The lottery of birth
The lottery of birth

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

The lottery of birth

2.1 A history of European childbirth through art

There is little direct access to the lives of women and children of the past. Art provides one way in which we can take a look back at birth through the ages.

While there are many representations of birth around the globe and it would be possible to use images from the Americas, Australasia, Asia or Africa, we have focused on European art here so that we are able to illustrate change in one part of the world.

Download this video clip.
Skip transcript

Transcript

NARRATOR
In the ancient world, the sheer number of infant deaths are difficult to comprehend, with an estimated one in three children dying in their first year, most of them in the first week of life. Women are believed to have given birth an average of five or six times over their lifetimes, with lactation playing a part in the spacing and number of births. Parents were expected to raise and educate their children, arrange suitable marriages, and name their children in their wills. There is evidence of the use of contraception, abortion, and infanticide limiting family sizes.
There are also indications that in the distant past your chances of survival were higher as a boy than as a girl, as infanticide was more prevalent among girl babies, and boy children were probably better nourished than girls. The high numbers of child deaths that continued through the medieval period has given rise to the belief that since parents would experience many births and deaths of babies, they developed emotional distance from babies and only allowed themselves to form relationships with their children when they were older and more likely to survive. Others suggest that there is no real evidence for this, and point to evidence that parents felt real and prolonged grief at the death of their children.
The family has been a key social institution across human history, and transition stages, when new family members are born or when family members die or existing family members age and change roles, are common to all societies. The marking of transition stages are vastly diverse in nature, but naming ceremonies of babies have occurred right around the world over many thousands of years. Underlying demographics around mortality and fertility meant household and family life was much more transitory than family life today with so many births, deaths, and remarriages. Many medieval and early modern households would have been affected and reconstituted through the deaths of women in childbirth and remarriage. Some traditions associated with birth and early childhood have disappeared.
For many hundreds of years wet nursing was common practise. Debate about when life actually began continued through the Middle Ages into the modern period, as little was known about foetal development. It was believed that a healthy child could be born in the seventh, eighth, or ninth month. When childbirth was imminent, a midwife was called and she was expected to bring knowledge based on experience and a range of equipments with her. She was the first to inspect the child and decide its viability, and she then bathed and swaddled the child. In the Christian tradition, babies were baptised within a few days of birth. In pre-industrial societies, maternal and infant mortality remained high. Widespread childbirth-related mortality affected all classes of society.
Despite high mortality, children occupied a central place in medieval and early modern families. Evidence from medieval court proceedings show that infanticide was rare and it horrified their communities. As the first medical manuals demonstrated, there was great importance attached to the protection of infants from hazards such as poorly constructed cribs, falling into streams and wells, or burning on domestic fires. Repeated pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing were the norm for most adult women. And most families were left to their own devices, with no interference or support from the nation-state. The little interest that was taken in the family was not so much about survival, let alone well-being, but about property and inheritance, and the continuation of particular family lines.
However, the village or urban neighbourhood took more interest in children. And the Christian church could also be involved in looking after orphans, for example. By the Renaissance, new ideas about civilisation and the role of education continued to develop. Families were affected too, and were expected to civilise, educate, and discipline children, and to maintain class, gender, and age hierarchies. While there were high rates of premarital conceptions, there were low rates of illegitimacy. The average size of early modern families was relatively small, at four or five, with infant deaths resulting from malnourishment, disease, and accidents. By the early modern period, there was a proliferation of visual images of domestic and family life.
Both Protestant and Catholic churches increasingly subordinated wives and children to the husband and father, and all forms of premarital and extramarital sex condemned. The effects of gender emerged powerfully in Dutch family portraiture. Infanticide became the focus of criminal prosecutions throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. States became more involved in family life, and individuals sought to use the legal system to resolve family matters, including spousal abandonment and sexual misbehaviour. Orphans and foundlings were cared for in charitable or religious institutions, but under increasingly secular control. Foundling hospitals opened with more girls than boys entering and more girls than boys dying after admission.
In the 18th century, anatomists were able to reveal life in the womb for the first time, and the word "pediatrics" was first used to indicate a child health specialist in 1722. By the time of the period of intellectual and cultural change known as the Enlightenment, new ideas, values, and beliefs changed how we started to see families. Children were valued as individuals in a particular stage of life, rather than simply in a pre-adult stage. But vast differences existed, with the rich preparing for childbirth by buying cradles and worrying about hiring wet nurses, and the poor dreading another mouth to feed. Infant mortality remained high in the 18th century, with only 3/4 of children reaching their 10th birthday.
There was an increasing emphasis on the importance of motherhood, with parents increasingly expected to invest financially and emotionally in their children. Such ideas could be used for one family to judge another, one generation to judge another, and for the social elite to judge their social inferiors. Naming babies remained important for families, both socially and culturally and religiously. And in many cases, children were given the names of their fathers or father's father or their mother or their mother's or father's mother. Babies were often given the same name when there were deaths of older children. This was not unfeeling. Family names had meanings and the stock was limited.
While deaths at and around birth began to fall as sanitation and nutrition improved, many millions of infants were condemned to lives of pain or discomfort by congenital deformities, birth trauma, sensual impairment, infection leading to paralysis, or accidents. Birth remained dangerous for both mothers and children, and women feared death from fever, blood poisoning, or haemorrhage. Thousands of babies died from the greatest killer, gastrointestinal diseases, bacterial infections passed on by milk, food, or feeding equipment. Many more perished from respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia or influenza, and infectious diseases, such as whooping cough, measles, and scarlet fever, and more died from congenital problems. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, European child mortality dropped, and this was followed by families limiting their family size.
The number of births halved between 1800 and 1900, with contraception and abortion increasingly used to limit numbers and space children. Child-rearing, rather than child-bearing, became the dominating focus for adult women's lives. The idea of the modern child, not in the workplace but in school, economically worthless but emotionally priceless, began to emerge. In 1989, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child represented a historic convergence of the efforts to extend legal protection to all children around the world Article III of the UNCRC states the guiding principle for all actions concerning children should be the best interests of the child.
Among the rights for all children are life, identity, access to parents and family, self-expression, health care, education, play, and protection from neglect, abuse, violence, torture, military service, economic and sexual exploitation. In the last century, hospitals became the normal place of birth, and there was a dramatic improvement in the survival of babies. Across Europe and beyond, the provision of trained health care professionals, medical, surgical, and technological interventions mean almost all babies survive. In contrast with the experience of childbirth in the past, women have been able to slowly let go of an expectation of great risk accompanied by knowledge of the fragility of life.
End transcript
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
 
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
OUFL_21

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus