“To which doubtless are owing the many Distortions and Deformities we meet with everywhere:” Fears of Swaddling in Early Modern England

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week Stephanie Allen writes about early modern attitudes to swaddling. 

16th century, swaddled child. from the Wellcome Collection online (1)

Swaddling is recognised today as an important method of ensuring the health and comfort of babies. Yet, the use of swaddling has a long history. In early modern England, babies were swaddled not for comfort, but to promote healthy skeletal development in growing infants. Texts which instructed on its proper use, however, also allowed fears of the atypical body to emerge because if done incorrectly swaddling caused bodily deformity.

In 1671 Jane Sharp wrote in her midwives’ book that, regarding new-borns it was important that midwives were

sure that all parts be bound up in their due place and order gently, without any crookedness, or rugged foldings; for infants are tender twigs, and as you use them, so they will grow straight or crooked…lay the arms right down by the sides, that they may grow right.

Sharpe described the malleability of babies’ bodies, and how their limbs should be positioned to encourage healthy development. Contemporary opinion was that the soft and undeveloped nature of infant’s bodies, meant that they were susceptible to manipulation.

Concerns about the dangers of swaddling persisted into the eighteenth century. Nicolas Andry’s orthopaedic text argued in 1743 that ‘The most part of children that are rickety, owe that disease to the ill manner in which they are swaddled,’ indicating that certain ailments were caused by swaddling due to their amended body. Having the baby in the wrong position when swaddling could affect ‘the shape of the body’ and the overall health of the baby. He believed that people chose to swaddle babies due to their consistent movement, but instead of it encouraging the correct development, it could result in a hindering of their ‘natural extension; and by this means occasions deformities which we should not see, if nature was left at liberty to conduct and direct this affair herself without trouble and constraint.’ Nature had formed all bodies, and if left to their natural devices they would continue to strive and remain healthy, it was when individuals sought to control an infants body that they put them at risk of deformity.

Similarly, Physician and writer on childcare and nursing, William Cadogan wrote in 1748 that

that Nature has made Children able to bear even great Hardships, before they are made weak and sickly by their mistaken Nurses. But besides the Mischief arising from the Weight and Heat of these Swaddling-cloaths, they are put on so tight, and the Child is so cramp’d by them, that its Bowels have not Room, nor the Limbs any Liberty, to act and exert themselves in the free easy manner they ought. This is a very hurtful Circumstance, for Limbs that are not used, will never be strong, and such tender Bodies cannot bear much Pressure: The Circulation restrained by the Compression of any one Part, must produce unnatural Swellings in some other; especially as the Fibres of Infants are so easily distended. To which doubtless are owing the many Distortions and Deformities we meet with everywhere.

Cadogan believed that nature had created human bodies to withstand a multitude of affects and did not need to be moulded or protected from external impact in this manner. Unlike other authors, Cadogan listed a series of side effects that swaddling could have on the baby’s body, such as overheating, cramping, and restricted blood flow and movement. Many of these would have been uncomfortable, if not painful, for the child and may have caused long term effects on the limbs and internal organs due to the compression. Cadogan was strongly against the use of swaddling and tight clothing, instead he recommended loose clothing that did not restrict or manipulate the body’s shape.

This post has briefly examined early modern fears of swaddling babies, and how its incorrect use could have cause bodily deformity. The research has stemmed off of my wider doctoral project which assesses deceptive and defective bodies and discusses bodily amendments.

 

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Stephanie is a final year Ph.D. student at the University of Hertfordshire. Her doctorate thesis is on the defective and deceptive body in early modern England. In 2018 she was awarded the Social History Society’s Postgraduate Paper Prize for her work on counterfeit virginity in early modern England. Currently, she is preparing her thesis for submission this summer and is working on her first article.

Illegitimacy. A War Problem?

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week Leanne Blaney writes about illegitimacy as a social problem in 20th century Glasgow.

In April 1915 – as the First World War raged on the continent and thousands of young men and women had their lives forever inexplicably altered –  Ronald McNeill, the Unionist MP had only one thing on his mind. He endeavoured to establish an “influential committee” to deal with the ongoing “problem” of unmarried mothers. Specifically those located in districts where “large masses [of] troops” had been quartered since the outbreak of the war.[1] A combination of time; more than nine months had passed since these regiments had been stationed in these various districts, and the ‘shipping out’ of various regiments to the front line had served to highlight the perceived ‘problem’. And the press were not adverse to reporting it.  An edition of the Daily Aberdeen Journal for instance, contained the rather alarming headline “Problem of Unmarried Mothers. 300 Cases in Aberdeen”. The accompanying article included an interview with a “prominent Aberdeen clergyman” who reportedly was aware of a “large number of forced marriages that had been taking place in the city recently”, which he believed was an indication of “the state of matters”.[2] Laying the blame for “quite a number of the cases” at the feet of those girls whose “home circumstances were not the most desirable and who paraded about the streets and ‘threw themselves’ at the soldiers”, the clergyman expressed the opinion that “this was not the time to be hard on the girls.” Instead he felt that “they must be looked after, and help must be given [to] them.”[3]

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“so a word to the wise’: reassessing the role of the upper-class Irish father in nineteenth-century childrearing’

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week Judy Bolger writes about a father´s involvement, through written advice, in the upbringing of his children.

