Before I started my current research project, I briefly explored how men and women in the early modern period responded to miscarriage. Perhaps unsurprisingly miscarriage could be a upsetting and scary prospect. One medical writer stated ‘Many Sad and incommodious things are wont to happen to women with child’.1 Angus McLaren in Reproductive Rituals has argued that the potential to miscarry was great at this time.2 So what if anything did early modern men and women think would prevent miscarriage, and importantly when was this intervention thought necessary (given that by the time a miscarriage was identified it would be difficult to prevent it)?
Miscarriage was thought to be the result of a range of hazards and dangers that faced the early modern pregnant woman. These could start at the moment of conception: Nicholas Culpeper explained that children conceived from weak seed, those that weren’t properly nourished in the womb and women who had overly straight wombs were all liable to suffer miscarriage, as were mothers who contracted fevers and inflammations or who suffered fainting, sneezing and coughing.3 A range of external factors were also thought to be dangerous including: cold air, malignant aspects of the stars, hemorrhoids, violent motions, carrying heavy burdens, blows to the belly or back and excessive passions such as anger, fear and sorrow.4 Midwifery manuals also warned people to be vigilant to the signs that warned of impending miscarriage: the breasts sagging, milk flowing from them, pain in the belly and back and shaking and trembling.
Although, these signs were included many midwifery treatises simply described their remedies for miscarriage for those who were liable to miscarry. This would suggest, perhaps, that only women who had been pregnant before would know to take these remedies – how can you know if you are likely to miscarry if it is your first pregnancy? Clare Hanson has suggested in A Cultural History of Pregnancy that the role of medical advisers during pregnancy was ‘providing reassurance’.5 Can we read the many remedies for preventing miscarriage, therefore, as a way of acknowledging the uncertainty women may have felt about the possibility of miscarriage and as a means to allay those fears. These remedies represent a means of active intervention and agency to try to prevent miscarriage and so may have given women a reassuring sense of control that the onset of an early stage abortion (abortion for early modern medical practitioners did not mean deliberately induced termination) did not inevitably lead to the loss of the foetus. Moreover by calming women’s fears these recipes may have removed some of the potential causes of miscarriage, fear and sorrow.
So what remedies were recommended to prevent miscarriage? There are many different remedies suggested but a common theme in both the printed midwifery treatises and manuscript remedy collections kept was to lay a hot rag, poultice or piece of toast soaked in spices and wine to the belly. Jane Sharp’s midwifery treatise advised that to strengthen the child in the womb ‘Take two pound of the crumbs of the inward part of white Bread, Cammomile flowers one handful, Mastick two drams, Cloves half a dram, bruise them and mingle them well with some Maligo Wine and two ounces of rose Vinegar, boil them to a Pultiss and lay it on a double Cloth to the Os pubis‘ [the pubic bone].6 The recipe book of Elizabeth Okeover offered similar advice saying that a the woman should consume a particular remedy while ‘laying to her navell a Toste wett in Muskadine [wine].’7 The same recipe was also repeated in another un-named seventeenth century recipe book.8
As seen in Sharp’s treatise and the recipe book image above, miscarriage remedies were often more complex than simply laying toast to the womb. They required time to produce and so it is worth thinking about when recipes were used; the recipe book of Madame Alice Cole may help us to do this. The recipes described above would perhaps have been applied when a pain was felt or the woman felt unwell, but Alice Cole’s book shows us that women did not simply wait for a danger to come upon them. Instead women would preempt potentially hazardous situations such as taking a long journey by horse or coach and would take particular remedies to counteract the danger they posed:
To prevent miscarrying or if one that is apt to miscarrie goe a journey let her take this powder morning and evening whilst shee journeys
Take of Dragons Blood the weight of 2 [ounces?] red corrall powdered one dram Ambergreece the weight of 2 barly corns, Besar [bezoar] ye weight of 3 barly corns, mix all these together and keep them close stoped in little vial glasse when you use take as much of it as lie upon a penny in a little clary water at nighte when you goe to bed, and in ye morning fasting and sleep after it to use it till you are out of [? &] safe of miscarrig[e].9
From these recipes then we can start to build a picture of women as attuned to both their bodies and the situations they were in during pregnancy. They would use remedies to help ensure that their child was carried to term if they feared that they were likely to miscarry, or had miscarried before, if they felt particular bodily symptoms and if they knowingly faced hazardous situations.
1. Anonymous, A RICH CLOSET OF PHYSICAL SECRETS, Collected by the Elaborate paines of four severall Students in Physick, And digested together; ViZ. The Child-bearers Cabinet (London, 1659?), p. 1.
2. Angus McLaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth century to the Nineteenth Century (Methuen; London and New York, 1984), p. 47.
3. Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives … (London, 1662), pp. 172-3.
4. Thomas Raynalde, The Byrth of Mankynde … (London, 1604), p.132.
5. Clare Hanson, A Cultural History of Pregnancy: Pregnancy, Medicine and Culture, 1750- 2000 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
6. Elaine Hobby (ed.), The Midwives Book … (OUP; Oxford and New York, 1999), p.173.
7. Wellcome Library London, MS. 3712/52.
8. Wellcome Library London, MS. 7391/11.
9. Somerset Heritage Centre Taunton, DD/SF/9/4/6/.
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