“Call The Midwife for the 17th Century”
Lucie Smith is a respected midwife who is married to Jacob, the town apothecary. They live happily together at the shop with the sign of the Three Doves. But sixteen-sixty-five proves a troublesome year for the couple. Lucie is called to a birth at the local Manor House and Jacob objects to her involvement with their former opponents in the English Civil Wars. Their only-surviving son Simon flees plague-ridden London for his country hometown, only to argue with his father. Lucie also has to manage her husband’s fury at the news of their loyal housemaid’s unplanned pregnancy and its repercussions.
The year draws to a close with the first-ever accusation of malpractice against Lucie, which could see her lose her midwifery licence, or even face ex-communication.
As they walked the short distance to the shop, one of the traders, a farmer’s wife from a couple of miles outside the town, grabbed Lucie’s arm.
‘Might I have a moment of your time, Mistress Smith?’ she said. ‘I am with child again and need some advice.’
‘Of course, Goodwife Todd.’ Lucie recognised her as a gossip at the Townshend birth. ’Why don’t you follow us back to the Three Doves, so I can see you immediately?’
Safely back in her kitchen, Lucie looked at Hannah Todd.
‘Judging by your bigness, I’d say you have but a month to your time. Is that right?’
‘Oh no, I yet want four months, Mistress Smith.’
Lucie was very surprised and asked Hannah to accompany her to her chamber, so that she might touch the woman’s belly while she lay flat on the bed. When Hannah removed her dress, Lucie was shocked at the tightness of the laces on her leather stays. By pinching her in from breasts to navel, her corset was forcing the lower part of her belly to jut out in a way that looked not only unnatural but unhealthy.
‘Why on earth are you laced so tightly?’ Lucie asked.
‘It’s my husband’s mother’s doing. She insists upon it,’ Hannah replied.
‘Damaris? I thought she would have known better.’ Lucie told her this was a great error, and that she ought to allow herself as much liberty as possible.
Hannah was very relieved and said, ‘That sounds like good counsel. I’m sick and faint three or four times a day, and that’s why I wished to consult you.’
She then asked if Lucie could speak to her husband about it, since it was his mother’s advice and he was eager for her to follow it.
Hannah went on to explain that she had been pregnant twice before and in each case she had laboured for a week and given birth to a dead child. Her husband had insisted that this was because she hadn’t laced herself tightly enough. Lucie ordered Mary to help Hannah adjust her laces and put her clothes back on. When Hannah left, she said she would ask her husband to come to the Three Doves so that Lucie could speak to him.
Half an hour later, Farmer Todd came in to request an interview with Mistress Smith. He listened to what the midwife had to say and agreed he would allow his wife to loosen her stays, in light of her opinion and experience. He explained that he had only persuaded her to bear the lacing because he was desperate for a living child, and that his mother meant well. Lucie was at a loss to imagine what advantage anyone thought a woman might receive from severe lacing. Lucie told him that the female body had been designed to expand with the child growing in the womb and if women were laced too tightly the bowels and other organs would be squashed, so it was little wonder his wife had been sick and fainting.
Thank you, Sara Read and Love Books Group
About the author
Dr Sara Read is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. Her research is in the cultural representations of women, bodies and health in the early modern era.
She has published widely in this area with her first book Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England being published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.
She is a member of the organising committee of the Women’s Studies Group, 1558-1837 and recently co-edited a special collection produced to celebrate the group’s 30th anniversary.
She is also the co-editor of the popular Early Modern Medicine blog. With founding editor Dr Jennifer Evans, Sara wrote a book about health and disease in this era Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740 (Pen and Sword 2017).
Sara regularly writes for history magazines such as Discover Your Ancestors and History Today. In 2017 she published an article ‘My Ancestor was a Midwife’ tracing the history of the midwifery profession for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine in 2017. She has appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Freethinking programme and is often to be heard on BBC Radio Leicester and BBC Radio WM.