Being pregnant can be a wonderfully exciting time, but it also can be quite confusing. Thank goodness that in the 21st century pregnant women can rest easy knowing that they’re often on the right track by following medical advice that’s been backed by hundreds of years of research and studies. This wasn’t always the case, unfortunately.
Being female and pregnant in the Middle Ages was pretty risky. Most male doctors were prevented from treating women for any issues related to sexuality or reproduction, so obstetric and gynecological care was provided by midwives and “wise women” (lay healers). Medical training for midwives was nonexistent. They used the teachings of Aristotle and Hippocrates, looked at bodily fluids, and sometimes turned to superstition to provide advice and care—which, as you can imagine, was often really odd and unconventional.
Ever wonder what it was like to be pregnant way back when? Step back in time with us and check out the weirdest advice for pregnant women in history.
Always wear a corset.
Women in the Victorian era loved their corsets! They represented femininity and social status, and every female was expected to wear one (most women wouldn’t dare to be seen in public without one). Pregnant women were no exception.
Lane Bryant, a popular fashion company, summed it up with their marketing slogan, “For your own sake, and for the sake of the baby to come, you must be correctly corseted during the maternity period.”
We’re not sure whether they meant that it was unhealthy or not proper (or both), but in either case, wearing a corset during pregnancy proved to be problematic. Corsets were intended to restrict the size of a woman’s waist—not offer support—and women ran into trouble when they wore their undergarments too tight.
The practice known as tightlacing caused ill effects on a woman’s body such as lung issues, constipation, lower back pain, and muscle atrophy. And it could, unfortunately, cause a woman to miscarry.
Don’t take baths.
Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician, believed that it was especially harmful to take a bath in the first week of pregnancy. Because so many people know when they’re only a week pregnant…
Anyway, he thought that the water’s hot temperature could not only cause a drop in blood pressure and make a woman dizzy (not so unrealistic), but (and this is where he loses credibility) could also “loosen the texture of the whole body” and weaken the fetus.
Don’t throw a mouse or a frog on a pregnant woman.
Just in case one needed a reason to not throw things at a pregnant woman, Paré (a doctor to French kings and author of On Monsters and Marvels) explained further that it was really important to take care to not do so because the unborn baby could be permanently scarred.
For example, throwing a mouse or a frog on a woman’s teats could turn the child into a monster, and throwing a cherry pit could “stain” the baby.
Watch what you eat.
Soranus, that Greek physician, believed that what a woman ate could potentially harm the fetus. He preached that flatulence could cause ill effects (it’s unclear what ill effects), constipation could suffocate a child, and diarrhea could actually wash the child away.
The Distaff Gospels, a 15th-century book of old wives’ tales, went into more detail about the culinary choices of a mother and the consequences to her baby. It taught that a woman should not eat fish heads because that would cause a baby to have a mouth that was more pointed than normal.
It was also believed that in order to give birth to a healthy and dry-tempered male child (the preferred sex) a pregnant woman should eat warm and dry foods and avoid fruit altogether (unless she wanted to give birth to snake-like objects).
Don’t have intercourse.
As much as a woman might want (or not want) to have intercourse, medieval doctors discouraged them from doing it while they were pregnant. They warned that a woman’s lustful thoughts and actions could have severe and permanent effects on a developing fetus and cause it to be unchaste.
They further cautioned that if intercourse could not be avoided, then care should be taken to not engage with a man with dirty and stinky feet or the child could be born stinky. If it were a male child, it would have unpleasant breath and if it were female, a stinky rear end.
Medieval lore also warned that it was important to not have intercourse too often. It could “wear out” the woman’s baby-making machinery, and too much “seed” in a woman’s body could produce multiple babies.
Eat what your body tells you to eat.
Now this is some advice that modern-day pregnant women can get behind! Medieval doctors believed that a woman must give in to her culinary cravings, no matter how odd. Failing to do so could cause a baby to be born without vital organs or with birthmarks.
But if the expectant mother was craving the head of a hare (as one does), she should resist at all costs. Eating one would result in a child with a split or cleft lip.
Bring the hyena in.
If being pregnant for 9 months during the Middle Ages seemed daunting, the actual act of childbirth was even more so. Without modern-day equipment and hospitals, women had to rely on superstition and prayer.
Pliny the Elder was a Greek scientist who was a self-proclaimed expert on childbirth. He believed that the smell of fat from a hyena’s loins could put a woman into labor. He also thought that a woman must take care during the birthing process because if she placed the right foot of the animal on herself it would be an easy birth, but if the left foot was placed on her, she could die.
Some other childbirth advice included rubbing an expectant mother’s hips and privates with violet or rose oil, giving her pepper so she could “sneeze the child out,” tying a snakeskin around her hips, or eating butter with baby-producing words carved in it.
Watch where you look.
It was of the utmost importance for a pregnant woman to take special care to watch where she looked throughout her pregnancy and during childbirth, because it could have permanent effects on a child’s physical appearance. (Translation: If a woman looked at ugly things while she was pregnant, her child would end up being ugly.)
Paré warned that a woman gave birth to a child covered in hair because she looked at a picture of John the Baptist dressed in animal skin as she conceived. He also explained how a two-headed beggar was banned from her town because of the ill effects she might have on pregnant women and cause them to give birth to two-headed babies.
It was also common knowledge that a pregnant woman was supposed to avoid looking at her pets or other animals because her baby could end up looking like them.
Although modern-day childbirth is often pretty grueling, we can all agree that current practices surrounding pregnancy and giving birth are leaps and bounds ahead of some of history’s most eyebrow-raising practices.