Having recently read a few books set in the Victorian era, I happened across a custom that I had not heard of before – the ‘Churching’ of women after childbirth. Doing a quick search I discovered it had connections to Candlemas; being so close to February 2nd, it seemed an appropriate time to find out more….
‘Candlemas’ – ‘Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus’ and ‘Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’…. The 2nd of February being the day the Virgin Mary attended the Temple after the birth of Jesus, to be purified; Luke (2:22) – a Jewish rite, washing the sin of childbirth away. There were some who thought a woman to be ‘unclean’ and ‘unholy’, as she had engaged in sexual activity; holiness being virginity and celibacy – she required purification to be accepted back into society….
There is no evidence to say women were thought to be unclean after giving birth at the beginning of Christianity – that was a notion to arrive later on. Indeed, at first it appears to be quite to the contrary, the Churching ceremony began purely as a blessing of thanksgiving that the woman had survived the ordeal of childbirth – for until the beginning of the 20th Century giving birth was the single most common cause of death amongst women….
Because of high infant mortality it became practice to baptise babies as soon as possible after birth. Statistics from the 1700s alone show two-thirds of children in London died before they were 5 years old, many of these failing to reach their second birthday. Starvation and disease among the poor claimed many lives; affluent mothers did not feed their own babies, employing a wet-nurse instead – this in itself could easily pass on infection….
Very often, due to still being in recovery, the mother would miss the baptism of her newborn – during which would be a blessing for the new parents. So a second blessing for the mother began to establish; a simple ceremony…. The woman would come to the church entrance and kneel with a lighted candle – (an acknowledgement to the Feast of the Presentation; the candle would be blessed and then used in the home). The priest, wearing a stole, would then bless her with Holy water; she would then take the edge of his stole and he would lead her into the church and to the altar, where she would once again be blessed with Holy water…. She had been welcomed back into the church after her period of absence whilst she recovered….To me this sounds like a gentle, caring ceremony….
“Benedictio mulieris post partum” ~ (The blessing of a woman after giving birth)….
The problems began to arise during the Middle Ages; some preachers began to link the mother’s absence from the church and the baptism, with her ‘impurity’. The link to being unclean comes from the Book of Leviticus (12:1-8), which pronounces women as being unclean for one week after giving birth to a son and two weeks for a daughter. The mother was then to wait for between 1-2 months before she could be purified…. (The 40 days of the Leviticus law for purification)….
It wasn’t until the 4th and 5th Centuries that women began to be separated from the rest of society at the time of childbirth…. Indeed Pope Gregory the Great condemned the separation – deeming it would appear like a punishment to women – but gradually the practice was to become the ‘norm’….
Nowadays we often give birth in hospital and come home the same day…. Up to the middle of the 20th Century we could expect to stay in hospital for up to 10 days…. Before 1900 it wasn’t unusual for a woman to be bedridden for up to 6 weeks after childbirth….
During the time leading up to the 17th Century wealthy European women were cut off from the outside World at the time coming up to the birth and then for a considerable period after; kept away from husbands and older children – to be attended by midwives, ladies-in-waiting and female relatives…. This term was referred to as ‘lying-in’….or ‘confinement’ as it later became commonly known as…. The room would be specially prepared; it had to be sealed from all outside influences – heavy drapes at the windows – in some cases even to the extremes of blocking up keyholes! Most probably in an attempt to keep out evil spirits. A fire would be kept burning in the hearth – very often the room would have been stifling – and with the lack of fresh air – foul-smelling too….
It is debatable as to whether all Victorian women went into confinement before birth. For the lower classes this is an improbability as they would have had the need to continue working and looking after the family for as long as possible. Certainly though, for the richer classes, this may well have been the case…. In a time of prim and proper morals – but also rather a lot of vanity – baby bumps were not aesthetically pleasing. Pregnancy would have been concealed for as long as possible; in fact until 1860 there were no scientific tests available to determine pregnancy – women generally waited 5 months to make sure…. At a time when fashion dictated the wearing of tight corsets it was probably when this became an impossibility that the woman went into ‘hiding’. Special corsets for expectant mothers were designed, with expandable laces to accommodate the growing belly – but the wearing of corsets during pregnancy began to disappear in the 1840s….
As advertising the fact one was pregnant was not the ‘done thing’ certain terms to describe the condition came into vocabulary: ‘in the family way’, ‘with child’, ‘in a delicate condition’ or for those who wanted to put it more crudely ‘in the pudding club’ – terms that have somewhat stayed with us….
