Honey, milk, egg and cereals found on a 15th century birthing girdle

Medieval sheepskin scroll decorated with prayers to dragon-slaying female saint was tied around pregnant women during labour as a birthing girdle, researchers find

  • Honey, milk, eggs and cereals may have been part of medieval childbirth rituals
  • Researchers analysed the proteins remaining on a 15th century ‘stained girdle’ 
  • The team found direct evidence these parchments were used during childbirth 
  • The medieval garment, worn like a chastity belt as a charm, was also inscribed with prayers and invocations to the Virgin Mary for safe delivery of the child 

Honey, milk, eggs and cereals may have all formed part of the medieval childbirth ritual, according to a new study that found traces of the produce in a birthing girdle.

In medieval England birth girdles were worn by pregnant women as an amulet against the high risks of childbirth and they were made from parchment and designed to ‘invoke the Virgin Mary’ to protect both mother and child. 

University of Cambridge researchers analysed the proteins remaining on a ‘stained girdle’ from 15th century England using a non-invasive technique. 

The team found direct evidence they were used during childbirth as they had cervico-vaginal fluid proteins inside the parchment as well as honey, milk, eggs and cereal – all used to treat childbirth during the medieval period.  

The medieval garment, worn like a chastity belt as a charm, was also inscribed with prayers and invocations for safe delivery. 

Medieval English Birth Scroll. The girdle contains prayers and invocations for safe delivery in childbirth. Biomolecular evidence supports its active use in labour

A PRAYER FOR MOTHER AND CHILD 

‘And yf a woman travell wyth chyldegyrdes thys mesure abowte hyr wombe and she shall be delyvyrs wythowte parelle and the chylde shall have crystendome and the mother puryfycatyon.’ 

TRANSLATION:

And if a woman travailing with child girds this measure about her womb, she shall be delivered safely without peril and the child shall be christened and the mother purified. 

Researchers started by investigating the remains of a ‘stained medieval birth girdle’ using a dry non-invasive sampling technique to study proteins on the parchment. 

‘We were able to extract both human and non-human peptides from the manuscript, including evidence for the use of honey, cereals, ovicaprine milk and legumes,’ said study author Sarah Fiddyment.

‘In addition, a large number of human peptides were detected on the birth roll, many of which are found in cervico-vaginal fluid.’ 

‘This suggests that the birth roll was actively used during childbirth.’     

Pregnancy was ‘highly perilous’ for both mother and baby. Complications included infections and womb prolapses. One in three women of childbearing age died.

The Pre-Reformation Church in England offered them numerous talismans or relics – the most popular of which was a birthing girdle.

Dr Fiddyment said: ‘There are suggestions due to the dimension of the long and narrow object that they were worn like a chastity belt to support the pregnant women both physically and spiritually.’

They were made from different materials including silk, paper and parchment but many were destroyed after the reformation with few surviving today.

Although records indicate the use of these girdles and other remedies, there is very little surviving first-hand evidence from medieval women themselves about either the treatment or the complications of their own bodies during childbirth.

So the researchers carried out a protein analysis by scanning the stains on one such relic from London’s Wellcome Collection museum.

Dr Fiddyment says: ‘Although these birth girdles are thought to have been used during pregnancy and childbirth there has been no direct evidence that they were actually worn.

Scroll containings prayers and invocations to Saint Quiricus [Ciryk] and Saint Julitta [Julit], his mother: with other prayers and invocations against all evils spiritual and temporal, and for safe delivery in childbirth

MEDIEVAL GIRDLE: WORN BY WOMEN IN CHILDBIRTH 

In medieval England birth girdles were worn by pregnant women as an amulet against the high risks of childbirth. 

They were made from parchment and designed to ‘invoke the Virgin Mary’ to protect both mother and child. 

The medieval garment, worn like a chastity belt as a charm, was also inscribed with prayers and invocations for safe delivery.

They were made from different materials including silk, paper and parchment.

They were to be worn and unloosed before marriages, and a similar ‘girding and unloosening’ occurred during pregnancy.

Girdles may have literally supported the extra pregnancy weight and then been loosened six weeks prior to confinement.

However, it seems that birth girdles, especially birthing rolls, were often talismanic, with ritual functions that incorporated religious devotion and magic.

Many were destroyed after the reformation with few surviving today.

‘Many contain prayers for general protection of the individual, but this particular girdle also contains very specific prayers to protect women in childbirth and references various saints also related to women and childbirth.

‘This girdle is especially interesting as it has visual evidence of having been used and worn, as some of the images and writing have been worn away through use and it has many stains and blemishes.’

It records St Mary and mother and son martyrs Saints Quiricus and Julitta – all traditionally invoked in childbirth – as well as the twelve apostles and the three magi. 

The honey, milk and plants identified have all been documented in medieval texts as treatments relating to pregnancy and childbirth, explained Fiddyment.

‘All of these ingredients have been documented in medieval medical treatises as being used to treat women during pregnancy and labour.

‘The fact that we have been able to detect these specific additional non-human proteins further reinforces the evidence that this girdle was actively used in late pregnancy and childbirth, and also gives supporting evidence that these documented treatments were actually used.’ 

In medieval Britain, some women would not have even known they were pregnant until they felt the first movement of their baby inside of them at around five months.

A woman may have turned to a doctor to see if she was pregnant, but the tests were far from reliable. 

During the medieval period, men believed that a woman’s purpose in life was to get pregnant and have babies.

Three possible methods of tying the birth girdle when used pre and during labour

Dr Fiddyment said: ‘It is worth noting the girdle, at its earliest, was created in England during the late fifteenth century.’

The Dissolution of the Monasteries began in 1536 and carried on until roughly 1541.

The window of the use between its creation and the Dissolution, in theory, was only 60 years.

She added: ‘Its mere survival is testament it was not destroyed during the Dissolution. Protestant Reformers were quick to target the rituals of childbirth as these were seen as ‘sanctuaries for forbidden religious practices’.

‘Protestant bishops specifically banned birth girdles, and even forced midwives to take oaths to say that they would not employ them.’ 

The findings have been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. 

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