Tuesday 30 September 2014

The Medieval Midwife: Guest post by Kim Rendfeld

Today I'm delighted to welcome Kim Rendfeld to "Fall in Love with History". Kim writes historical fiction and is celebrating a new release "The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar", which I have added to my TBR pile! Today, Kim posts on "The Medieval Midwife’s Unique Place in Society", so without further ado I'll hand over to Kim
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The Medieval Midwife’s Unique Place in Society

By Kim Rendfeld

The medieval midwife faced a lot of pressure. Not only was she to do her best to help mother and baby survive the birth. As the only layperson with the authority to baptize, she was responsible for the newborn’s soul.

In the Middle Ages, childbirth must have been greeted with a mix of emotions. A family might look forward to the arrival of an heir, but the process was so risky that women were urged to confess their sins before they went into labor.

Whether the delivery was in a low-ceilinged lying-in chamber of a noble house or a one-room peasant’s hut, the last person an expectant mother wanted was her husband or a doctor. Medieval folk considered childbirth part of life, not medicine. Better for the men to be praying at church and let the midwife take charge of the situation.

A midwife learned her craft from her own mother. Her tools might include a birthing stool, a sharp knife, ointments, herbs, the right foot of a crane, a piece of jasper, spells in case the labor was particularly difficult, a basin to bathe the baby, honey, and salt. The Church did not condemn the midwife for touching another woman in an intimate area, since her duties required it.

Officially, the clergy frowned on spells and charms, but as they did with most other white magic, they ignored it for the most part. Medieval folk in general saw magic as a tool, one that could be used for good or evil.  After all, the laity often wore amulets alongside their crosses. Clerics were much more concerned if the midwife said the wrong words while baptizing a child in danger of dying before a priest could perform the rite.

Inside the birthing chamber, the midwife had her own assistants, and a few of the mother’s friends and relatives attended to offer encouragement. Doors and cupboard drawers were open; knots were untied. Even the mother’s hair might be loosened and free of pins.

The midwife would do what she could to hasten labor, such as rubbing an ointment on the mother’s belly or giving her a potion with ergot. When the time came, the mother would sit on the birthing stool to deliver the child. Midwives knew to wash and oil their hands before they brought the child into the world. The only time a midwife would perform a Caesarean, without anesthesia, was when the mother was dying or already dead.

The midwife was the one to cut the umbilical cord four finger lengths, wash the baby, and use honey on the child’s gums and palette to stimulate appetite. After the infant was wrapped in swaddling, the midwife would present the child to the father.

In noble houses, the mother would remain confined to the lying-in chamber for a month, and only the midwife, servants, and the mother’s close friends were allowed to visit during her recovery.

I needed to research medieval childbirth for two scenes in my latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. One goes reasonably well; the other goes very, very wrong. In this scene, Sunwynn, the daughter of my heroine, Leova, is the maid to the expectant mother. Both Sunwynn’s and Leova’s well-being depend on the well-being of Countess Gerhilda.
Click for a link


When Gerhilda screamed and doubled over, the midwife rushed to her. The old woman lifted Gerhilda’s skirts and felt her belly. “The child is coming,” she called. “Get her to the birthing stool.”

The midwife washed and oiled her hands and sat on a stool in front of Gerhilda, whose skirts were hiked to her waist.

“I’m here, my lady. Behind you,” Sunwynn whispered.

At Sunwynn’s elbow, one of the midwife’s assistants held a cup smelling of strong wine.

“Ergot?” the midwife asked her assistant. “Good. My lady, drink the potion. It will hasten the birth and might stop the bleeding.”

As Gerhilda downed the wine, Sunwynn prayed, Mother of God, let this work.

The midwife reached for Gerhilda. The grim lines in her face deepened. “Afterbirth’s first.”

The room was silent except for Gerhilda’s grunts. Sunwynn’s limbs grew rigid. She felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

“I have the child,” the midwife said. When she leaned back, blood covered her arms and chest. She cradled a listless newborn and the afterbirth.

