Magical obstetrics

There is something ultimately mysterious about the birth of a child, even now. We don’t know what governs sex selection in conception of a child, why some babies are stillborn, why some identical twins are conjoined, or how mutations happen. Even in our scientific times, we can only say that these things happen. Something like natural magic is behind it, even if we hope to chip away at the unknown.

How much more was it magical in the past, when natural magic was yet part of their science! Herbs or roots might help by some chemical process, or they might help by means of natural magic principles—who could tell? and all this was doubly true with women, pregnancy, and childbirth.

While Bald’s Leechbook majors in herbal and (for their time) scientific remedies, with only a few charms, the charms are present. The later Lacnunga manuscript mixes science and magic to a much greater degree. Its women’s health section is all magic. (Thank you Steve Pollington for the collection and translations.)

The Lacnunga book has a charm against stillbirth: Step over a dead man’s grave three times, reciting these words, “This as a relief to me for the hateful slow birth, this as a relief to me for the sad stillbirth, this as a relief to me for the hateful lame birth.” When she is pregnant and must lie down in bed at night, she should step across her husband, saying “I step over you with a living child, not a dead one, with a full-term baby, not a stillbirth.” And when the pregnant woman feels the baby kicking and knows it is alive, she should go to a church and say, “To Christ I said and declared this.”

The stillbirth charm probably predates Christian conversion; it must have been a charm to Nerthus or Freya. But in this late, Christian time, the woman is to make it piously clear that she is now saying these things to Christ.

Lacnunga’s further charm for inability to carry a child to term is darker: take a “piece” of her dead infant’s grave (handful of earth? piece of coffin? scrap of shroud?), and wrap it in black wool. Apparently this meant folding it up in several yards of cloth, so that it appeared to be a normal bolt of wool. The next step was to sell it to a trader and say, probably behind his back, “I sell it, you buy it, the black wool and seeds of my sorrow.”

We see here one of the principles of natural magic: to trap a source of trouble in some object and then remove it so that it can’t come back. The trader, unaware that he was buying a bolt with something tucked inside, would put it into his cart or ship and head to a large market town. There, it could be purchased by anyone. By the time they unfolded the black woolen bolt, and discovered the charm tucked inside, they would be so far away that bad luck could not find its way back.

This principle is also very alive in the last charm for stillbirth. This one is the most complicated, requiring a cow, a brook, two houses, and some food. The cow had to be all of one color, not brindled. Having milked this cow, and with some food in hand, the woman is ready.

She starts out, in one of the houses, sipping the milk from her hand without swallowing it. With her mouth full, she runs to the brook without looking behind, and spits the milk into the running water, where it is washed away. Then she scoops up some of the water and drinks it. She recites this charm: “Everywhere I have carried the splendid stomach-strong, with this splendid well-fed one, which I wish to have for myself and go home.” She then turns from the brook without looking back, leaving the source of trouble behind, washed downstream. She returns to a different house, “and takes food there.”

The charm has a clever touch that isn’t captured in modern English. In the phrases “splendid strong stomach” and “splendid well-fed,” the words are almost the same: “maeran magathihtan” and “maeran metethihtan.” The words seem to bind together, magically, the strength of one (the mother’s body) with the other (the infant who needs to be fed on “mete”). The word “food” that she must take into the house she enters is also “mete.”

Of course they didn’t work. But they must have felt as comforting and compelling as any placebo, and perhaps more so than many medical supports.

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