Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Birth girdle
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This image shows one of the few surviving birth girdles from the Middle Ages. The birth girdle is a lengthy piece of parchment with inscriptions and drawings, and this particular example, which is from the 15th century, is in fairly poor condition due to its repeated use. The inscriptions throughout the parchment describe how the birth girdle works – i.e. that it was to be placed over the expectant mother’s womb during birth and the invocations read aloud. These prayers promised a safe delivery for the mother and life for the newborn child at least until baptism. Other inscriptions point to the fact that the length of the parchment is proportionate to the height of the Virgin Mary. The imagery that appears on the front of the girdle shows various scenes of the torture and crucifixion of Christ. In this view the side wound of Christ is depicted with droplets of blood alongside his wounded hand and foot.

    Birth girdles were inscribed with verbal blessings and were often accompanied by the use of physical relics in order for soon-to-be mothers to call upon saints during the pain – especially lengthy – of labor. Scholars have identified several motifs that appear frequently in the inscriptions and imagery. The prayers often evoke the names of Saint Margaret and Lazarus whose miraculous deliveries from death made them prime sources of aid. The texts include stories and depictions of the crucifixion, the Virgin Mary’s painless delivery, and the infant Christ. In addition to all the religious imagery, childbirth rituals also sometimes featured elements which drew from earlier Roman practice like the palindrome and word square Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas. Wealthy women had highly decorated birth-girdles made for them, and some even had childbirth blessings inscribed into the margins of their prayer books or books of hours. However, for women of many social classes, birth girdles would have been particularly important heirlooms, passed down through generations of women.

    Unfortunately, for many women, medieval gynecological knowledge was highly limited. Because of this, childbirth was seen as an extraordinarily dangerous process. However, in medieval Europe, childbirth was also an extremely important process for many social institutions. Children enabled the continuation of lineages, including those of monarchies. Births also secured alliances and maintained land ownership via advantageous marriages. Interestingly, though medieval men were extremely invested in the results of childbirth, they were not actively involved in the birthing process. Childbirth was viewed as a female space where women were both the subjects of care and the caregivers. Men were very often completely absent from both the process and the spaces associated with childbirth.

    Near the end of the medieval period, Christianity began to condemn the use of “superstitious” invocations, particularly those used in the process of childbirth. Citing both the superstitious nature of these documents and the association with sorcery as their reasons, the birth girdle and its associated rituals vanished from gynecological procedures which increasingly were supervised by male physicians. This, coupled with the susceptibility of parchment to damage, explains why birth girdles are so few and far between.

  • Source: Wellcome Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Amulets Birth Girdles Childbirth Hagiography Prayers Ritual
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 15
  • Date: Late 15th century
  • Related Work: Illustration of the three nails in Christ's crucifixion, Wellcome Library, MS 632;
    Cross with red heart and shield, Wellcome Library, MS 632;
    Circular image with Christ's initials in the center, Wellcome Library, MS 632;
    St Margaret, protector of women in childbirth, stands on a dragon, Morgan Library, MS G.39 fol. 18r.
  • Current Location: London, Wellcome Library, MS. 632
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Scrolls
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Ink; Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: French, Katherine. "The Material Culture of Childbirth in Late Medieval London and Its Suburbs." Journal of Women's History 28, 2 (2016): 126-148;
    Jones, Peter Murray and Lea T. Olsan. "Performative Rituals for Conception and Childbirth in England, 900–1500." Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 89 (2015): 406–432;
    Morse, Mary. "'Thys moche more ys oure Lady Mary longe': Takamiya MS 56 and the English Birth Girdle Tradition.' In Middle English Texts in Transition: A Festschrift Dedicated to Toshiyuki Takamiya on his 70th birthday. Edited by Simon Horobin and Linne Mooney. York Medieval Press, 2014. Pages 199–219;
    Skemer, Don C. Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.