What They Expected When They Were Expecting
As long as women have been getting pregnant, there have been experts around to advise them about what to eat and how to conduct themselves in order to deliver a healthy child. In early modern times, as now, there was no shortage of handbooks and medical texts that doled out advice — and in early modern Europe and America, much of the advice focused on how to ensure that the child would be a boy. Most of these texts were written by men, often members of the clergy who had taken a vow of chastity and who had no children of their own.
Some of the advice in those Renaissance-era manuals sounds a lot like the advice you see today, in a very general sense: women are told to rest, eat right, and avoid ingesting harmful substances. But dig a bit deeper into the literature of the early modern period, and you’ll find that obstetrical knowledge could be “unnervingly inaccurate.”¹ To save you time combing through these old texts (you can find them listed in sources below), here’s a tidy recap for you.
Ten Tips For a Healthy Renaissance-Style Pregnancy
Tip #1: Eat poultry, but be careful what kind.
Most poultry is good for you, but “avoid completely the crane and peacock, which are hard to digest and generate bad blood.”²
Tip #2: Eat seafood selectively.
“Eels are especially good for clearing the bronchial passages, and they also help with your singing voice.”³
Tip #3: No fruit.
“When you crave a piece of fruit, just think that the most noble and beautiful fruit in the world is the human creature in your womb, so surely you can resist the vituperative claims of your palate for a vile, ugly, bad piece of fruit that will harm what you carry inside yourself.”
Tip #4: No cold or liquidy foods.
“In order to give birth to a healthy, warm, and dry-tempered male child, pregnant women should consume warm and dry foods.”
Tip #5: Drink only wine.
Avoid drinking water, or you might find yourself pregnant with a girl. “Beware of using cold water, it is not good for the fetus and it causes the generation of girls, especially here in our region, so keep drinking wine.”
Tip #6: Avoid exercise.
That means no dancing, carrying heavy things, or lifting your arms above your head. It also means no brushing your own hair — a pregnant woman “ought not to dress her own head.” If you insist on exercising, you can walk gently or use a sedan chair or litter to travel long distances.
Tip #7: No bathing.
Everyone knows how dangerous bathing is anyway, but it’s especially perilous when you’re pregnant. One writer warns women to “forbear Bathing in any manner, after they know they have conceived, lest the Womb be excited to open before the time.”
Tip #8: Get bled regularly.
When you’re about four and a half months along, it’s time to be “blooded,” and then again in the seventh month and then the ninth as “near the Time of their Delivery as may be.”
Tip #9: Wrap yourself in a bloody carcass.
Just after delivery, have someone wrap your belly in the still-hot, bloody pelt of a freshly-flayed sheep. In a pinch, the skin of a hare will do. (Although the hare-pelt won’t cover your belly quite as well as the sheep, its blood can be rubbed into your skin.)⁴ Some doctors advise leaving the belly swaddled in the bloody carcass for several days, but others object because “the smell thereof , . . woulde much annoy the woman, and all that shoulde com neare her,”⁵ so probably best just to keep it on for an hour or two.
Tip #10: After you’ve delivered, you can have a bath.
You can bathe again after the baby is born, but not until “the fortieth or fiftieth day.”
Sources and Notes
¹Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. United States: St. Martin’s Press, 2003, p 182
² From Ad mulieres ferrarienses, written by the sixteenth century physician Michele Savonarola, as quoted in Bell, Rudolph M. How to Do It: Guides to Good Livings for Renaissance Italians, United States: University of Chicago Press, 1999 p. 90
³Ibid, p 90
⁴ Edmund Chapman, A treatise on the improvement of midwifery, as quoted in Eccles, Audrey, Obstetrics and Gynecology in Tudor and Stuart England, United States: Routledge, 1982.
⁵ Edward Poeton, The midwives deputie, as quoted in Ibid.