Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Childbirth in Scandinavia in the 16th century

Dagligt Liv i Norden i det 16 århundrede 
Fødsel og Daab

The mother gets a drink
Superstition was still alive in the 16th century's Scandinavia , much  like in the dark Middle Ages,  but it was more spread among people, and more common in the countryside than in the city. It might also have something to do with people being afraid of the dark at night. The city streets were relatively lighted up by the lit windows in the houses, but in the country the night was really black, especially in the winter season, and Christmas was a special dangerous time. No one went out after dark. The cattle had been taken care of - there was no need to go out in the stable. The household stayed inside in safe surroundings. Outside ruled the trolls and the elf-people

The situation around the birth of a child was filled with dangers. "The mother to be" was assisted by a group of women who had to help her with everything possible, but their most important job was to watch that the newborn child became a * changeling - a a troll came and changed it with a troll-baby. Whatever the group of women were many or few,  they all stayed in the same room at nightfall - the delivery room. In common or poor homes the assisting women were usually a group of wives, who also had to go home and take care of their own house and children, only two or three could stay all the time, but in the nobility the women were family and friends, often from far away. They were invited to witness the important family event and they stayed in the house for some time.

the baby is being wrapped.
It might not seem a good idea to disturb the mother's nightrest, but the precaution  around the newborn child was one of the most important according to the contemporary concepts. The most difficult fight was in charge and many were needed to assist against the evil trolls.  All night through the women had to protect the two heathens, the mother and the baby, against the powers of the dark.

First of all the room had to be continously illuminated. Poor people - who daily used some special sticks which could not be kept lit all night - had  to keep the fire burning in the hearth day and night as long as a heathen child was in the house. This was still a custom around 1900 in some districts in Norway and Sweden. The prosperous and rich people in the Catholic period had consecrated lights. They also sprinkled the room with holy water, and smoked it with consecrated herbs. But after the reformation people just used common lights and crossed themselves and put a book of psalms upon the baby's chest. Still on the time of the writer Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754)  this custom was used. The lights had to be as oldfashioned as possible, the waxlights were not as effective as the old tallow candles. (Ludvig Holberg wrote a comedy Barselstuen (The Delivery Room)

Trolls, fresco Voldby kirke
By using these precautions and still being two or three watching-women in the room they were able to secure the two "heathens" -  ( as they were considered to be until the baptismal) . But the women were sometimes in doubt if they - while they were in a hurry - had done one of some fatal errors. They  might have been drying the child's clothes out in the air,  or they might have borrowed something out from the house, or they might have been rotating the grinder etc. - there was no end on all those dangerous things they might have done. And this could be fatal in a house with a little heathen child. Especially the Christmas period was dangerous for the child.

A son for the knight's wife.
In such circumstances the women could do nothing else but try to have the damage fixed. The baby  was the weakest of the two heathens, it had to be cured first of all. It might be cured by a lead coin, best if it was cast of church lead and with a carved cross, hung around  the baby's neck in the name of Christ. A stronger cure was a ring, cast in silver, collected from nine various women, whose first born was a boy. The most effective cure was to bear the child again by putting it naked through a priest's collar, or through the hole of a together-grown tree, or through an opening in a grass turf from the church yard -  or through the fence by a cross road. And all the time while saying Lords Prayer.

If none of those cures were good enough,  it really seemed that the child in spite of the care of the women had been confused with a troll's child. The women had been overwhelmed with fatigue and the woman, who had to do the watch had unfortunately fallen a little asleep. But even though they were all awake the cunning troll might sneak into the room anyway, while the tallow lights burnt drowsily. The troll might sneak along the deep shadows, remove the book of psalms from the baby's chest and change the baby with his own troll-baby without anyone noticing it.

A changeling is whipped.
If the women had a reason to believe that this had happened, there was nothing else left but having this little monster sent back to its home and get back the right child. But first they had to be sure that the child really was a changeling. A changeling-baby might be recognized by its big head and excessive appetite, but since human babies might be alike, the women had to do two tests. One was to hold the naked baby towards the sun in the morning - especially on Easter morning. If the child was a changeling it would crack at once. The other milder test was to lure the changeling to talk and thereby reveal its real age. For although it looked like a baby and lay in a cradle it was really an old guy. It was all foul play from the troll's side when the baby pretended not to be able to talk or understand but only knew how to eat.

Many tricks were done to lure the troll-baby to reveal itself. A Jutland woman was brewing some beer and did it in a special odd way, and the baby suddenly said. "I have lived for many years and have never seen it done in this way!". Another woman used another trick. She promised to give the child some sausage but served roast pork and the baby said. "I have never seen such a sausage in all my life," And such the women tried to make the troll-child reveal its true nature.

It was more difficult if it was impossible to see if the baby was a changeling. But if suddenly there were two babies in the cradle then there was really panic among the women. Which one was a changeling? Such cases are told in both Scandinavia and Germany. There was an advice to find out which child was a changeling. A wild foal was fetched. The two babies were laid upon the ground, shrouded in a cloth and the foal sniffed to them. The foal sniffed to one child and wanted to lick it, but when it sniffed to the other child, it became quite wild and crazy and wanted to kick it. There was no doubt who was the changeling! But before anyone could do anything a tall woman came along, took the changeling and disappeared.

Delivery room, 16th century.
If the watch-women and the parents had found out that the baby was a changeling, they had to mistreat it so forcefully that the true parents, the trolls, had pity and took it back. So the women whipped the little monster, they spit on it and swept it out of the house with the dust rubbish , they pretended they wanted to burn it in the hot oven -  but sometimes the changeling in the shape of a little guy, run off himself, he curled up and roll along up hills and down valley - or else it might happen that an old man or woman showed up, took the changeling and put the human baby in the cradle instead. Such strange stories are told from Germany, England, Scotland and Ireland.

With all these terrible dangers it was no wonder that the parents wanted to baptize their baby as soon as possible, and it was usual at that time that a baptismal came soon after the birth.  People considered the baptismal like a new life where the child was dressed in some kind of armour. The child was hardened they said. This expression was still used in the 19th century.

* changeling, Danish word: skifting. 

Dagligt liv i Norden i det 16 århundrede, Troels fr. Troels-Lund, 1914-1915, Tema: Danish Literature, Middle Ages. .

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