Maternal Vigils in the Birthing Chamber: Medieval Baptism and its Implications

A couple of days ago, I saw an article in the Independent that talked about the amazing work a Trinity Dublin colleague of mine, Ciara Henderson, is carrying out in the School of Nursing and Midwifery. Ciara’s project is called ‘The Spaces Between Us,’ and it seeks to explore the ways parents bereaved during pregnancy or around the time of birth have of remembering their babies. She is trying to find out about how parents were treated at the time of their loss, a topic often shrouded in silence.

It’s a subject that has a particular resonance in Ireland. For many people, the mention infant loss conjures up headline news: the bodies found in the grounds of the Tuam mother and baby home; the stories of unbaptised infants buried secretly. Yet, Ireland also has a history of profoundly poignant and thoughtful remembrance of stillborn infants, as research into cilliní – the burial places for stillborn and unbaptised infants – has shown.

In my work, although I am based in Ireland, I study medieval English histories and narratives of stillbirth and pregnancy loss, and I found myself pondering how a medieval parent might have answered Ciara’s question. How were medieval mothers treated if their babies died at, or just after, birth?

We know quite a lot about medieval English preparations for childbirth, especially when it comes to the wealthy. Towards the end of her pregnancy, a wealthy woman would withdraw to her chamber for several weeks, preparing for the birth. Rachel Delman has written a fascinating article about the way things were organised in the household of the formidable Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk and the granddaughter of Chaucer the poet. She finds that Alice was keen to organise proceedings when her daughter-in-law Elizabeth became pregnant. Elizabeth was provided with rich, fur-trimmed robes, and Alice brought her copy of Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, with its eloquence defence of women’s learning, with her to the house. Delman speculates that the women may have read from the book during Elizabeth’s confinement, a time during which women were encouraged to contemplation and reflection. As the time of birth drew nearer, the room would have been made dark and quiet; sweet-smelling herbs or incense might be burned so that their health-giving vapours could enter the mother-to-be’s nostrils, and she and her attendants would have been able to draw on a substantial medieval repertoire of protective prayers and charms against the dangers of childbirth.

London, British Library, MS Royal 20. C. III.

Images of birth itself show surprisingly bustling activity: as recently delivered mothers lie back in richly-hung beds, their attendants hurry about with water to wash the baby, or swaddling clothes to wrap it in. Eventually, cleaned and wrapped, the baby could be taken out to meet its father. Father and godparents would take the baby to the church, to be baptised, while the mother began to recover from the birth. She would not venture out of her chamber for several weeks, until the ceremony of ‘churching’ that marked the end of her period of confinement.

Anthropologists will tell us that rituals mark transitions: baptism is a rite of passage; churching is a rite of passage. It’s clear that these events loomed large in medieval people’s memories: Bronach Kane has shown that both men and women used events like baptism and churching as anchors to remind them of the chronology of other, less important events and timescales. These events were also designed to be public. They have an element of theatre to them, as the child is formally displayed to the world, or the mother processes into the church to kneel for her blessing. We know, too, that the two events were visually linked: at her churching a mother would bring with her the cloth that had been used during her child’s baptism to catch any drops of anointing oil. This ‘chrisom’ cloth was a donation, but it was also a reminder of the tangible link between mother and child.

But what happened when it all went wrong? What struck me most when I learned about these two medieval rituals of baptism and churching was that the mother is, by default, not present at her own child’s baptism. In medieval Christian theology, baptism was absolutely crucial: without it, an infant’s soul was doomed. In extremis, any competent person could perform a baptism, and midwives were often instructed to memorise the correct formula for the ritual. However, we know from constant references and anecdotes that babies quite frequently did die unbaptised – or, perhaps worse – died after a midwife’s ‘baptism’ that a priest subsequently declared to be invalid. Newborn infants were extremely fragile; at any delivery someone – whether the mother or her attendants – must make a difficult decision: was this baby healthy enough to wait for baptism, or not?

There must have been infants who did not survive baptism; there must, too, have been mothers who went to their churching ceremonies days or weeks after their babies had died. We know that the religious dissident Richard Hunne, whose mysterious death in a London prison became a cause célèbre, first came to the attention of the authorities when he refused to donate the chrisom cloth that had belonged to his dead five-week-old son, at his wife’s churching ceremony. There are hundreds, even thousands of medieval images of newly-delivered mothers lying in their beds: their babies are tucked in beside them, or swaddled in the arms of a midwife, or being bathed in a basin of water by the foot of the bed. By contrast, the reality of an infant’s death shortly after birth has no such visibility. The sequence of events is hard to reconstruct: inevitably, mothers and fathers must have each known half of a story, either within or without the birthing chamber.

My own daughter’s birth made me think a lot harder about that sequence of events that routinely separated medieval mothers from their newborn babies. Today (at least in the UK and in Ireland), mothers are not separated from their newborn babies unless there is a pressing medical reason: babies stay with their mothers on the postnatal wards. When Elisabeth was born, she developed sepsis and became quite ill; she had to have a lumbar puncture to test the fluid in her spine. I remember very vividly how disturbing it felt to take Elisabeth away from her mother, my partner, who still really needed to be in bed. The whole procedure took a matter of minutes, of course, and went entirely smoothly, but afterwards I couldn’t help thinking what a vigil of worry medieval mothers must have endured, as they waited to hear if their newborn babies had survived baptism. What memories would the birthing chamber hold for them, as they waited? What reminders were caught in the weave of the chrisom cloths they carried to their churching ceremonies?

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