kept in the London Museum, was examined by a non-invasive method - particles from its surface were collected with a special "eraser". According to the marks on the parchment, characteristic of childbirth, it was established that the belt really accompanied the woman in this process, or rather, even several generations of women. According to the degree of wear and tear, it was concluded that the maternity belt had been used for its intended purpose for at least a century.

The belt has served more than one generation of women in labor; how many he helped to survive childbirth is unknown

Scientists also found that drops of honey, cow's milk and some plants got on the parchment - most likely, they were used to relieve childbirth. With the beginning of the Reformation in England, wearing birth belts, like many other Catholic rites, was prohibited, despite the fact that that these amulets remained in demand for a long time. The cults of saints, including the protectors of motherhood and childbirth, fell into disgrace. Nevertheless, the practice of using maternity belts, apparently, persisted for quite a long time, and only by the 17th century this custom came to naught.

Fragment of a maternity belt from the 15th century

And Semmelweis never found out that with his discovery he saved a huge number of women in labor, and became one of those who turned the world upside down, although he was not understood by his contemporaries.

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