“Another son,” the midwife said in a monotone.

“Good,” Gerhilda whispered.

The babe is not crying! Sunwynn stared at the infant. He was quiet when the midwife wiped his nose and mouth. A slap to the bottom was met with barely a whimper. Sunwynn winced. A few other women groaned.

“Daughter, hold the jasper amulet to the countess’s belly until it’s warm,” the midwife told an assistant.

The midwife cut the cord and placed the child in the basin she used to wash her hands. Three times, she used her cupped hand to pour water on the child’s head and muttered a Latin prayer. Sunwynn shuddered. There was only one reason a midwife would baptize a newborn.

Sunwynn beheld her lady’s face. It was paler than anything she had ever seen.

“Pray for me; pray for my son,” Gerhilda mumbled. Her eyes rolled, and she swooned, slumping forward.

“Gerhilda!” Sunwynn shrieked, shaking her lady’s shoulders. “Gerhilda! No! Come back! Come back and live!” Sunwynn, her tears unchecked, looked at the midwife.


Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000 by Julia M.H. Smith

“Capturing the Wandering Womb” by Kate Phillips, The Haverford Journal, April 2007
Author: Kim Rendfeld

 Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Lighting London's Street: A short history

What goes around comes around, or so the saying goes.  It seems this is true of street lighting. Walking home late one night I was struck by the inky blackness. Then it occurred to me that only 1 out of every 3 street lamps was alight. It appears this is the result of council cut backs, with many street lights being turned off altogether after midnight. A small taste perhaps, of what it was like to experience night in earlier centuries.

The need for street lighting was recognized as long ago at 1417 when the then Lord Major of London, Sir Henry Barton, ordered that:
"Lanterns with lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemass."
These lanterns were mainly cheap affairs made out of animal horn scraped until they were thin enough for a light to shine through. The fuel used was whatever came to hand and with choices including animal or vegetable fat, or fish oil; I imagine the lamps smelt stronger than the light they emitted.

Three hundred years later in 1716 things were formalized with "An Act (of 1716) for Lighting the Streets of the City of London, and Liberties Thereof".
This act decreed that all householders with a frontage out onto a public highway or path must show a light between 6-11pm, on threat of a penalty of one shilling (12p). There is not report of how stringently this fine was imposed – I have visions of lamps blowing out in the wind and humble folk being reduced to penury. The fine of a shilling also seems quite steep at a time when a maidservant's average wage for a year was £2 (or 24 shillings).
A simple lantern with horn instead of glass
Around about the same time as this act, in 1708, a new kind of lamp was patented.
"A new kind of light, composed of one entire glass of globular shape, with a lamp, which will give a cleaner and more certain light from all parts thereof."
This lamp was first demonstrated outside a coffee house in St James' – presumably to impress wealthy patrons.
This brighter light took off quickly with the benefits clear for all to see. In 1725 a visitor to London describes the wonderful illuminations.
"Most of the streets are wonderfully lighted, for in front of each house hangs a lantern or a large globe of glass, inside of which is placed a lamp which burns all night. Large houses have two …suspended outside their door by iron supports, and some houses even have four."
Cesar de Saussure
However, this needs to be put into some sense of proportions. Cesar's reference point was almost complete darkness. Testament to the lighting not being that good really, was the James Boswell was able to have "relations" with a prostitute at night in the public setting of Westminster Bridge – and remain undetected.
A lamplighter and his ladder
However, to some the lights remained bright and jolly, and one visitor mistook their reason
"…some German prince, who came to London for the first time…seriously believed it [the lights] to have been particularly ordered on account of his arrival."
Karl Philip Moritz – diary. 1795
 The superior light provided by coal gas had first been recognized by the ancient Chinese. However, it took until the early 19th century for it to be linked to public street lighting. Gas light was first demonstrated on 28th January, 1807, by Frederick Winsor in Pall Mall, London, but it took nearly another 50 years for it to fully catch on.

