Tuesday, May 01, 2007
When Life Began
In my last post, I wrote about some of the Normandy/Kreis Saarburg customs and superstitions at the end of life. At the beginning of life, there were also unfamiliar customs which were observed and firmly held superstitions which are little known in our own day.
The book I'm using to describe birth customs, LA NORMANDIE, is the one I used in the last post. In detail, it describes the life of a woman of Normandy from the time she conceived a child until a few weeks after the birth. Since death and burial customs were so similar in Normandy and Kreis Saarburg, I believe the same must be true for the pregnancy and birth stage of life.
In Normandy, and probably in Kreis Saarburg, the pregnant woman had to be extremely cautious for the months that she carried her child in her womb. Dangers were difficult to avoid if the the old wives' tales were believed.
What were these beliefs? Here is a sample:
*Don’t look at ugly things. If you look at the lame, the hunchback, the dwarf, or anyone with a disfigurement, then your newborn may be disfigured or have physical deformities. Try to look only at beautiful people." This superstition, according to the LA NORMANDIE's author, Hippolyte Gancel, often caused marital jealousy. (And pity the woman who had an ugly husband)
*Have nothing to do with the itinerants who come with bears, monkeys, apes or other hairy beasts.
*Avoid hare and fish or the child may have a harelip or brain deformities.
*Do not to look on the dead, sit up with the dead, or sprinkle the dead person with holy water so that your child will not be born dead.
*Do not raise yours arms too often or the umbilical cord may wrap around the baby's neck and strangle it at birth, nor should you hold a child on your lap.
*You must not give in to any intense craving for berries (strawberries, currants, raspberries) or the child will have a birthmark on its body.
At the first labor pains, the midwife was called. Doctors were only called in case of disaster, and probably they were not available at all in the small villages. Upon arriving the midwife started the heating of a generous quantity of water at the fireplace. She pushed the men, young children, and even the husband out of the room. Pious figures were hung where they could be seen from the laboring woman's bed.
The mother did not usually give birth in bed but on a table which was covered with hemp sacking cloth that was placed near the fireplace. Or the woman might sit at the foot of the bed for the delivery.
Immediately after the birth and the announcement of the sex, the midwife separated the infant from the mother and cut the umbilical cord. When the placenta was expelled, the cord and placenta were buried, often at the foot of a rosebush. In Normandy, noted for its dairy products, the new child was rubbed with fresh butter. One or two drops of the mother's first milk were placed on the baby's eyes to prevent opthalmia. If the baby was a girl, her nipples were pinched so that when she became a mother, she would be able to nurse her baby without difficulty. The mother was helped into her bed and the baby was placed in a basket or a cradle. The cradle was usually lined with a sack filled with the hulls of oats. The baby, most often, was wrapped in linen in the fashion of a mummy to protect against colic and deformed legs. It received only sugar water the first day or two after birth. Then it was nursed. Cradle confinement went on for 10-12 months, with the baby being taken from the cradle only three times a day unless there was a grandmother living with the family.
After the birth, by Catholic Church decree, the new mother was forbidden many activities for about three weeks. However cleaners and housemaids were allowed to work sooner - in nine days. During this time, the woman was judged impure and could not show herself in public. She did not cut bread since it was believed it would not last if she touched it. She could not handle the milk because it would turn sour. She could not touch any meat for fear it would spoil. She could not pull water from the well because the water might become contaminated.
Finally the woman was allowed back into society after a ceremony of ritual cleansing, called churching. In Normandy the mother, accompanied by the midwife, went to the church for the act of purification. The midwife brought a loaf of bread that she had made especially for the occasion. The mother knelt in the last pew. There was a “low mass” and then the priest performed the churching ritual. After he blessed the mother, he blessed the bread and took off the first small piece. Some of the blessed bread was given to family and friends who were present. A small piece was kept forever; supposedly that piece would never mold.
The idea of women being thought "unclean" until purified may seem discriminatory and sexist to those of us born in later centuries. But the superstitions and the church ceremony probably helped mothers regain much needed strength before they returned to house and field work. In the book "German Women in the Nineteenth Century," W.R. Lee cites statistics to show that infant mortality was highest in those area where the mothers returned to agricultural labor within days after birth. Breast feeding when the mother was engaged in field work was sporadic at best. Yet breast feeding was far healthier for the infant than a diet of unpasteurized cow's milk. In addition, infants often were brought to the fields while the mother worked, whatever the weather conditions might be. Even three weeks at home, restricted to quiet activities, was a help to both mother and child.
And now to my own mother's belief in one of these Normandy superstitions. Mom had been told that one should not look at unpleasant things while she was pregnant. So she took special care to avoid a particular man in our tiny Wisconsin village. This man, "Little Mike," was a little person who in those days was called a midget. One day, as Mom went up the concrete steps of the town's general store, Little Mike came out of the store and moved directly into her path. Of course, she had to look at him. Many years later, she confessed to me how silly she felt because she had believed that superstition. She laughed as she explained how she unwrapped my blanket fearfully in those first moments that she held me in her arms. She had to see how long my legs were.
Just to satisfy your curiosity, I am 5' 6" tall - but I do have rather short legs!
GERMAN WOMEN IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, edited by John C. Fout, c.1984.
LA NORMANDIE: LA VIE QUOTIDIENNE DES NORMANDS, by Hippolyte Gancel, n.d.