‘So a word to the wise – Your mother says asses’ milk – or Breast milk given on a spoon’ wrote John D’Alton to his wife Catherine in 1819.[1] Though spending much of his family’s early years away from home, John’s surviving letters demonstrate that he was still very much engaged with his children’s feeding habits and their daily lives in Summerville, Dublin during the early nineteenth century.[2] Through these various references about his children, an alternative representation of the father is reconstructed. Much scholarly attention toward the period has reinforced the severity of the public and private divide amongst women and men.[3] However, such a sweeping generalisation about the gender norms of the period may not be as clear-cut as we have understood. In a nuanced manner, these letters not only showcased John’s engagement with his children’s rearing, but also his advice and interest in tasks that have hitherto been deemed outside his gender’s concern. Therefore, the extracts from the letters blur the lines between the traditional roles within the nineteenth-century upper-class Irish family.

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Instruments or hands? ‘Nature’ and the practice of obstetric surgeons in early eighteenth-century Germany

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week, Gabrielle Robilliard writes about 18th-century midwifery in Germany and the clash between male and female practitioners. 

If you wanted to edify yourself in 1790s Germany on the history of midwifery, you might have consulted J. G. Krünitz’s Oekonomische Encyklopädie (published 1773–1858), the most comprehensive German-language encyclopaedia of its time, which would have told you that:

For around 100 years in various countries in Europe, but largely in France, England and Holland, and now in many places in Germany, one has greatly improved the art of midwifery, and had few qualms about allowing several men well trained in that art to practise it rather than common midwives: indeed, in many large cities one has appointed several [men] skilled and experienced in this art … especially to provide advice and assistance to pregnant and parturient women and, in emergencies, to provide a helping hand.[1]

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A Desire to Eat Strange Things

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week, network director, Jennifer Evans looks at early modern understandings of cravings in pregnancy.

Everyone knows that pregnant women experience cravings for particular foods. This certainly isn’t just a modern phenomenon. Early modern medical writers were emphatic that this was a sign to watch out for in pregnant women. John Sadler, author of The Sicke Womans Private Looking-Glasse, believed that women would develop ‘a longing desire after strange meates’ once they were pregnant.[1] The satirical piece The Ten Pleasures of Marriage suggested that pregnant women at every dinner or celebration would be offered her fill of whatever she ‘long or have a desire’ for, even to the point that ‘no body else should so much as tast of it’.[2]

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A Roman Amulet for Protection in Childbirth

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week, Adam Parker discusses a roman phylactery created by a mother for her pregnant daughter as protection during childbirth. 

 

Discovered by a metal detectorist in 2007 in South Oxfordshire, UK (PAS: BERK-0B6771) this small, inscribed gold sheet is a truly interesting insight into the material strategies of personal protection in Roman Britain. A translation of the text inscribed upon the sheet reveals that this is a phylactery (a protective, magical charm) created by a lady named Terentia to protect her daughter Fabia during childbirth (Tomlin 2008).

The rectangular sheet is tiny. It measures 63.1mm x 28.3mm and weighs 1.41g. The text is all written on one side and is organized in sixteen lines of Greek writing. Although this is the Roman period and we might expect it to be Latin, there are lots of Greek texts from Britain – it might suggest that Fabia had spent time elsewhere in the Roman Empire

 

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The issue of maternal and child mortality: the German sense of the tragic

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week, Associate Director of the POP Network writes about the ways 18th century art reflects cultural attitudes toward pregnancy and medical intervention in birthing rooms.

Death during childbirth did not respect age or social class; it occurred more often than recently married women liked to think about. The same could be said of child mortality: if a child survived childbirth the perils of the diseases of early life awaited. In the German Territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the promotion of large families was central to the process of recovery after the Thirty Years’ War. Especially in rural communities this was seen as central to economic recovery even though it was a risk for the mother. This was a social belief supported by state policy, academic publications, and popular literature that would continue well into the 19th Century. .

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