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More Lion's Fat, Ma'am? Bizarre Birth Customs from History

10/05/2013 16:45 BST | Updated 10/07/2013 10:12 BST

With the Duchess of Cambridge now in her final trimester, the UK is anticipating the arrival of a new future monarch this July. There has never been a better time to give birth. Really, I'm not just offering that as a platitude, the customs and advice relating to pregnancy and birth in the past make for horrific reading. Of course, the lack of hygiene and gynaecological understanding caused untold suffering but setting mortality rates aside, midwives and the fashionable male accouchers of the past had some strange ideas about what was best for their patients.

I've just completed my fourth book, Royal Babies; A History, 1066-2013, which looks at the circumstances of the conception and delivery of babies born to rule, or not, as the case might be. Some were born great, some achieved greatness and some of the poor mites had it thrust upon them. One truth emerged, though: the basic physical fact of birth hasn't changed. Women of all eras and all ranks have always had to grit their teeth and hope for the best but their circumstances and context have varied wildly. The development of pain relief was an obvious breakthrough, although it wasn't always permitted. While researching, I studied some truly eye-watering old medical texts, too numerous to mention, but given the impending arrival of baby Cambridge, I thought I would share the advice of a few, aimed at mothers in their final stage of pregnancy.

Some of the earliest texts, dating to Anglo-Saxon times suggested that while a woman should not eat salty or sweet food, it was beneficial to consume the "white stuff found in the excrement of a hawk." Mmm, tasty! When birth approached, she should inscribe charms on parchment and tie this to her inner thigh or else carve the words in butter and eat them. To assist labour, she was advised to "subfumigate;" to squat naked beside a smouldering fire of fish eyes, cat dung and horses' hooves and waft the smoke towards her privates as the womb loathed foul odours and would begin to contract.

By the fourteenth century, it was thought that certain dishes on the aristocratic table could produce harmful results. Eating rabbit's heads would produce a hare lip, fish heads led to a trout pout and soft cheese would inhibit the development of a baby boy's genitals. As with the last one, they sometimes combined the right advice with the wrong reason. Then there were the superstitions that if a pregnant woman had red berries or wine thrown at her in these crucial months, her child was sure to be born with a birthmark or with green eyes, if she saw a snake.

Royal mothers-to-be in early Tudor times were still using herbs and religious artefacts to aid their labours, clutching at relics, wax discs and girdles and sprinkling their beds with holy water but the Reformation put an end to that. Sometimes, if the child was reluctant to appear, men would shoot arrows over the house or else the poor woman was picked up and held upside down to try and get things moving. This, I suspect was rare. Far more common were the little customs like removing all laces, belts, fastenings and ties that were thought to be restrictive; even witnesses sitting with crossed legs or arms could impede the delivery. Apothecaries would recommend unusual ingredients such as powdered frankincense and myrrh, unicorn's horn and lion's grease, either to be drunk or used as a lubricant during delivery. Finally though, mothers were allowed a better diet of "good meat and drink," rather than being given the runny gruel, broth, beef tea and egg caudles that the Victorians would recommend.

Some "facts" from the past are shocking in their lack of understanding of basic bodily function and anatomy. According to accoucher John Maubray in the early Eighteenth century, it was quite common for women to undergo pregnancies of between seven and eleven months, although he also thought it possible that the period of gestation could even stretch even longer, citing a 1590 case in Montpelier, when a Duchess had reputedly given birth after twenty months! Maubray explained this by saying that the seed of different men, like grain, could ripen at different times and that the phases of the moon affected their growth. He was also of the opinion that women labouring in the summer months, as the Duchess of Cambridge will, should do so in a ground floor room that was sprinkled with vinegar and all the doors and windows kept shut. Fresh air and daylight were thought to be particularly harmful until relatively recently.

Well into the 19th Century, women were bled in the later stages of pregnancy, as it was thought that the excess blood would pool about her vital organs and the process would curb foetal growth and make for an easier delivery. Yet this can have only weakened them when they were most in need of their strength and Victorian prudery prevented the physical examinations and interventions essential to saving lives. And, as late as the twentieth century, doctors were still convinced that the womb could become detached and wander about the body, causing hysteria. Reading these texts makes you shudder.

When the Duchess of Cambridge delivers her baby this July, under the best medical supervision the new century can offer, she will be the next in a long and ancient line of royal deliveries that both unites and divides mothers through the ages. It makes you wonder though, with the passage of time and evolution of science, how many of today's pregnancy and birth rituals will be looked back at with amusement.