Medieval Childbirth and Baptism

How Children Entered the World in the Middle Ages

The concept of childhood in the middle ages and the importance of the child in medieval society is not to be overlooked in history. It is fairly clear from the laws designed specifically for the care of children that childhood was recognized as a distinct phase of development and that, contrary to modern folklore, children were not treated as nor expected to behave as adults. Laws regarding the rights of orphans are among the pieces of evidence we have that children had value in society, as well.

It is difficult to imagine that in a society where so much value was placed on children, and so much hope was invested in a couple's ability to produce children, children would regularly suffer from a lack of attention or affection. Yet this is the charge that has often been made against medieval families.

While there have been—and continue to be—cases of child abuse and neglect in western society, to take individual incidents as indicative of an entire culture would be an irresponsible approach to history. Instead, let us look at how society in general regarded the treatment of children.

As we take a closer look at childbirth and baptism, we'll see that, in most families, children were warmly and happily welcomed into the medieval world.

Childbirth in the Middle Ages

Because the foremost reason for marriage at any level of medieval society was to produce children, the birth of a baby was usually a cause for joy.

Yet there was also an element of anxiety. While the childbirth mortality rate is probably not as high as folklore would have it,  there was still a possibility of complications, including birth defects or a breech birth, as well as the death of mother or child or both. And even under the best of circumstances, there was no effective anesthetic to eradicate the pain.

The lying-in room was almost exclusively the province of women; a male physician would only be called in when surgery was necessary. Under ordinary circumstances, the mother—be she peasant, town-dweller, or noblewoman—would be attended by midwives. A midwife would usually have more than a decade of experience, and she would be accompanied by assistants whom she was training. In addition, female relatives and friends of the mother would frequently be present in the birthing room, offering support and good will, while the father was left outside with little more to do but pray for a safe delivery.

The presence of so many bodies could raise the temperature of a room already made warm by the presence of a fire, which was used to heat water for bathing both mother and child. In the homes of the nobility, gentry, and wealthy townspeople, the birthing room would usually be freshly-swept and provided with clean rushes; the best coverlets were put on the bed and the place was turned out for display.

Sources indicate that some mothers may have given birth in a sitting or squatting position. To ease the pain and to hasten the process of childbirth, the midwife might rub the mother's belly with ointment.

Birth was usually expected within 20 contractions; if it took longer, everyone in the household might try to help it along by opening cupboards and drawers, unlocking chests, untying knots, or even shooting an arrow into the air. All of these acts were symbolic of opening the womb.

If all went well, the midwife would tie off and cut the umbilical cord and help the baby take its first breath, clearing its mouth and throat of any mucus. She would then bathe the child in warm water or, in more affluent homes, in milk or wine; ​she might also use salt, olive oil, or rose petals. Trotula of Salerno, a 12th-century female physician, recommended washing the tongue with hot water to assure the child would speak properly. It was not uncommon to rub honey on the palate to give the baby an appetite.

The infant would then be swaddled snugly in linen strips so that his limbs might grow straight and strong, and laid in a cradle in a dark corner, where his eyes would be protected from bright light.

It would soon be time for the next phase in his very young life: Baptism.

Medieval Baptism

The primary purpose of baptism was to wash away original sin and drive all evil from the newborn child. So important was this sacrament to the Catholic Church that the usual opposition to women performing sacerdotal duties was overcome for fear an infant might die unbaptized. Midwives were authorized to perform the rite if the child was unlikely to survive and there was no man nearby to do it. If the mother died in childbirth, the midwife was supposed to cut her open and extract the baby so that she could baptize it.

Baptism had another significance: it welcomed a new Christian soul into the community. The rite conferred a name on the infant that would identify him throughout his life, however short it might be. The official ceremony in the church would establish lifelong ties to his godparents, who were not supposed to be related to their godchild through any blood or marriage link. Thus, from the very beginning of his life, the medieval child had a relationship to the community beyond that defined by kinship.

The role of godparents was mainly spiritual: they were to teach their godchild his prayers and instruct him in faith and morals. The relationship was considered as close as a blood link, and marriage to one's godchild was prohibited. Because godparents were expected to bestow gifts on their godchild, there was some temptation to designate many godparents, so the number had been limited by the Church to three: a godmother and two godfathers for a son; a godfather and two godmothers for a daughter.

Great care was taken when selecting prospective godparents; they might be chosen from among the parents' employers, guild members, friends, neighbors, or lay clergy. No one from a family that the parents hoped or planned to marry the child into would be asked. Generally, at least one of the godparents would be of a higher social status than the parent.

A child was usually baptized on the day he was born. The mother would stay at home, not only to recuperate, but because the Church generally followed the Jewish custom of keeping women from holy places for several weeks after giving birth. The father would assemble the godparents, and together with the midwife they would all bring the child to the church. This procession would frequently include friends and relatives, and could be quite festive.

The priest would meet the baptismal party at the church door. Here he would ask if the child had been baptized yet and whether it was a boy or a girl. Next he would bless the baby, put salt in its mouth to represent the reception of wisdom, and exorcise any demons. Then he would test the godparents' knowledge of the prayers they were expected to teach the child: the Pater NosterCredo, and Ave Maria.

Now the party entered the church and proceeded to the baptismal font. The priest would anoint the child, immerse him in the font, and name him. One of the godparents would raise the baby up from the water and wrap him in a christening gown. The gown, or crysom, was made of white linen and might be decorated with seed pearls; less wealthy families might use a borrowed one.

The last part of the ceremony took place at the altar, where the godparents made the profession of faith for the child. The participants would then all return to the parents' house for a feast.

The entire procedure of baptism mustn't have been a pleasant one for the newborn. Removed from the comfort of its home (not to mention its mother's breast) and carried out into the cold, cruel world, having salt shoved into its mouth, immersed in water that could be dangerously cold in winter -- all this must have been a jarring experience. But for the family, the godparents, friends, and even the community at large, the ceremony heralded the arrival of a new member of society. From the trappings that went with it, it was an occasion that appears to have been a welcome one.

Sources:

Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993).

Gies, Frances, and Gies, Joseph, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1987).

Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986).

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Snell, Melissa. "Medieval Childbirth and Baptism." ThoughtCo, May. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/medieval-child-entry-into-medieval-world-1789120. Snell, Melissa. (2017, May 30). Medieval Childbirth and Baptism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/medieval-child-entry-into-medieval-world-1789120 Snell, Melissa. "Medieval Childbirth and Baptism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/medieval-child-entry-into-medieval-world-1789120 (accessed November 21, 2017).