Childbirth in the 17th and 18th centuries

18th century French midwife diplomaHolly Tucker at Wonders and Marvels posted a great entry on early midwifery. I also call your attention to her other post, not for the faint of heart, on C-sections before anesthesia.

It is estimated that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, one woman out of two died in childbirth. Staggering. How could it not influence women’s outlook on marriage, sex and motherhood? Often, while perusing memoirs or police reports of the time for my research, I come across the mention “my mother died giving birth to me.”

So my thanks go to modern medicine! And to illustrate this post, I chose a copy (right) of a French midwife’s diploma, delivered in 1784 to one Marguerite Rochelle de Bellefosse.

And I was forgetting to mention that Holly knows her subject: she is an Associate Professor in the Center for Medicine, Health & Society and French & Italian at Vanderbilt University, and the author of Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early-Modern France.

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

  1. Lisa says:

    It’s staggering how so many women died in childbirth back then. Hence why thousands and thousands of children lived in factories. How awful.
    Thank god for modern medicine and health care, which obviously didn’t exist back then.
    You look at mothers who gave birth in the 1930s. Most of them were okay after birth. That was due to the advancements of health care in the early 1900s. And also, the baby boom would have never existed if the maternal mortality rate was still high.

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh, certainly, Lauren, childbirth remains dangerous for women in poorer countries. When it doesn’t cause death itself, it can lead to lifelong debilitating conditions, like fistulas. As for Holly, she kindly agreed to check out the stats.
    Wat is sure is that we never count our blessings too much…

  3. Lauren says:

    Well it would seem that there is a lot of conflicting evidence out there. Needless to say, childbirth was a dangerous activity until recent times. I guess it still is, to some extent.

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    25 women out of 1,000, or 2,5%, dying in childbirth seems very low for the 18th centuries. What I meant, of course, was not that half of childbirths resulted in maternal deaths, just that half of women died in childbirth.

    I guess I will ask Holly, since this is her area of expertise. For modern childbirth death rates in the US, I found this article:

  5. Lauren says:

    Catherine, I must wonder where you found the assertion that, ‘In the 17th and 18th centuries, one woman out of two died in childbirth.’ I read in ‘Child rearing practices in the 17th and 18th centuries’ (I would give you the link but it’s very long)that in Britain, roughly 25 women of every thousand died during childbirth. How shocking!

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    In the case of royal births, Sybille, the explanation was simple: proving that that there was no child substitution, regardless of the mother’s comfort, modesty or privacy.

    I remember – but that would be Elena’s area of expertise – that in the 19th century, the Duchesse de Berry, when she gave birth to the heir to the throne (future Henri V, Comte de Chambord) asked that the cord not be cut right away, to allow more people to witness that the long-expected male heir was indeed her son.

  7. Sibylle says:

    Very interesting indeed ! Sounds horrible. Reminds me of Marie-Antoinette who didn’t want anyone to witness her delivery after so many people had witnessed the first one – why people would want to be in the same room as the mother-to-be in such a private moment is beyond me. There’s a book on a similar subject on my neverending TBR list too : Call the Midwife written by Jennifer Worth, who was a midwife herself in the 50s.
    I’ll add Mrs Tucker’s book as well, it sounds so well researched.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    You are most welcome, Holly! I l can’t wait to read your book.

  9. Holly says:

    Wow, thanks for the kind post, Catherine! So wonderful to meet another person who is fascinated by the early-modern period as much as I am. Can’t wait to take a closer peek at that certificate–it’s a keeper!

    All the best, Holly

  10. Holly says:

    Wow, thanks for the kind post, Catherine! So wonderful to meet another person who is fascinated by the early-modern period as much as I am. I’d love to get a closer peek at that certificate…can’t read it closely enough over here in the States!

    All the best, Holly

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