Tag Archives: 17th century

Call the midwife?- pregnacy and childbirth in the 17th century

Did women receive antenatal care during the 17th century? And if so, were men involved? These are questions I have been asked by people who have read my recent novel, The Cavalier Historian. It is a fascinating topic, and one which may cause you a few surprises!

Before the 17th century pregnancy and childbirth were the exclusive domain of women with male doctors only occasionally being called in to help with difficult deliveries. During the mid-17th century, however, some doctors began to take a more active role in childbirth although this was limited to the process of delivery with no real attempts at gynaecological surgery. It was not until the beginning of the 1700’s (50 years after the setting in my book) that forceps were introduced and, as the use of anything mechanical was seen as unsuitable for women, ‘man midwives’ began to appear. Initially they were called in to help with difficult deliveries, but by 1720 ‘man midwives’ and doctors were beginning to attend normal deliveries.1

Childbirth was a dangerous event during the 16th and 17th centuries and in Britain at that time the chances of a woman dying were about one in forty. In some countries, such as France, it was even higher. But, as Benjamin Roberts explains in his book Through the Keyhole: Dutch Child-rearing Practices in the 17th and 18th century, that does not mean that there was no antenatal care. As you would expect, there was a great difference in the experience of women depending on such factors as wealth and poverty, rural or urban residence, and the family being ‘enlightened’ or ‘unenlightened’. Care in pregnancy had certainly been a focus for some doctors in Germany as early as the period of the Reformation where male doctors were publishing books on the subject well before the civil war broke out in England. In 1513, for example, the German physician Eucharius Rosselin first published Rosengarten (The Rose Garden), which became the standard text for the more educated midwives who were able to read. Rosselin worked for Katherine, the wife of Henry IV, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, who wanted him to supervise the midwives in the city of Worms. His work led him to the conclusion that the high mortality rate in childbirth was due in no small part to careless and substandard work by midwives; his book was written to counter this. Rosengarten was an over-night success, and not just in Germany – by the mid-16th century it had been translated into all the major European languages with the English translation, The Birth of Mankind’ being published in 1540.

In addition to Rosselin the Lutheran preacher Johannes Coler was also publishing about pregnancy and childbirth. His work, Haussbuch, was published in six parts between 1591 and 1605. For Coler, the focus was on providing useful guidance for both mothers and fathers during pregnancy whilst Rosselin was more concerned with the final stages of pregnancy as well as with childbirth itself. Both authors offered advice on good diet for the pregnant woman.

For me, the most interesting book by an English author is ‘Observations in Midwifery’ by Percival Willughby, a doctor who wanted to improve the standards of midwifery and so save lives. In his book Willughby records the details of almost two hundred births he attended and where he criticises the ignorance and superstitious practices of many midwives (including placing the placenta on the baby’s head to prevent sore eyes). Willughby also describes situations where the death of a child, and maybe the mother as well, was as a direct result of the ignorance of the midwife. The first birth that Willughby wrote about could have resulted in such a disaster without his intervention. The incident took place in 1630 when he was asked by a country gentleman in Derbyshire to visit his wife. The local midwife apparently believed that the woman was already in labour and was trying to force the birth of the child. Willughby found that the woman’s waters had not yet broken so he gave her a calming drink (milk, camomile, sugar and egg yolk) to help her sleep. The pregnancy continued without further upset and the baby was born a month later.

Dr Willughby was definitely ahead of his time in the care of women during pregnancy, and also in improved care during childbirth. For some unknown reason ‘Observations in Midwifery’ was not published until after Willughby’s death when a number of hand-written copies were made, but the book was not actually published until 1863. There are two known hand-written copies still in existence, one of which is held by the Royal Society of Medicine, London.

Willughby was not unique amongst English doctors of that time for in his book he records a conversation which he had in 1642 with a Dr Harvey, a conversation in which they shared information about pregnancy and childbirth. So, to answer those questions about The Cavalier Historian: it was not the norm for women to receive antenatal care during pregnancy at the time of the English Civil War, but for a noble woman it would not have been unheard of. I like to imagine that the doctor in my book may have come into contact with Willughby or with the books of Rosselin and Coler, and that these had informed his care of a pregnant woman; and he would most certainly have been called in to assist with a difficult delivery when things went wrong.

In conclusion, pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous times for a woman in the 17th century. Ignorance and superstition were rife amongst the poor uneducated midwives, but if one were wealthy enough and of a high enough social standing it might have been possible to receive more enlightened antenatal care. Those women were the lucky ones.

