“Awaken Me When It’s Done”


The pain is excruciating.

You are being torn apart from the inside out.

A searing tear rips across your gut. You fall back, screaming. You try to struggle upward, but every movement slices into you like a machete. You feel blood gushing. You manage to snatch a look down at your body…and see only red. 

Blood is everywhere.

Strong hands move up the insides of your thighs. They force your legs apart and hold them there like a vise. 

You are wide open for the taking.

Pushing through the pain, you bolt upright, screaming loudly…desperately.

“Help me!! Oh, Father in Heaven, help me pleeeease!!!”

That was the last of your breath, and now you struggle for air, gasping and gulping for your life. The forceful hands tighten on your thighs.

Your terror mounts…

“Madame, resist not! It shall fare easier for thee. Calm thyself! It shall be over forthwith.”

The voice is jagged, the breathing ragged. The hands force your legs even further apart. A sudden explosion erupts within your pelvis.

You scream until everything goes black…

“Madame! Madame!” an insistent voice summons you back to consciousness.

The pain is still there, but dull now. The entire area between your thighs feels battered. Your lips are cracked, your groin throbs, your throat is parched from screaming.

“Madame,” the voice coos. “It’s a girl.”

You pry your eyes apart, and croak, “Saints be praised, I felt I should die!”

Your midwife wipes her bloodied hands on her apron. “Such is the suffering for so great a reward.”

“She lives, then?” you ask apprehensively.

“Thus far, Madame.”

In fact, a great many babies born during medieval times did not survive. Most were stillborn, or died very soon after birth. The primary reason for such widespread infant deaths?

Germs.hand-wih-germsThe microscope had not yet been invented, so there was absolutely no awareness of the existence of germs. Many midwives, busy with daily chores – which could include feeding cattle, and dumping pee and poo-filled chamber pots – would simply wipe their hands on their aprons when summoned bedside to deliver babies.

Now, another question comes to mind as you lay recuperating and contemplating the future of your new daughter.

“Is she well-formed?” you ask.

“To all appearances, Madame,” your midwife answers.

Babies born with birth defects, during ancient times, were viewed as entities created by goblins or devils. Deformed infants were considered evil and dangerous, which allowed the parents to dispose of such an infant without guilt or repercussion.


Artist: Pedro Picado

“I am thankful she is whole.” You respond dutifully, yet sigh sadly. “Would that she could have been he…”

Your midwife sympathizes. “Oh, to be thus blessed, Madame…”

A moment of regret is shared between you.

In medieval times, the birth of a son was tantamount. Daughters were expendable, but sons were gilded.


Which is not so medieval, as it turns out…

During the Middle Ages, within the nobility, sons carried forth the family name, thereby insuring a family’s mortality. Within peasant society, sons represented needed labor to perform the back-breaking chores necessary to provide for the family.

Now, your midwife informs you, “I have wrapped the child for presentation to your husband. We shall know her fate forthwith.”

In many ancient societies, it was standard practice for babies to be “wrapped,” swaddled in cloth or bands of linen or wool for the first year or two of its life. By wrapping a baby’s legs together, and its arms against its body, it was believed that its limbs would grow straight instead of crookedly. It was also believed that swaddling would keep the baby from plucking out its own eyes!

According to the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, Swaddling or restraining infants to calm or contain their movements has been a near universal practice, although it was almost entirely discontinued in the United States and England by the end of the eighteenth century.

Well, aren’t we progressive?

Surely, this accounts for the exceptionalist views we Westerners harbor.

If performed improperly, swaddling can result in suffocation and permanent injury. Swaddled infants could be “laid for hours behind the hot oven, hung on pegs on the wall, placed in tubs and in general left like a parcel in every convenient corner.” (deMause, 1974).

If performed improperly…” Hmmm…makes you wonder. What exactly is the proper way to hang a swaddled infant?

Renowned psychohistorian Lloyd deMause found that, in addition to swaddling, there were other forms of conditioning for medieval children. He writes,Dating back to Roman times, infants were exposed to hypothermia through the therapeutic practice of dipping children in icy-cold waters to harden or toughen the character.

I wonder if this would work for screaming kids on airplanes?

Just asking.

As well, William Buchanan, an 18th century pediatrician, reported that, “…nearly half of the human species died in infancy as a result of ignorance and improper care.”

Ya think?


Now, in your bloodied labor bed, eyes heavy with fatigue, you mumble, “I am spent. I shall sleep. Awaken me when a decision is reached.”

You do not ask to see your new baby.

Why become emotionally attached before your husband decides its fate?

In ancient Greece, babies were not even named until they were a week or two old. Likewise in ancient Rome, newborns were equated with plants, rather than humans, until after the first week of birth.


Photo: Anne Geddes

Emotional prudence was much wiser than emotional attachment in the Middle Ages.

“You are very wise, Madame.” Your midwife praises your decision. “Not like these emotional chippies!”

Frances and Joseph Gies, in their well-researched and absorbing book “Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages“, detail the role of the paterfamilias – the male authority – of the Roman household:

His authority…extended to life-and-death decisions. A new recruit to the household, whether a newborn infant, a bride, or a new servant or slave, had to gain the formal acceptance of the paterfamilias.

The newborn was laid before him; if he picked it up it was admitted into the family and given a name; if not, it was “exposed,” that is, abandoned with the chance that it might be rescued. In a society never far beyond subsistence, a new mouth to feed might represent a threat to family survival.”

Exposure, considered much better than outright infanticide, was the most common way of getting rid of unwanted babies in the Middle Ages. A baby would be abandoned either in the woods, or in a public place where it was sure to be found, and, hopefully, taken in and cared for.

Although abortion and infanticide were punishable by law, there were no laws, per se, against exposure. In fact, there was a feeling of sympathy for the poor family cursed by the birth of a physically deformed infant, or forced by poverty to take such action as exposing an infant.

Think Moses, the most famous (and hotly debated) case of exposure, sweeping across the waters of the Nile in his cushy little reed basket. What would have become of him, of Christianity as we know it, had he not been rescued by the Egyptian daughter of a pharaoh?


Now, post-labor, as you drift off to sleep, do you think about your new baby?

That tiny being that lived inside you for nearly a year? That you’ve fed well, cuddled with each night, maybe even rubbed and sang to. That you nearly died from the pain of giving birth to…

Do you wonder what she looks like, how she smells, how soft her skin?

Do you wonder what will become of her? Will your husband allow you to keep her, or will you be ordered to do away with her like last night’s fish bones?

Or maybe you’ve been through this before with other births, and you have learned to temper your emotions, just in case…



Medieval Monday


13 thoughts on ““Awaken Me When It’s Done”

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  6. DEAR LORD!! That description of birth was terrifying!!! Holy crap! Even though I had 5 relatively ‘easy’ labors/births, that was literally scary to read! I love reading history, though, and love how you relate then and now. So thank you for the post. I think:)

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