The analysis of proteins extracted from a rare medieval birthing girdle has provided direct evidence to support the idea that these objects were used during childbirth.
For most of human history, childbirth was the leading cause of death among women. To try to protect themselves against the myriad ways in which pregnancy and birth could kill them, medieval women sometimes turned to the protection of birthing girdles – long, narrow strips of parchment that were inscribed with Christian prayers and iconography. It is believed that women would wear these girdles wrapped around themselves during the later stages of pregnancy and perhaps even during childbirth, but before now there was never any direct evidence for this.
Very few of these girdles survive – many are believed to have been destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries – and only seven British examples are known. Many of these appear fairly pristine and may have survived because they were not frequently used. There is one exception, however, held by the Wellcome Collection and dating to the late 15th century, which shows distinct signs of heavy use. To examine what these traces mean, a team led by Sarah Fiddyment from the University of Cambridge, attempted to extract proteins from the parchment.
In order not to destroy even a small portion of this rare artefact, the team gently worked an eraser over the parchment to extract ‘rubbings’, which it was hoped would contain not only information on what the parchment was made of but also information on any organic material on the surface.
From the analysis, they found that the girdle was made of sheep parchment, which is thinner than other types such as that made from calfskin, and hence may have been chosen for its ability to be easily folded.
They also found an interesting mix of proteins from the surface, including those derived from honey, eggs, sheep or goat milk, broad beans, and cereals. Interestingly, all of these ingredients are known to have been frequently used in medieval medicines, especially as remedies during labour. Additionally, there was a large number of human proteins detected, the vast majority of which could be identified as protein from cervico-vaginal fluid. Taken together, these results provide strong evidence that this girdle had indeed been used during childbirth.
The full results were recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.202055.