References:  1 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists;    Through the Keyhole: Dutch Child-rearing Practices in the 17th and 18th century by Benjamin Roberts

Observations in Midwifery by Percival Willughby

The poisoned witches – a scientific explanation for witchcraft

What would you do if someone told you that there was a witch living in your town or village? Most people in the western world of the 21st century would smile and treat it as a joke at best, and at worst as someone trying to stir up trouble. But things would have been very different in the past.

During the Middle Ages witches were thought to be behind many illnesses from fevered nightmares to sick animals and dying children. This supposed interference in the natural order of things was known as bewitchment and struck at regular intervals, blighting the lives of thousands of people over hundreds of years.

During the period of the 15th to 17th centuries bewitchment reached epidemic proportions with over 40,000 men, women and children in Europe being executed as witches.  It was not only the poor who believed in witchcraft, even well-educated people of the time feared the supernatural and the Vatican sent out a decree warning people against bewitchment.  England was no different to the rest of Europe and many witch finders made it their life’s work to hunt down witches, one actually took 250 people before the courts in just two short years. Witches were greatly feared, and witchcraft was punishable by death.

220px-uk_warboys_sideaA well-known example happened at a manor house in the village of Warboys near Cambridge in 1589 when a mysterious illness struck down the five little daughters of the Throckmorton family and seven of their maidservants. The illness bore all the hallmarks of witchcraft, and fear spread throughout the village. The distraught family called in doctors and church leaders to try to diagnose what was wrong (at the time many doctors were willing to accept the idea of witchcraft after all other available explanations for an illness had failed).  The sick victims at Warboys had all the classic symptoms of bewitchment – hellish visions, often of wild animals (one said she saw a cat tearing her flesh off); the bodies of those affected went into violent fits and writhed in agony on their beds.  Once it was decided that witchcraft was the source of the problem someone had to be blamed and, as with most cases at the time, it was an innocent local misfit, Alice Samuel, who was singled out.  Standard practice was to torture a witch, who would often be branded or held under water; witchcraft was so feared that it didn’t matter how much the accused suffered as  any method used to see the curse of bewitchment lifted was deemed totally acceptable.  Many people believed that if you scratched a witch to draw blood it would help to relieve the suffering of the person who had been bewitched and so this was done to Alice on several occasions.  After a year of continuous pressure Alice Samuel finally confessed to being a witch. As punishment, and to keep the village safe in future, she was hanged, along with her husband and daughter.

salemAnother well know incident of witchraft happened in Salem on the east coast of America.  The Salem Witch trials of 1692 played out in a very similar way to the Alice Samuel case, and Arthur Miller later wrote about what happened in his play The Crucible. In December1691 many settlers in Salem had been struck by a horrifying disease, similar in its symptoms to what happened in Warboys and, as in England, it was believed that the Devil was responsible. The town doctor was convinced that what was happening was the result of witchcraft, particularly as eight girls said that they had been bewitched; for the next year the young girls regularly testified in court against other town members. Based on the evidence of the children 152 people were imprisoned on charges of witchcraft, and although none of them confessed 19 men and women were found guilty and executed as witches.

Linnda Caporael
Linnda Caporael

So what was going on? Was there simply a widespread primitive belief in the devil and witchcraft, or was there something else behind these incidents? Professor Linnda Caporael is a Behavioural Psychologist who studied what happened at Salem. Many people believe that the girls had made it all up, but Linnda could think of no reason why they would have done that, or kept up the pretence for so long. The more she studied, the more she began to believe that most of what the girls had experienced had not been faked, particularly when they suffered from severe convulsions. Another factor which made her question accepted belief was that the girls were not the only ones to have experienced visions, many other men, women and  children in the village reported hallucinations to the doctors and clergymen. When Linnda re-read another account it made her think that the symptoms were very similar to those experienced by people who had taken LSD (acid) which is an hallucinogenic drug from the 1960’s. People who have taken LSD say that they experience hallucinations like living nightmares which are very similar to what the victims of witchcraft said in Salem.  This left Linnda with one big question – if the cause of witchcraft was LSD, where had the drug come from?

Albert Hofmann

LSD did not exist in the 15th to 17th centuries, in fact it was not until 1943 that the Swiss neuro-physiologist Albert Hoffman experimented with a natural fungus called ergot whilst looking for medical applications for a drug.  As part of his experiments he made an extract from the ergot fungus, accidentally spilling some of it onto his hand.  Within hours he began to hallucinate. When he finally recovered from the horrific hallucinations he set to work and derived LSD from the extract.

