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Childbirth and Pregnancy

The process of pregnancy and childbirth in the darkages was fraught with danger. There have been estimates that around 10% of childbirths lead to death to mother or child. Deprived of effective medicine our ancestors therefore relived on superstition and belief in the gods.

We know about Anglo-Saxon cures and treatments and advice for health in pregnancy because of Leechbooks (a sort of compendium of cures) which survive into the modern period.

Probably due to widespread malnutrition in pregnant mothers, infertility was a common problem.

There was no  IVF (‘test tube babies’) in these days and no way of determining the cause. If a marriage did not lead to pregnancy there were however steps that a woman might take. Firstly if all else failed the laws of Alfred the Great allowed her to lay aside her husband if she did not become pregnant. Those laws date from a later period in the Anglo Saxon period but may have reflected earlier traditions.

Anglo Saxon medicine was crude BUT could be effective where a easily identified cause and treatment could be decided upon. Unfortunately in the case of infertility (and miscarriage) the treatments fall into the realms of superstition. The use of charms and spells to try and produce  a pregnancy was common place. For example a woman who could not get pregnant would be advised to wear a hart’s  rib on her arm. Or she might try slicing up a hare’s belly and mixing it into a drink. Another approach was to eat mushrooms and to rub herself all over with oils rather than bathing. Still another advised wearing coriander tied to the woman’s leg.

General advice on health in Pregnancy

General advice regarding diet and behaviour in pregnancy was  given. Pregnant women, particularly those with threatened miscarriages, should avoid riding horses and strenuous activity (pretty much all we can advise today). They should not eat sweet or salty food. They should reduce alcohol intake. Possibly the restriction on sweet food came about because Anglo Saxons doctors and midwives could taste the sugar in some pregnant women’s urine (sounds gross, no doubt, to the reader but before modern testing sticks this was a method that had to be used until quite modern times) and and realise there was a problem. Today we would call it gestational diabetes.

In later period when Christianity had replaced paganism pregnant women were advised to write a prayer in Latin on a wax tablet and tie it to the sole of their right foot. It seems that it was more likely to cause them to limp then protect their pregnancy!

One remedy for a threatened miscarriage specified in an Old English document instructs the woman to drink the heart of a hare, ground into dust and sprinkled with frankincense into a goblet of wine. She would have to drink this for up to thirty days. This remedy would be very expensive and completely ineffective.

Risk to the soul: In the later period women were threatened that if they miscarried their unborn child would never receive the forgiveness of Christ because they were never baptised and so THEY, the mother, would be responsible. This must have put the grieving mother whose pregnancy miscarried under even more distress.

Protecting from late or still births and deformities
Late births had their own medical risks and an overdue woman would be getting very anxious. Advice which probably dates back to the pagan period was for a woman to leave her house, take a handful of milk into her mouth, spit it out into running water, swallow the running water and then visit another house and eat something. This would be accompanied by a chant asking for a healthy birth.

In the Christian period the woman was to visit a graveyard, step 3 times over the grave of  a man and recite as she did it “let this be my protection against loathsome late birth, let this be my protection against miserable still birth, may this be my protection against loathsome deformities at birth”.

Physical charms
Amulets, strings of beads, rings and copper boxes which may once have contained herbs have been found in the graves of women and babies (sometimes buried together) suggesting the use of physical items to ward off the dangers of pregnancy.

Labour and Childbirth

There does not appear to be any evidence of much use of surgery such as forceps or caesarean section  in labour at this time. Reliant of dubious superstitions and remedies the actual birth of a baby was a dangerous time for a woman.

If  woman had a difficult labour they were advised to drink water in which parsnips have been boiled.

If the baby would not come forth or died and needed to be expelled the woman was to drink dittany juice. This was rare and probably not native to Britain, being of Greek origins, and so unlikely to be available.  The Pennyroyal plant does grow here and interestingly is a uterine stimulant – in otherwords it would encourage a woman’s womb to contract and push out the baby and so that remedy for once has some basis in science. It was also used to induce an abortion if the woman did not want the pregnancy and as a result Pregnant women were advised against taking it during earlier pregnancy.

Pennyroyal was used to cause Abortion or in labour

An ineffective and rather difficult to obtain remedy for pain in labour was to drink wolf’s milk mixed with wine and honey. Quite how you were supposed to GET the wolf’s milk is not explained.

Finally after the baby was born if the placenta or afterbirth would not come out the Leechbooks prescribed brooklime and hollyhock boiled in ale as a treatment.

Illustrations from leechbooks dating from the later Christian period show women tending women in labour and it is likely that female relatives as well as  actual midwives (women who became experienced and so were called in to help with labour) would be in the birthing room. Men are clearly NOT in the room in these images and childbirth was the domain if women.

In the earlier pagan period it may have been different. Scandinavian documents record the fact that often the father would be present at least at the birth or SOON after and would certainly come into the birthing room and be presented with the child. There seems to have been some ceremonial significance about him picking up the child/ taking it from the midwife as being the moment when he acknowledged the child as his own.

Death in labour
As has been said labour and childbirth was a dangerous time for the Anglo -Saxons. How do we know? The cemeteries that date to this period provide the answer. Firstly almost half of women buried in the Anglo Saxon cemetry at Raunds in Northamptonshire died between the ages of 17 and 25 – the likely time for childbearing. In the circa 7th century graveyard at Berinsfield in Oxfordshire  the bodies of women under the age of 30 are considerably more that equivalent aged men. These graves also contain the bodies of  many babies up to a few months of age as well as stillborn babies showing that life was full of danger for all involved in this process.

Thanks to the gods

Praying to the gods was part of this entire process. The two goddesses of importance in the process were Freya and Frigga (possibly the same figure). Freya was the goddess of fertility whilst Frigga had power over pregnancy and childbirth so both were invoked along the way and thanked afterwards. Our modern day Friday is named after Frigga.


This belief was of course later replaced by attending church and giving thanks to God in the Christian period.


This article draws much material for Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England by Sally Crawford and A Handbook of Anglo Saxon Food by Ann Hagen.

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