Childbirth prayers

Natural childbirth advocates like to pretend that childbirth is inherently safe, that everyone prior to the modern age appreciated that fact, and that childbirth dangers were created by and large by obstetricians. Not only does that display a profound lack of knowledge about childbirth, it also betrays a profound lack of knowledge about history. Childbirth is and has always been, in every time, place and culture, a leading cause of death of young women, and everyone prior to the advent of “natural” childbirth was quite clear on that fact.

The inherent danger of childbirth is reflected in demographics (maternal mortality rates of 1% or more), law (many women wrote wills prior to the birth of a child) and literature (maternal death was common among both female characters and female authors). And as Professor Delores Platt found, it is also reflected in religion. Pratt has published a paper entitled Childbirth Prayers in Medieval and Early Modern England. As Pratt explains:

… [A] woman on average would have run a 6 to 7 per cent risk of dying in childbed during her procreative years. For the 25-34 age group, however, 20 per cent of deaths were attributed to death in the childbed. Thus, for a certain age group, death in childbirth was a relatively common occurrence… Medieval and early modern women would have witnessed a number of childbirths and one wonders how many deaths they would have witnessed or been aware of… All of these factors created a fear of childbirth and one must situate the use of childbirth prayers within this context.

The origins of English childbirth prayers was diverse, reflecting a variety of culture, but a uniformity of experience. Prayers were drawn from Greek, Roman and Anglo-Saxon traditions, and well as from local oral tradition. As the prayers themselves indicate, fear of death and suffering were fundamental features as reflected in the subtitle of Pratt’s paper: “For drede of perle that may be-falle.”

In an age before obstetricians, childbirth was recognized as agonizing:

Have mercy upon me, O Lord, have mercy upon me thy sinful servant, and woeful hand-maid, who now in my greatest need and distress, do seek thee: behold, with grievous groans & deep sighs, I cry unto thee for mercy.

As life threatening to the mother:

O My Lord God, I thank thee with all my heart, wit, understanding, and power, for thou hath vouchsafed to deliver me out of this most dangerous travail …

And as dangerous for the baby, as indicated by this charm meant to be uttered while stepping over her husband:

Up I go, step over you
with a living child, not a dead one,
with a full-born one, not a doomed one.

Pratt concludes:

… In the medieval and the early modern period pregnancy was feared and the chance of dying was much greater than today. Women, husbands, and the broader community readily embraced and maintained the use of childbirth prayers and associated rituals… Whether due to psychological, social or divine agency, childbirth prayers and rituals helped deal with the stresses and dangers of childbirth…

The philosophy of natural childbirth is replete with misinformation and wishful thinking, but it rests fundamentally on a series of lies: that childbirth is inherently safe, that childbirth pain is the result of cultural conditioning, and that childbirth interventions exist for the benefit of obstetricians and to the detriment of women and children. As this study of childbirth prayers demonstrates, these lies fly in the face of both scientific knowledge and historical understanding.

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