Birth and Education - Part 1 of 4
Being historical background for portrayals in camp to the public
By Clive & Lynn Simpson ('ECW Notes & Queries' - Caliver Books/Partizan Press)

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This four part series of articles are for use as knowledge about your living history background. This is especially important for campfollowers as it does concern giving birth and raising children. While the articles will mainly contain information about those who were quite well-off in the period, and therefore able to put information down on paper, it must have been very similar, but not as comfortable, for those of lower social standing (the so called 'lower Orders').

Still, these articles should be a great help when talking to various public about the period in general. Therefore, you may want to save these articles for future reference.

Family Size

It is commonly supposed that pre-modern homes were swarming with children. In reality this was normally very different. Since females commonly married between 23 and 27 years of age, and with menopause beginning around the age of 40, the period during which the average wife could give birth was fairly limited. Moreover, many marriages did not last through the full potential reproductive span, owing mainly to premature death of one spouse or another. The average number of children born to one wife was therefore only 4 in upper-class England.

The interval between births generally was between 24 and 30 months. One explanation for this was loss through miscarriage, still births and induced abortions. Another important reason was that birth intervals lengthened very significantly with age, either due to loss of female fertility or of male virility, or because of greater incentive for, or expertise in, contraceptive practices.

One significant fact about family size is that unlike today, the rich had more children than the poor. One reason for this is that the former married younger wives, re-married more rapidly and more frequently than the poor in the event of the early death of the wife. Mothers were more fertile before the eighteenth century since they lacked the contraceptive protection of lactation, the children being normally put out to wet nurses instead of being nursed by their mother. Thirdly, the rich were better fed and housed. There is reason to think that unhealthy living conditions, bad hygiene, and rotten food and malnutrition, may have been powerful causes of infertility, as well as high infant mortality.

Life Expectancy

The life expectation in England in the 1640's was only 32 years. Of those born alive the ones most at risk were obviously new-born infants. The recorded death rate of one-year-olds was about 18%. Between ages 1 and 5 the prospects of survival were significantly, though not dramatically, improved. Of all the children of either Peers or the 'meaner sort', a quarter to a third died before the age 15. It is suspected that a proportion of infant deaths were due to parental neglect. The mother exposed children to lack of attention in the first critical weeks (mothers not getting too fond of something that could die in a matter of hours or days). In addition, premature weaning, accidental smothering while in bed with the parents, and transfer of infant care to unsuitable wet nurses, all factors causing infant deaths, not to mention the fact that children were also abandoned in doorways, or deposited in workhouses or foundling hospitals.

It is interesting to note that if you survived to age 21, and were a member of the privileged classes, you could expect to live to 63 in the 16th-century. This rose to a peak of age 70 at about 1760, but during the mid-17th-century the average dropped to age 55, possibly due to effects of Civil War.


Folklore and customs surrounded the actual birth of a child. As soon as labor began all the knots in the bedchamber were loosened! To give birth the mother sat in a chair (usually wearing only a chemise) that had no seat (like a commode). The baby appeared from under the skirts and was whisked away by the midwife. The baby would then be bathed and wrapped in an old piece of cloth as its first garment. The midwife had to be careful that its first journey was upward and not down, even if it meant standing on a chair with the baby in her arms to do it! The child's first drink was a sip of water from a container, into which a red hot cinder had been dropped. The mother was then washed and put to bed, where she could be confined for as much as six weeks (compared with the modern norm of only a few days).

No where was the use of herbs so important as in treatment of female ailments and care of children. To prevent miscarriage rose petals were pounded until softened, then taken with honey, rosemary and wild strawberries. A woman relieved morning sickness with a drink made of tansey or wormwood. The pains of childbirth were lessened with a brew of rue, while ivy and thyme were taken to deal with afterbirth effects. Fenerfew was taken for treating fevers, hysteria and difficult labors

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