In case you missed it,
royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are having a baby, and the world is consequently undergoing baby fever — because when everything's a dumpster fire, a cute royal baby is an excellent distraction. But while Markle, like sister-in-law Kate Middleton before her, will experience pregnancy in relative convenience, royal traditions around pregnancy in history ran the gamut from weird and wonderful to just plain creepy. Fortunately, Markle will not have to give birth in front of 200 witnesses to prove that her baby is legitimate, or hide from the world for two weeks in a single room before the baby actually arrives, as royals in the past had.
Royal pregnancies and births aren't like average, everyday ones. (Did
your birth herald an announcement outside Buckingham Palace? Probably not.) But female royals throughout history have been subject to intense scrutiny, serious gossip, disgusting medicine, and the pressures of entire countries as they tried to gestate heirs in peace. And because of that pressure, tradition has influenced royal pregnancies in unexpected ways. It's only relatively recently that royals in England were born outside palaces; Prince William was the first royal to be born in a hospital in all of English history. So as the latest royal pregnancy takes hold of the public imagination, let's look at all the ways it differs from the past.
You Don't Give Birth Surrounded By Ladies In Waiting — Or An Audience
Queens in the medieval period in Europe were very rarely left alone. Their ladies in waiting, women of noble birth, were supposed to go with them everywhere — and, historian Margaret Shaus explains,
that does mean everywhere. Ladies, she writes, "followed a refined protocol, not only in their daily activities but also in the most delicate moments of life, including pregnancy, childbirth and death." Medieval queens would go through pregnancy surrounded by servants who'd also help them through the childbirth process.
Birth itself, depending on the court involved, could also be more public than you'd expect — by quite a long way. While in some courts even the king wasn't allowed to enter the birthing chamber,
Marie Antoinette's experience with giving birth in Versailles in 1778 involved huge crowds of courtiers and interested onlookers. The queen's maid wrote that “the stream of curious people who had rushed into the chamber was so numerous and tumultuous that it was feared that the queen would perish.”
Nobody Feeds You Quinces Or Mystical Incantations In Butter
Childbirth up until very recently could be a dangerous undertaking, and royals in particular would have followed strict traditions around safety (even if they weren't based in science we'd recognize today.) Historian Amy License writes that Eleanor of Aquitaine probably adhered to the medical ideas of the 12th century when she was pregnant:
eating a lot of quinces and pomegranates, taking things very easily, and trying not to be upset or have bad dreams in case that "hurt" the fetus. While this all seems pretty harmless, License adds that when childbirth actually started to happen, Eleanor might have experienced the other side of medieval medicine: its magical side. "Strange mystical combinations of numbers and letters" carved in cheese and butter were popular treats for women going through childbirth at the time, to protect them and their children.
You're Allowed To Have Pictures
In the 15th century in France, Markle would have had to banish every image of animals from the room where she was giving birth. And pictures of birds. And any photos of humans.
Hangings featuring "figures, animals and birds" were considered "inappropriate" in rooms where French queens were giving birth.
Nobody Will Feed You Dragon's Blood
Medieval medicine believed that pregnant women's minds were particularly potent, and their thoughts could hurt or harm the fetus. A history of the doctors of the royal court from the 15th to the 18th century explains that queens and princesses were
likely given expensive potions to "ward off fears",,in the belief that their pregnancy would suffer if they were stressed or upset. One potion from the 1500s for the purpose involved frankincense, myrtles and a bunch of "dragon's blood," a resin from the dracaena plant, all boiled in chicken broth. Relief from fear? Maybe not.
Nobody's Going To Suggest Your Pregnancy Reflects Your Husband's Virtue
Pregnant royals didn't just have to deal with the pressures of pregnancy — they were also carrying the weight of their royal role. The English theologian Alcuin of York wrote in 793 that "
the king's virtue equals the welfare of the whole people, victory by the army, good weather, fertility, male offspring, and health." Royal women who were pregnant were reflections of their husbands' virtue and power. If the pregnancy went wrong, it was because something was out of balance — whether with the royal man or with them — and that spelt disaster for the entire kingdom. No pressure.
Nobody Will Say You Snuck A Secret Baby Into Your Bedroom
One of the reasons princesses and queens were often surrounded by witnesses when they actually gave birth was because they had to prove they'd actually had a baby at all. Nobody is likely to say that Meghan and Harry actually snuck a baby into the hospital and "pretended" it was theirs, like rumor-mongers insisted of
King James II and Queen Mary's son Prince James in 1688. Mary was alleged to have faked her pregnancy and produced a false child, either through smuggling it into the room or hiding it in the headboard behind the bed. The rumors stuck, and James was never fully accepted as a legitimate ruler.
You Won't Have To Lie In A Room For 12 Days To Wait For Birth
The end of a pregnancy for medieval queens and princesses was likely a very boring time. Why?
They'd be put in "confinement." This was pretty common for all pregnant women at the time, but for women carrying potential royal heirs, it was enforced pretty strictly; the more pregnant royals stayed indoors, in a single room, waiting for birth, the safer things were judged to be. Confinement could begin two weeks before an expected childbirth or earlier, if the pregnancy was a difficult one. The ladies-in-waiting would be there too. Picture an enforced vacation in one room with a bunch of co-workers and that's how fun that sounds.
The birth of Meghan and Harry's first child may be eventful in other ways, but at least Meghan won't have to deal with mystical butter or 200 courtiers staring at her as she pushes. Small mercies.