Perhaps one  of many sceptics was Dr. Johnson. From the window of his house he once watched as the parish lamp lighter climbed his ladder to light the gas lamp. The man was only halfway back down when the flame went out. The lamp-lighter ascended again and this time only had to touch his flame to the residual vapor in the globe. Johnson remarked:
"Ah! One of these days the streets of London will be lighted by smoke."

Another sceptic was Sir Humphrey Davy, who ridiculed the trend for gas light, asked archly:
"If it were intended to take the dome of St Paul's cathedral for a gasometer?"
Each gas lamp had a horizontal bar either side of the globe for the lamplighter to rest his ladder against. Wandering the streets during the night, these men also had a civic duty as patrol or watchmen.

Before I complain more about the street lights being turned off, it is salient to review the power (or lack) of Victorian lamps. The light given off was equivalent to a modern 25 Watt light bulb, and each lamp was placed 65 meters apart. The idea, it seems, was to give the night traveler a distant point of light to head towards, rather than to light the way. 

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Bud the Bulldog's Epic Road Trip across the US

A treat today with an extra post about the epic journey of Bud, the bulldog, as co-driver in the first ever road trip across the US (and some hints on traveling with pets).

In 1903 Bud was "co-driver" of the first ever motor vehicle to travel coast to coast across the US. The car was an open-top Winton, nick-named Vermont, with a top speed of 30 mph. In an era when there were approximately 150 miles of metaled road in the entire country, this epic trip took 63 days. Neither were there gas stations (the first gas station was established in 1905) and fuel had to be obtained along the way from general stores that kept a supply of gas for farm machinery.
Bud the bulldog
The trip was the idea of the magnificently named, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson. However, he did not set off with a dog, but acquired one along the way. The story goes that Jackson left his coat at a hotel, and realizing his mistake turned back to fetch it. On the road, he was stopped by a man asking if he wanted to buy a dog as a mascot. That dog was Bud, a light-colored bulldog, and Jackson, who had been thinking of getting a dog anyway, agreed and the princely sum of $15 changed hands.
Bud soon took to his new life, especially once equipped with a pair of goggles to keep dust out of his eyes. He sat beside his new master on the passenger seat, staring intently at the road ahead and quickly became adept at bracing himself against the lumps and bumps on rocky tracks. Of course, there is no mention of seatbelts, or other safety devices, but there again I don't suppose they encountered many motor vehicles coming in the opposite direction on their journey.

How things have changed! These days it is essential to be safety conscious when traveling with animals. To make the trip stress-free for pets and humans alike, it is best to plan ahead. If you would like some tips on traveling with pets and to read the full article, click on any of Bud's pictures.

A close up of Bud

Wednesday 10 September 2014

The History Perspective: Dog Care

Sage advice from a dog book about treating a sick animal:
"A change of air and diet will sometimes renovate when all remedies fail: a change from city to country, from greasy meat to fresh milk, from a confined yard to the green fields, will generally revive him without the aid of medicine."

Q: From which decade does this advice originate?
a)    The 1960s
b)    The 1860s
c)    The 1760s

To help you make up your mind let's take a look at some further advice. This time about inadvertent harm done to lapdogs by coddling them too much.

"Nursing in the lap is injurious; not of itself, but the animal is thereby subjected to constant chills, in emerging from a snoozy warmth to a cold carpet or chilly bed. A dog accustomed to the lap is always shivering after it."
This lapdog may be in danger of chilling 
Sounds like common sense, if a little extreme. What the author is saying is that pet dogs are done a disservice when treated like toys rather than dogs. A valid argument. Some more common sense along the same lines…

"The tenderly-nursed pet is affected by every change of atmosphere, and subjected to a variety of diseases unknown to the dog that has been hardened since his birth. I ask you, then, neither to stuff nor starve; neither to chill nor burn."

I for one, agree with that. But perhaps the next statement is more controversial, especial amongst owners of dogs that are "faddy" eaters.
Oh dear, another lapdog in danger
"Lack of appetite, so common to pampered favourites, is generally the result of an overloaded stomach and disordered digestion. This is easily cured by medicine, but more safely and simply without it. Fast him for twenty-four hours; after which , keep him on half his ordinary allowance. If this agrees with him, and he keeps in fair condition, continue the regimen."

