Hard Labour

Giving birth in medieval times was a risky business – for mother as well as baby. While data from the era is scarce, a conservative estimate of maternal death (during the birth process or soon after, as a result of infection) was between 3% – 4% for each birth. And as women who survived the first birth would invariably go onto give birth again, and again, and again, the risk of death for any one woman was as high as 10%. Figures on infant mortality are even more scarce but estimates are put at between 30 – 50 %. (Such a figure may well include the death of infants due to infection in the first few weeks of life). It’s a grim picture and one that I had clearly in mind when I wrote about the birthing experience of one of the characters in my recent novel Grasping at Water (Odyssey Books, 2018). As some of you might know, the novel is set in modern-day Sydney and tells of the life-changing impact a mysterious young woman has on those with whom she comes in contact. The woman only reveals herself to others in medieval tales and the following is one such tale, an extract from the novel that I thought some of you might find interesting.

And then it is winter in the great town of Norwich in East Anglia. A bleak wind is blowing from the sea across the flat fenland, picking up cold moisture as it roars in, and dropping it as icy rain onto the town. In the town, the street that I see is not cobbled but is of packed-dirt and the freezing torrent has turned it to sticking mud. The surface gutters are clogged with putrefying waste, causing animal and human excrement to overflow and mix with the mud, all congealing into a sickly stew that coats traversers’ legs up to their knees in solid filth and fills their noses with a stench so vile that it liquefies in their lungs. Inside my house, a peat fire burns in the open hearth and warms the inhabitants but its smoke is thick, odorous and irritating. I am lying on a low settle bed in the corner of the dim, low-ceilinged room and I am coughing, the choking spasms adding to the severity of the pains of my labour that is now in its second day.  The blinding rain that has beset the town for three days has prevented the gathering and strewing of fresh rushes and fragrant herbs on the dirt floor of the lying-in room. No men are permitted near a birth but, nevertheless, I think of Hugh and long to see his face and have him touch my hand and kiss my mouth once more. He cannot. He is gone. Matilda, the midwife, and my mother attend me, tiredly but lovingly rubbing my belly and flanks with rose oil, and giving me a mixture of vinegar and sugar to drink. I am shivering with cold, with fear, with effort. Matilda unpins and loosens my hair, my mother opens a cupboard door and unties the knots in her apron cord so that the room is animated with opening and loosening in the hope that my laboring body will similarly slacken and open. Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, is invoked in fervent prayers. My pain increases, more slow hours pass, and still I labour without reward. Matilda and my mother speak to each other earnestly in whispers. A decoction of flaxseed and chickpeas is prepared and Matilda rubs this on her hands and then pushes her hands into me to rotate the baby who cannot find its way into the world because it is trying to enter feet-first. I am helped to the birthing chair and Matilda crouches between my shaking legs, easing, encouraging. My mother stands behind the chair, supporting me under my arms. I can barely stay upright let alone push so Matilda must pull. Amid screams and wails, a tiny, whimpering but beautiful boy is born.  I am cleaned and assisted back to the bed. He is bathed, rubbed with salt, warmly swaddled and placed on my breast. At first, his tiny, mewing mouth seeks nourishment but, like me, he is weak. I stroke his head, willing him to suck, but he does not. Such has been the stress of his arrival that he dies, pale and cold before he has had the chance to be pink and warm in my arms.

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