Linnda Caporael began to look at ergot poisoning as a possible explanation for bewitchings.  The descriptions of the effects of the drug on people which she found in medical books matched the symptoms from Salem and she was convinced that she had found an explanation for witchcraft in nature.  The next question, then, was how the settlers had come into contact with the drug? As it was not only the settlers in Salem who were affected by witchcraft but their animals as well (cattle acted strangely and died of no natural causes) Linnda began to wonder if a food common to both humans and animals could be the source, so she began looking at grain.  The dominant crop in Salem was rye, so the question now was to find out how ergot could have got into the rye fields. To help her Linda looked at the work of fungal toxicologist, Professor Maurice Moss.

A fungus contaminates its host and gradually replaces the original seed with its own material so, Linnda surmised, if the rye in the fields was contaminated with ergot then the bread would have been contaminated too. This was important to her theory because the nerve toxins now contained in the bread would account for the hallucinations, pin pricking sensations, the feeling of insects crawling beneath the skin and the powerful fits which meant that the sick people could barely be held down by their friends and family.  Ergotamine (taken from the word ergot) is a drug used in Holland to treat migraines and has been shown to have constrictive powers which can lead to convulsions, and to the blood draining from the skin causing pricking sensations.


Linnda then turned to look at the environment which, again, supported her theory. Ergot thrives in wet, damp soil, and in 1691 the Salem crops had been planted in low marshy ground.  For a mass infection of the harvest to take place it would have needed a warm wet spring and summer; the spring of 1691was stormy and wet and was followed by a wet summer, the crop grown in Salem was rye.  Most of the sickness was on one side of the village where the homes backed onto the western farms with swampy marshlands. Rye was also the staple diet in Europe in the Middle Ages which, if Linnda  Carpoael is correct, could explain the witch persecutions which took place so frequently; particularly as the poor peasant classes were hit most, and rye was their staple diet.

An historian by the name of Professor Mary Matossian has mapped outbreaks of witch trials which were localised in Britain – these were mainly, but not exclusively, in Essex and East Anglia – the surprising result is that the outbreaks coincided with the main rye growing regions.  As the weather conditions at the time were different to today, with wetter and warmer summers, the conditions were ideal for the formation of ergot on rye.

Grauballe man

Supporting scientific evidence for this theory about the causes of witchcraft comes from the ‘peat bog man of Grauballe’.  He was buried in a bog in Denmark during the Iron Age and found in 1952.  The man had been murdered with a knife and club then dumped naked into the bog – his throat had been cut from ear to ear and a blow to the right temple had fractured his skull.  Although this sounds brutal this ritual was often carried out if someone was thought to be possessed by demons, the fracturing of the skull would allow the demon to escape and the victim could rest in peace. A post mortem was carried out on the Grauballe man in 1952 and his stomach contents showed that his last meal had largely comprised of ergot.  Chemical tests on a gut sample showed that ergot alkaloids were present, therefore the man would have been hallucination, convulsing, vomiting etc. and would probably have been killed as a witch.

The most recent case of a mass poisoning happened in 1951 when an entire village in France had ergot poisoning caused by infected bread.  In Pont St Esprit (Provence) in August of that year 250 people were struck down, several were taken to hospitals and psychiatric asylums in the weeks which followed.  They were sick, had stomach cramps, couldn’t sleep, suffered from violent convulsions and terrifying hallucinations.  Many had to be strapped down to stop them jumping out of windows to escape their torment.  At least five people died during the outbreak and when ergot poisoning was finally found to be the cause many people did not believe the explanation.  The Bishop of Nimes was called in to exorcise the devil from the bakery which had been the source of the outbreak.  Interestingly, a dog which had been fed on scraps of the rye bread ran in circles and was biting at rocks until it broke its teeth on them and then died.  This was an exact parallel to what happened to the animals in Salem.


Cover_Kindle_front coverSo, was witchcraft really a problem in the past, or were bewitchments caused by ergot poisoning?

I am fascinated by the fact that scientific research is constantly revealing more about our past.  I have come to believe that the misinterpretation of ergot poisoning is responsible for reports of witchcraft over the centuries, and this is what lead me to write the conclusion to the story of Rebekah and Simon in my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’.