That said, the author isn't totally oblivious to the fact that some small dogs are more delicate than others – especially when it comes to bathing.

"Great care should be taken in the washing of delicate dogs. When this operation is performed, they should be rubbed perfectly dry; after which they should be covered, and remain so till the shivering has completely subsided."
Cover the dog until shivering subsides
Have you guessed the decade yet?
To give you a helping hand, let's look at some of the other events that took place the year this book was published.
-       Charing Cross railway station, London, opened for the first time
-       Overarm bowling was ruled as legal in the game of cricket
-       On the 11th and 12th of March the Great Flood of Sheffield took place, with loss of life
And these final clues are a bit of a give away
-       The serialization of Charles Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend" began
-       Lord Palmerston was the British Prime Minister and Queen Victoria was on the throne.
An illustration from Edward Jesse's
"Anecdotes of dogs"

Yes! You guessed it, the correct answer is (b) the 1860s – or 1864 to be precise.
In 1864 Edward Jesse's popular book "Anecdotes of Dogs" was published – and I'm pleased to say it is still available (as an eBook) a century and a half later – although he views are perhaps a little outdated, the book is still a joy to read. 

Wednesday 3 September 2014

A Tale of Two Cities and a Dyslexic Artist

This week's blog is up a little late, courtesy of my son – read on to find out why. For the same reason the post differs from the usual historical fare and is about Las Vegas (and Los Angeles)
Los Angeles and Las Vegas - hey ho! 
But first, to understand the background to this post. My son is studying fine art and won a travel prize, with a proposal to visit Nevada to draw and paint the rocks (small scale rocks, rather than large scale landscape…but that’s another story). The plan was for him and a friend to fly to Las Vegas and drive out into the desert in an RV.

He's been excited about visiting Las Vegas for weeks, and yesterday, with one more sleep to go he was double-checking arrangements. But…oh no…disaster!
Las Vegas
It turns out he'd booked to pick up and drop off the RV from Los Angeles – NOT Las Vegas! The problem is that he's dyslexic and spotting the "L" he felt confident he'd got the right place and went ahead and booked. Aged 21, and no longer living at home, we trusted him to make the arrangements.  Oh dear.

Long story short we had a hell of a 24 hours but fingers crossed, with parental intervention things are back to Plan A. I took him and his friend to Heathrow this morning – so it's now out of my hands. Anyhow, I decided to use this as an excuse to find some Las Vegas trivia. I'd love to hear any experiences you have of Vegas, so do chip in and comment.
Los Angeles

Las Vegas Trivia

Las Vegas means "The Meadows" in Spanish (ironically named I presume, given the desert setting.)

Vegas Vic – the huge neon cowboy standing over Fremont Street, is the world's largest mechanical neon sign. But in a town with 15,000 miles of neon tubing, what do you expect?

Vegas has 30 million (plus 2) visitors a year, and the native population is around 1.7 million.
An example of my son's artwork.
You can see now, why he wants to paint the desert!
The extravagant fountains and water features are supplied with "grey water". This is water reclaimed from bath tubs, showers, and washing machines. The water if filtered, cleaned and chlorinated before use. Thank goodness they don't use "black water", which is that which goes through the toilets and the sewers.

The average length of stay in Vegas is 3.7 days (or around 90 minutes if you are my son, who has to catch a bus from the airport to Los Angeles).

Ben "Bugsy" Siegal
What Do Las Vegas and Los Angeles have in Common?

They both begin with the letter "L".

Also, gangster Ben "Bugsy" Siegal founded the Flamingo hotel, Vegas in 1946 using mob moneny. He named the Flamingo Hotel (where my son stays on his final night) after the long legs of his showgirl girlfriend. However, Bugsy died in Los Angeles, shot dead whilst reading a newspaper in Los Angeles – probably because he skimmed mob money.

So there we have it. A tale of two cities and a dyslexic artist. Ho hum.