Giving birth during the medieval ages was a decidedly daunting task. Without modern medicine to protect against infectious disease and other complications, both mothers and children faced high mortality rates—a fact that led many women to turn to talismans or religious artifacts to protect themselves and their unborn babies.
Now, reports Natalie Grover for the Guardian, a team led by Sarah Fiddyment of the the University of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research has found evidence confirming a long-held theory: that medieval women relied on “birthing girdles,” or long parchment scrolls, not only during pregnancy but also during delivery.
As the researchers write in the journal Royal Society Open Science, bodily fluids recovered from a late 15th- or early 16th-century girdle made out of four pieces of sheepskin parchment proved key to the study. Housed in the London-based Wellcome Collection, the artifact features many religious symbols, including a cross and inscribed invocations, notes Agence France-Presse (AFP). It measures nearly 4 inches wide and 10 feet long.
“This girdle is especially interesting as it has visual evidence of having been used and worn, as some of the images and writing have been worn away through use and it has many stains and blemishes,” says Fiddyment in a statement.
Experts theorize that women would have positioned these accessories around their wombs during labor as a protective measure.
“We do not know how the girdles were worn, but there are suggestions due to the dimension of the object (long and narrow), that they were physically worn like a chastity belt or girdle, to help support the pregnant women both physically and spiritually,” says Fiddyment in the statement.
Researchers used erasers to gently collect proteins from the parchment’s fragile surface. Later, they contrasted these findings with residue from another scrap of paper and a separate 18th-century parchment to gauge whether the types of proteins present varied, writes Andrew Curry for Science magazine. Scholars had previously used this technique to extract collagen proteins from parchments and identify which animal species they were made out of.
Speaking with the Guardian, study co-author Natalie Goodison says, “I think, on one level, we thought there would be blood, and, on another level, we thought there might be mouse poop.”
Instead, when experts evaluated the data, they found traces of honey, milk, eggs, cereals and legumes, as well as vaginal fluids likely linked to childbirth. Signs of wear on the girdle’s surface suggest that someone felt, caressed or kissed it, according to the study.
In the medieval era, medical problems that might be considered minor today—such as a breech birth, in which the infant’s feet, buttocks or both are positioned to be delivered before the head—could prove fatal for the mother and child, as Alixe Bovey wrote for the British Library in 2015. According to the Guardian, historians posit that childbirth was the main cause of death for English women between the late 5th and 11th centuries; the study notes that the neonatal mortality rate during this period was between 30 and 60 percent.
Because labor was so perilous, women often chanted religious litanies or used amulets to aid the process. In addition to birthing belts, some women held objects like cheese or butter tins etched with charms, as historian Sarah Bryson wrote for the Tudor Society in 2015. English monks likely created the recently analyzed girdle during the 15th century, when medical practitioners started paying closer attention to women’s health in the wake of the bubonic plague, per Science.
The Wellcome Collection girdle was one of the few of its kind to survive the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, which saw the Church of England move away from physical religious relics. Prior to the Reformation, Catholic churches had actually lent out birthing aids to expectant mothers.
“One of the great anxieties of the Reformation was the adding of aid from supernatural sources beyond the Trinity,” co-author Natalie Goodison tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe. “The birth girdle itself seems to have been particularly worrisome, because it seems to harness both ritualistic and religious powers.”
The study may offer researchers additional insights on medieval birthing practices. As Science reports, around 12 comparable English and French artifacts survive today. With the protein detection technique, scientists can find out whether the parchments were worn during childbirth or simply revered as talismans.
“Splashing blood, birthing juice—in this case, the object contains the record of its own use,” Kathryn Rudy, a historian at the University of St. Andrews who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Science. “That an object’s biography can be self-recording is thrilling.”
She adds, “These results throw open the curtain onto a multisensory, vivid image of birthing. They reveal the user’s hopes and fears—dread, really—about death in childbirth.”