Meanderings on Medieval Motherhood

‘Sisters of The Bruce’ explores the resilience of family relationships when catapulted into the horror of war. Perhaps fear and insecurity, bred by the threat of such devastation, forge these relationships like the finest Damascene steel blade put to the flame.

How did the Bruce sisters survive such relentless trauma? The desire to cherish and protect our families and children is a constant feature of human existence and I believe the ‘sisters’ were no different.

Such musings led me to consider the role of motherhood in medieval times. There is no doubt it was fraught with danger and a common cause of female death was childbirth. For those who had a dynastic role to play, and Robert’s sisters were amongst these, the stakes were high. Childbirth in royal or high status marriages was a critical issue, particularly as marriages usually held political and economic contractual obligations, one of which included the provision of sound male heirs.

How do you form a relationship of value with someone you’ve only just met and may even find repulsive. In short, dynastic brides and grooms were often unknown to each other. Robert’s grandfather married a very young heiress of twelve or so. In the case of a young bride, there were restrictions on when a  marriage could be consummated. One can only hope!

Many women experienced an acute sense of failure giving birth to a daughter rather than the much vaunted male heir. Robert’s elder sister, Queen Isabel of Norway, must have found herself in just such a dire situation. Records show she gave birth to only one living child, a daughter named Ingebjorg.

Frail or sick infants died with alarming frequency, not to mention toddlers and older children. We know a lot about the critical value of attachment but I wonder how parents in medieval times formed bonds with their children when they could lose them so easily. Perhaps the bonds were even greater because of the overt danger and insecurity. And what role did the child’s network within a large household play in the child’s emotional and physical survival? I suspect a great deal!

So often families became separated in war and the children, if they managed to survive, were brought up by others. This was a very real factor for one of our ‘sisters’.

For  many, giving birth on a yearly basis must have been physically and emotionally exhausting. Robert’s mother is recorded as having born five sons and five daughters, unremarkable in those times, except for the fact that they survived and grew to adulthood. Obviously, good health and strong genes play a part in building a dynasty!

Wealth, too, is critical to survival, offering access to up to date medical help and good nutrition. Hygiene plays a role as well and the concept that people did not bathe in medieval times is grossly overstated.

The use of a wet nurse is another intriguing aspect and raises questions. How did women stop the natural flow of milk – being bound with cabbage leaves as today? Was there an economic, political or sexual reason for the practice?

The ancient use of midwives/ herbalists and female family members to aid the child’s arrival into the world proved a valuable part of the childbirth team in some situations. And then there were the royal watchers to witness the veracity of the infant’s birth. How unpleasant and intrusive!

As a mother of two beautiful sons, I found the medieval concept of fostering sons to other wealthy or powerful families confronting, but from a political point of view, it makes sense:  the son then had two families to look out and provide for him and the links between those families would presumably be forged for life. It speaks of trust that a child will grow and learn the basic requirements but also so much more, offering the child as he grows into manhood a strong social background and a political and economic network: a variable experience no doubt depending on the child’s inherent resilience and personality. I suspect sending a child off to boarding school today is not too dissimilar.

Tomorrow children and adults celebrate Mothers Day across Australia. Congratulations to all mothers, present and past – both recent and ancestral. In this country, we are very fortunate to have access to a high quality, free health system and the rates of death amongst mothers and babies are thankfully low. Not so in medieval times nor in many countries today!