But until now, archaeologists didn’t have direct evidence they were used in childbirth.
When British archaeologists studied a 500-year-old parchment girdle, they found traces of vaginal fluid and a variety of substances thought to be used as remedies during pregnancy and childbirth. Their paper was published in Royal Society Open Science.
The girdle dates to circa A.D. 1500. Conservators at the Wellcome Collection in London thought it might have been used during childbirth because of its condition: It is stained and battered, and some of its iconography is worn in a way that suggests it was kissed or rubbed repeatedly. It is covered in religious symbols depicting the torture and crucifixion of Jesus and includes prayers to the Virgin Mary.
When researchers analyzed tiny fragments of the parchment with a technique that can determine an object’s physical composition, they didn’t just find bodily fluids. They also detected traces of honey, egg yolk, milk products, legumes and cereals. All were used in medieval medicines and by midwives.
“We do not know how the girdles were worn, but there are suggestions that due to the dimensions of the object — long and narrow — they were worn like a chastity belt, to help support the pregnant women both physically and spiritually,” Sarah Fiddyment, an archaeologist at the McDonald Institute of Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release. Fiddyment led the research.
Birthing girdles were banned by Protestant bishops in post-Reformation England. As a result, few survive.
Without new noninvasive technologies that confirm birthing fluids, the researchers write, it would be “almost impossible” to confirm the few that remain were really worn by birthing women.