Updated: Apr 5, 2021
A 500-year-old medieval birthing belt or “girdle” was recently tested to determine if it had once been worn or just used as a talisman. What they found was surprising.
A 500-year-old parchment belt or “girdle” was recently subject to a number of tests to determine if it had actually been worn by women. The results showed that the belt, which was covered in illustrations of religious symbols and prayers to the Virgin Mary, was not only stained in vaginal fluids but also with honey, eggs, milk, and cereals, all remedies once used by medieval midwives to help ease the pain of childbirth.
Sarah Fiddyment, an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge, suggests that the long, narrow sheepskin parchment belt was traditionally wrapped around the mother-to-be’s midsection like a chastity belt, in the belief that it would help protect pregnant women against harm and ease the labors of birth.
Although historians have long believed that birthing girdles were once leased to women by the Church, few of these unusual artifacts survive to this day. Their use was banned as part of Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541). During this time, there was also a concerted effort to destroy religious centers that venerated female saints, “many of which focused on childbearing and pregnancy,” the study said. So it is likely that most of the birthing girdles were destroyed at this time.
Since this particular birthing girdle survived and shows heavy wear, researchers believe that it may have been used secretly by women up through the 17th century. The belt, which is currently part of London’s Wellcome Collection, is so worn that some of its imagery is no longer clearly visible. This suggests that it may have been kissed or rubbed repeatedly, as well as being worn.
With little mention of the girdle's use from medieval women themselves, scientific confirmation of its long use shines a light on a medieval women’s health and obstetric care at a time when “accounts of childbirth were largely written by men,” says Matthew Collins of the University of Copenhagen.