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Durham University

Research & business

Medieval parchment worn as ‘birthing girdle’ during labour

(12 March 2021)

medieval parchment

The birthing girdle from The Wellcome Institute

A 500-year-old parchment birthing girdle could give us more insight into childbirth for medieval mothers.

A research team, including one of our experts, looked at non-human materials detected in one of the few surviving English girdles to see what their significance was in medieval birthing procedures.

These materials offer direct evidence that such girdles were physically worn like a chastity belt, to help support pregnant women during childbirth. 

Important protection in a perilous age

Childbearing in medieval Europe was a highly perilous time with considerable risks for both mother and baby.

The Pre-Reformation Church in England offered numerous talismans or relics to pregnant women hopeful for a safe delivery – including birth girdles, made from different materials including silk, paper and parchment.

The team used erasers to delicately rub the fragile parchment and analyse the girdle using a non-invasive sampling technique called eZooms – originally developed to identify the animal species from which ancient parchments were made.

Medieval recipes

The team detected numerous non-human proteins including honey, milk and plants which have all been documented in medieval texts as treatments relating to pregnancy and childbirth.

After researching medieval recipes utilised during childbirth, Honorary Research Fellow, Dr Natalie Goodison found these ingredients documented in medieval medical treatises used to treat women during pregnancy and labour.

As girdles were frequently kept in monasteries and were likely revered as relics imbued with spiritual powers, this means that it may have been treated with veneration.

Therefore, this reduces the likelihood that honey was merely spilled on it during lunch in the refectory, but instead acquired through its major use: the labour and delivery of childbirth.

Find out more:

The analysis was undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Durham, the Wellcome Institute and the University of Cambridge.

This work was supported by the European Research Council, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship funding, Danish National Research Foundation and a CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership.

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