Childbirth and pregnancy can be exciting and daunting all at once. Many modern day mothers-to-be use the internet or pregnancy books throughout their pregnancy to learn about the development of their baby and to seek advice for labour. As a mum of three I found these resources invaluable and found the images of large headed babies curled up inside the womb helped me to imagine and bond with my tiny new addition. The abundance of information we currently have available differs immensely to that which was available in the 1500s. As does the information and imagery given to advise and assist mothers and midwives. In 1540, visual imagery of a new-born in utero was a new phenomenon appearing for the first time in England in The birth of mankinde, otherwise named the Womans Booke, a German book translated by Richard Jonas into English. This book was revolutionary and set out to ensure that ‘the simplest midwife can reade, may both understand for her better intrusion, and also other that have need of her helpe, the more commoditie.’ The book was the earliest guide on pregnancy and childbirth in England and was extremely popular.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a copy of the second translation of this book from 1604 by Thomas Reynalde, which I had the privilege to research. There were two things that fascinated me about this book. Firstly, as a mother of three, I was intrigued by the diagrams, medical descriptions of childbirth, and the difference between their perceptions and ideas when compared to ours. I was also interested in the handwritten note in the front of the book, which delighted me, as I could pin this book down to one of its owners throughout the years.
I started my research by reading the book and what struck me the most was the diagrams of babies in utero or ‘birth figures’ (See Figure 1). The images of babies differ significantly from those in modern day literature. They do not have the over-sized head or tightly curled body but instead are more closely proportioned to adults. These engravings, if done in England, are thought to be some of the very earliest English engravings. The diagrams are an aid to midwives and instruct them on how to deliver a baby presenting in each position. It was interesting that when the book was written midwives had a contingency plan for any eventuality whereas in the modern day medical knowledge has evolved to advise a C-section if the baby is not in a desirable position.
I also found advice on how to encourage a swift labour such as ‘annoynting the privates with oyle, or other such greece’ something that I had not considered whilst in labour myself but retrospectively it seems like an ingenious idea.
There were also a number of recipes for homemade pills and for perfumes of which the woman was to ‘receive the fume and favour underneath.’ These are described as and accredited with helping labour to progress. An example is:
Fume of Cullver dung, or Hawkes dung, by
putting onto Oppoponacum
open the pores beneath and causeth nature to be freer in deliverance.
Cullver (Dove’s) dung and Oppoponanacum (a plant associated with healing properties) are no longer used to progress labour, but it is reassuring to read that even 500 years ago women were as eager to progress their labours as women are now. Pain relief too remains at the forefront of expectant mothers’ minds. Another recipe explained that the use of opium in one pill mixture would help relieve the pain of childbirth and was to be drunk with wine! Opiates are still used as pain relief during labour, but I imagine that wine is no longer recommended.
Having read the book, I took some time to research the handwritten note (Figure 2) to see who this book had helped. The inscription says:
Mary Mitchell her book 1785
John Aldridge of Acton Middx and
Mary Mitchell was married at St Mary’s
Alderman bury, London May 8th 1802
Emma Aldridge daughter of John and Mary Aldridge was born at Acton
Feby 24th 1803 Batised March 1803 at Acton
Mary Aldridge (née Mitchell) the owner of this book had lovingly written her name, that of her husband, and their wedding date, before then adding the name of their daughter Emma born February 24th 1803. I searched marriage and birth records using ancestry.com and struggled to find any information beyond the marriage certificate of Mary and John. I changed tact and searched for the first name ‘Emma’ in the area of Acton born during 1803. Several Emmas came up but with varying birth years or places of birth. I systematically explored each option. Finally an Emma born in Acton but with no confirmed birth year, only a suggestion of 1802, came up. Emma Clark, as she was called, had married a man called Frederick Clark, which confirmed that Clark was not her maiden name. Further investigation led me to discover that Emma and Frederick Clark had 4 children, the eldest of which was Frederick Aldridge Clark. Emma’s maiden name had been used as their eldest son’s middle name, I had found her! I was so pleased that Emma grew up to have a family of her own, two boys, Frederick and Lambert, and then two girls, Emmeline and Caroline. I also can’t help but wonder whether she used her mum’s book for advice during her pregnancies!
Eucharius Rösslin and Thomas Reynalde, The
birth of mankinde, otherwise named, The woman's booke newly set foorth, by
Thomas Reynalde phisition, and by him corrected, and augmented. Whose contents
ye'e may reade in the table following: but most plainely in the prologue.
(London: Thomas Adams, 1604) p. Aii
 Rebecca Whiteley,‘The birth of mankind’ and the revolutionary image of the foetus in utero (2015) < http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2015/06/the-birth-of-mankind-and-the-revolutionary-image-of-the-foetus-in-utero/> [Accessed 23rd January 2019]
 Rösslin and Reynalde, The birth of mankinde, p. 111.
 Rösslin and Reynalde, The birth of mankinde, p. 112.
 Rösslin and Reynalde, The birth of mankinde, p. 112.
 Rösslin and Reynalde, The birth of mankinde, p. inside front cover.
Whiteley, Rebecca ‘The birth of mankind’ and the revolutionary image of the foetus in utero (2015) < http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2015/06/the-birth-of-mankind-and-the-revolutionary-image-of-the-foetus-in-utero/> [Accessed 23rd January 2019]
Rösslin, Eucharius and Reynalde, Thomas, The birth of mankinde, otherwise named, The woman's booke newly set foorth, by Thomas Reynalde phisition, and by him corrected, and augmented. Whose contents ye'e may reade in the table following: but most plainely in the prologue. (London: Thomas Adams, 1604). (SR 97.8).