As for all the women before them, giving birth for a Victorian woman was a critical time; statistics show in 1876 the mother’s death rate was 1 in 200. Before the 1840s it was considerably higher than that; for before that time it wasn’t considered necessary for those in attendance at the birth to even wash their hands! Hygiene was simply not on the agenda…. It was Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, who became known as ‘The Saviour of Mothers’ – after he ordered all his students to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated water and lime before examining mothers…. The idea caught on and after that the infant mortality rate fell from 18% to 6%….
Malnutrition meant poorer women were often anaemic and in poor health – which meant the expectant mother and unborn child were at risk from the onset. Lack of Vitamin D and calcium could lead to rickets in the woman – giving the possibility of a contracted pelvis – making birth even more difficult. If problems did arise, few options were available. Before the sterilisation of equipment almost all caesarean sections proved fatal for the mother and were only ever performed to try and save the child if there was no hope for her – (without any anaesthetic of course)….
If the actual birth didn’t kill, then there was the risk of blood poisoning afterwards. Often a piece of the placenta would be left behind and gangrene would set in….
Obviously, there were no antibiotics available at the time; just as there was no pain relief until the mid 1800s. Chloroform or ether was the first anaesthetic to be used in a difficult birth, in January 1847 by Scottish physician James Simpson. It was he who attended Queen Victoria after she was persuaded to use anaesthetic for the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853 – so pleased was she that she made the physician a Baron.
After the Queen had used anaesthetic it became more accepted; up until that point the Church had disapproved of the use of pain relief, saying it was a sin to intervene, God had not wished the process to be painless. Some went as far to say it was a punishment for womankind, for Eve’s temptation of Adam….
Of course, even if mother and child survived the birth, infant mortality remained high. Families tended to be large (in 1800 the average family had 7 children); richer classes wanted a son and heir and would carry on producing until one arrived. Whereas, poorer families needed lots of children to work and help support the family. Most women would be giving birth every 18-24 months – each time putting her own and that of her child’s life at risk…. There was little option in the way of birth control and any that did exist was frowned upon by the Church….
There was no hard, fast rule as to how long a woman should be confined to bed after childbirth. Doctors often advised at least 9 days but anywhere between 5-15 days was considered normal. For some women it was a welcome rest (one thought is it was introduced to stop women being forced back to work straight away); for others confinement literally meant imprisonment….
For many of these women the ceremony of Churching was a time to rejoice – it marked the end of their confinement – they could once again get together with family and friends and celebrate their new-born child…. For some, especially those living in villages, social life revolved around the church – the choir, Sunday school, church outings and events….many knew little of life beyond the village…. Victorians were God-fearing and the parson would dominate the village – so it was very often his views that dictated those of his flock – therefore, although for many the ritual of Churching was a joyous occasion for others is was a matter of needing to be ‘purified’ before being accepted back into the church and society…. It was perhaps ‘pot-luck’ as to the view-point the parson concerned took on the matter – was it a blessing and giving of thanks to “the safe deliverance and preservation from the great dangers of childbirth” (from the Church of England Blessing) or indeed a cleansing of her sins…?
Towards the end of the Victorian era, due to advancement in science, people began to question the old religious beliefs; the likes of Charles Darwin were partly responsible for this. His ‘Origin of the Species’ – the theory mankind was not created by God but had evolved just like any other species, caused many attitudes to change – but obviously this did not happen over night….
There were still plenty who were of the opinion if a woman was unchurched after giving birth she was unclean…. They would be offended if they came across her in the street; if she were to enter another’s household she would be certain to bring bad luck – for some it was taken to the extreme that she was unable to prepare food even in her own home in case she should taint it….
By the early 1900s many women were beginning to feel aggrieved about being labelled ‘unclean’ – but ‘old school’ mothers and grandmothers could be very persuasive; so for many the rite continued…. It was eventually officially dropped by the Catholic Church in the mid 1960s but in some communities it still, to some degree, carried on right up to the 1980s…. Today Western Christianity no longer observes it (although it is still retained in Orthodox churches). Nowadays the mother is blessed as part of the child’s baptism ceremony….
I was quite surprised, on reading through the comments on a couple of on-line forums covering the subject – at just how much effect Churching has had on some women even now…. Women who had been Churched in the 50s/60s/70s often express how angry and bitter they feel at the demeaning treatment they received – some even said it turned them away from the religion they had grown up with…. That is such a shame – but just goes to show how interpretation can influence opinion…. One thing I am sure we’re all agreed on now – bringing a child into the World is a wondrous miracle; one that should be celebrated not repented for…. Whether we are religious or not – we should all give thanks that we live in the times that we do – childbirth will never be easy – there will always be risks – but it’s nothing compared to what womankind had to go through before us….