Delivered Without Peril: Birth Girdles and Childbirth in Late Medieval and Early Modern England
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Medieval English prayer rolls offered protection from various dangers: death in battle, disease, weather, or misfortune, among others. Some prayer rolls promised specific protections for pregnant and laboring women. These prayer rolls have been designated as “birth girdles.” During the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, both hand produced and printed birth girdles could be found circulating in England, offering their divine protections to Christian followers. This research focused on birth girdles as a source of social and cultural history. Birth girdles are part of an amuletic tradition that extends from ancient Egypt onward, and girdles produced in the later medieval and early modern periods contain references to specific religious trends, social concerns, Christian theology, and medieval medical theory, as they stood during that time period. The goal of this thesis is to examine these aspects of birth girdles in order to contribute to the larger picture of late medieval history, and to women’s history, as birth girdle users were typically midwives or expectant mothers. Historical scholarship focused on birth girdles has largely been a product of the last two decades, and much scholarship tends to focus on only one or two aspects of birth girdles (their role in amuletic tradition, for example, or their religious imagery.) A second goal of this project is to synthesize current research on multiple characteristics of birth girdles into a single paper, thereby weaving a more comprehensive historical narrative, and demonstrating how different parts of medieval life interacted to produce these material items.