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!


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)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email