5 Ridiculous Beliefs About Mothers From History
At most points throughout Western history, women who were mothers faced a lot of dangers beyond the risks of childbirth (not that those weren't significant). Mothers also had to deal with a heap of superstitions, beliefs, questionable medical "advice" and various bits of not-that-wise wisdom regarding everything from how to breastfeed your own child to whether it was a good idea to burn hyena fat in the birthing room. (No and yes, respectively, according to which historical era you were born in.) Childbirth and the raising of offspring are, of course, Very Big Deals, and so throughout history, a lot of people have felt very invested in claiming to have knowledge of how to do it "properly," with the blessings of the gods and as little pain and annoyance as possible (spoiler: at one point, it involved making offerings to gods in the shape of your own placenta. You know, for kicks.)
These days, it's hardly a less confusing landscape: the sheer variety of opinions available on the assorted mothering forums of the world can be completely overwhelming. Cosleeping or cradle? Bottle or formula? Should you be piping Baby Mozart or Depeche Mode into the womb? But, if nothing else, modern women currently preparing to enter the world of motherhood can at least be (probably) confident that nobody's going to try and feed them anything involving a weasel's uterus. Hopefully.
Here are some of the most bizarre and, in some cases, disgusting beliefs about motherhood from points in Western history.
1. Hyena Fat, Sow Dung And Weasel Fluids Could Help Delivery
If there's anybody who can lay claim to the title "most entertaining man in the history of medicine," it's Pliny The Elder, whose Natural Histories contains prescriptions for all aspects of medical care, most of which will make your eyes bug out of your head. (Fair warning: they may also make you feel slightly ill.)
And when it came to childbirth, Pliny got particularly inventive. For one, he said boys were more easily delivered than girls (interestingly enough, modern science indicated that boys are actually more likely to be premature than girls). But he also had some ideas about easing the pain of childbirth, and it rapidly got, well, odd. Amongst other ideas about pain relief, he recommended burning the fat from hyenas around the woman in labor, as well as offering her a nice warm cup of wine mixed with powdered sow's dung, or some water flavored with "the liquids that flow from a weasel's uterus through its genitals." (How you get that last one is anybody's guess, but I wouldn't like to be the person asked to acquire it.) He also mentions a folk medicinal aid said to help difficult labor: tying the clean placenta of a dog to the thighs of the woman giving birth. What a welcome into the world.
2. Motherhood Is A Good Cure For Hysteria
Hippocrates is one of the greatest names in history of medicine (he's the person who created the "Hippocratic Oath" ), but that doesn't mean he was particularly useful when it came to understanding childbirth and motherhood. He seemed to think that getting knocked up would solve all kinds of "lady issues" — because there's nothing like a pregnancy and traumatic childbirth in ancient Greece to solve any psychological problems you have lying around!
In Mothering And Motherhood In Ancient Greece And Rome, Lauren Hackworth Petersen and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell outline his very particular method of curing "hysteria" in virgins. He believed that in hysterical virgins, the blood that should become menstrual blood was instead accumulating in the heart. "My prescription is that when virgins experience this trouble, they should cohabit with a man as quickly as possible," he declared in On Virgins in the fourth century BC. "If they become pregnant, they will be cured. If they don't do this, either they will succumb at the onset of puberty or a little later, unless they catch another disease."
3. Class And Artistic Talent Could Be Passed To A Child Via Breast Milk
Breast milk has had an almost magical reputation over the years. For one, the Encyclopedia Of Motherhood reports that from around 1500 to 1750 in Europe, it was common to have at least one lactating woman in the room while anybody was giving birth, in the belief that a taste of breast milk would help any delivery difficulties. But the issue of wet-nurses (women employed specifically to nurse the newborn instead of the mother herself) created lots of issues — namely whether you could catch anything nastier than just bacteria from breast milk.
The Encyclopedia also notes that lots of ladies didn't breastfeed immediately after birth because people thought that birth temporarily made their milk "impure;" basically, stress soured things for a bit. But there was also a lot of discussion about what breast milk "passed down" to children. The famous artist Michelangelo famously commented that he thought he'd imbibed his artistic talent from his wet-nurse, who came from a family of stonemasons, and the artistic historian Giorgio Vasari thought Raphael's kindness ("gentilezza") came from the fact that his own mother breastfed him.
But there was a sinister side to this kind of thinking. Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd Mcbride explain in Women's Roles In The Renaissance that women of the European Renaissance were warned to make sure their kids were breastfed by high-class, intelligent women, because "the Milke... hath as much power to make the child like the Nurses, both in bodie and mind, as the seed of the Parents hath to make the child like them." So basically: give your kid a nurse with a personality problem and it'll get passed down to your kid.
4. A Woman After Birth Had To Be "Churched" Or She'd Be Vulnerable To Fairies
This is actually a pretty widespread belief across Western history: the potential impurity of the new mother after childbirth is found in ancient Greece, where women who'd given birth recently were thought to be "polluted." And that wasn't all; anybody who'd entered the house of somebody who'd just become a mom had to wash and stay away from sanctuaries of any kind for three days.
The Encyclopedia Of Superstition notes the particular belief in medieval England that a woman who'd given birth would be vulnerable to fairies and ill-wishing if she stepped outside before she managed to get herself to church. (The Encyclopedia also notes an inventive solution to the problem: wear a bit of your own roof on your hat, so you could pretend you were still "inside".)
Natalie Knödel of the University of Durham pointed out that churching wasn't actually repressive for many women: "It was not only understood as the restoration of a woman to church and society after a time of isolation, but also as a welcome occasion for excessive feasting with her 'gossips'... women actually looked forward to churching as a social occasion, a collective female occasion, the conclusion of the month of privilege after childbirth." Getting yourself to church and being "cleansed" after surviving the horrors of childbirth pre-modern medicine was indeed something to celebrate.
5. A Woman Who Walked Over A Broomstick Would Become Pregnant Before Marriage
This one comes from rural England, and may have struck fear into the heart of any person wandering randomly around the cleaning cupboard: if a young girl stepped over a broomstick handle, it was believed that she'd become pregnant before she got married. Nobody knows where this superstition came from, but the Encyclopedia of Superstition reports that it wasn't unknown for people to lay broomsticks in the paths of girls in the hope that it would come true. Now that's just unfair.
The Romans had bigger worries for women in their pregnant state, however: apparently, there was a widespread belief that whatever a woman saw while she was pregnant would influence her children. For instance, if she saw (or even dreamed of) monkeys, she'd have monkey-like children. Hence pregnant Roman women were probably kept away from anything possibly disturbing for an entire nine months, which doesn't actually sound like the worst thing in the world.
Images: J. Paul Getty Museum, Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Images