Childbirth in the 17th and 18th centuries

Marie Antoinette childbirth

Marie Antoinette first laying in

You may remember my earlier post on this topic. The comment trail started a fascinating discussion of the rates of maternal death in early-modern Europe.

Now Holly Tucker, Associate Professor of Medical History, French and Italian at Vanderbilt University (and owner of the Wonders and Marvels blog) kindly agreed to research the issue for the readers of Versailles and more. Here is her guest post. Many thanks to her for taking the time to give us her expert opinion!

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Early-modern obstetrical manuals contained a detailed inventory of the many things that could go wrong in the birth room. And for good reason. It is estimated that one of ten women could expect to die from childbirth related causes in the Old Regime. A married woman would become pregnant, on average, five or six times. Given that up to 10% of the labors were fatal,this means a woman had a 50% to 60% chance of dying during her reproductive life.

Of course, these are estimates. It is very hard to estimate death rates with precision because fertility and mortality were variable across regions and socioeconomic groups. The statistics I cite here are from Jacques Géliset al., Entrer dans la vie: Naissances et enfances dans la France traditionnelle (95). If you are interested in knowing more, you might take a peek at Dobie and Wilmott’s An Attempt to Estimate the True Rate of Maternal Mortality, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries. Medical History 26.1 (1982): 79-90.

Another favorite of mine is by Lianne McTavish, Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France.

Illustration: Marie-Antoinette’s first laying-in (you may recognize the Queen’s Bedchamber in Versailles)


5 Comments to “Childbirth in the 17th and 18th centuries”

  1. Felio Vasa says:

    Holly’s blog is wonderful too. Thank you for offering information on a wide variety of subjects. It goes to show us that there is always something to learn.

  2. I gave birth to 3 wonderful children, all came in less than 15 minutes, and I experienced no pain at all.

    As a matter of fact it was quite joyful!

    I created the Zero Pain Child Birth Blueprint. You can read about it here:

    http://www.scottchopchop.com/zpb

    or here

    http://sites.google.com/site/zeropainchildbirth/

    Sophia Nelson

  3. Lauren says:

    Thank you so much for allowing Holly Tucker to write about childbirth further. Much appreciated!

  4. One does wonder how any woman survived childbirth in those times…
    There was a rather dark show at the Louvre last March that I tried to see, but I left my flashlight at home..ahem

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you all.
    Felio, I agree that Holly’s blog is great. Mine is less focused, but tries to center on the 18th century, Versailles, French history… so many topics.
    Sophia – congratulations on your beautiful children! I, for one, have never managed the 15-minute labor.
    Lauren – yes, indeed, wasn’t it neat of Holly to follow up on our discussion?
    Carol – I’d love to hear more about that Louvre show…