Thursday, March 22, 2012

Women at Sea: "When A Child is Ready to Be Born"

We've spoken about women aboard ship giving birth before, history showing us that it was not as unusual an occurrence as the Victorians would have us believe. We’ve also touched on the great help that Jane Sharp’s 17th century publication The Midwives Book must have been to those women at sea. Combining the two becomes an exercise in understanding just how much intrinsic knowledge our “uneducated” female ancestors really had.

While it must be admitted that women do not always go into labor at the most convenient times – David Cordingly mentions a case during the Battle of the Nile where a purser’s wife almost literally dropped her child on the gun deck as she was helping to carrying water to the gun crews – trying to hurry things along can do more harm than good. Sharp is very clear in her chapter on labor and delivery that midwives should not “force” the process. She speaks of breaking “the waters” with sharp fingernails and giving “harsh” tonics to speed up the process as uncalled for. Sharp even compares the outcome of such procedures to torture:

there is great care and skill to be used, or the woman were as good be set upon the Rack.

Sharp makes clear that the “waters” should break of their own accord, but “if the water break away long before the birth, it is safe to give medicaments to drive the birth…” Again, she is patient in her approach, advising first that the attendant massage the mother’s back with warmed “Oyl of Poppies, water Lillies or Violets”. In this case, Sharp is dealing with the Humeral theories proposed by Hypocrites through Galen, her concern being the “heat” of the kidneys. But the error in origin does not discount the treatment; massage with warm oil – particularly if infused with a mild narcotic such as tincture of poppy or water lily – would certainly alleviate a margin of the back pain experienced by laboring women.

Regular examination of the cervix, or “inward neck of the womb”, is also recommended by Sharp. She admonishes the midwife to “[anoint her hand] with fresh butter or oyl of sweet Almonds” before this procedure. If the infant’s head is present, then delivery is imminent. While Sharp does not designate time frames for regular re-examination, she is clear that this procedure should not be attempted prior to that natural “breaking of the waters.”

Sharp does not recommend that women in labor eat or drink much of anything. Again, this is a good rule of thumb that any modern obstetrician would agree with. For long labors, when a woman is losing her strength, warm broth or a “potched egg” with an “ounce of Cinnamon water to comfort her” is permitted. These recommendations assume the best of conditions, and stories of births at sea include the mother drinking grog or wine rather than water.

If things aren’t going as planned, however, priorities have to shift and Sharp gives more than one recipe to “hasten and ease delivery.” “Featherfew or Mugwort boil’d in white wine” are recommended, as are similar “sirrups” containing tansy, pennyroyal, dittany, betony, cinnamon and saffron. Many of these herbs would have been available at sea from surgeon and cook, and doubtless some of these “sirrups” stood by in the sick birth or a lady’s personal cabinet. Some of the herbs mentioned are well known to modern medicine; “featherfew” for instance is now lumped in with its cousin feverfew which is used in migraine treatments to relieve pain and nausea via its anti-inflammatory properties. Mugwort and pennyroyal can increase muscle contraction; tansy calms anxiety.

Of course the ultimate goal of the entire process is the health of both mother and child, and Sharp keeps this in mind throughout. The knowledge that she set down on paper had been passed from one woman to another and continued to be communicated up until the mid-19th century, when male doctors replaced the helping hands of midwives and friends. It is, perhaps, a curious coincidence that women were far less often aboard ship – other than as passengers – by that time as well. Speculating on any correlation between the two is probably useless, but the rediscovery of just how intrepid our distaff ancestors actually were is gratifying nonetheless.

Header: Taking Caudle by Richard Dagley c 1821 via Ancestry Images


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another good example of how much more capable our ancestors were than we like to give them credit for, generally speaking.

Pauline said...

Exactly; and the issue always seems to be magnified in the case of women.