History: Medieval babies and their clothes

In honour of our newest member, we thought we’d talk a little about medieval babies and how they were dressed.

Mother with swaddled baby. British Library, Royal 10 E IV, f. 27v

If you look at any imagery of babies dating from the medieval or early modern period, it will quickly become apparent that babies are all drawn identically, as little bundles that look to the modern eye rather like an Egyptian mummy. This is swaddling, a long-lived practice introduced in antiquity and common throughout the medieval period.

Both pictorial and textual evidence from the medieval period demonstrate the ubiquity of swaddling at this time. For example, in his late 13th Century treatise, the English knight Walter of Bibbesworth wrote that:

When the child is born he must be wrapped.
Then lay him in a cradle and get a nurse. [1]

In contrast, the poverty of the biblical family is demonstrated in a late 14th Century English lyric wherein the Virgin Mary sings:

Jesu, swete, beo nout wroth [Jesus, sweet, be not angry]
I have neither clut ne cloth [I have neither rag nor cloth]
Thee inne for to folde, [To fold thee in,]
I ne have but a clut of a lappe [I have nothing but a rag of a lap]
Therefore ley hei fet to my pappe [Therefore, lay thy feet to my breast]
And kepe thee fro the colde. [And keep thee from the cold.] [2]

Other apocryphal biblical legends of the medieval period instead described Jesus’ swaddling being made from the Virgin Mary’s veils (a legend perhaps first stated in the 14th Century text Meditationes vitae Christi) or from Joseph’s cut-up hose (a legend popularised by the presence of a relic of these hose, the ‘Josefshosen’, at Aachen Cathedral) [3]. These lyrics and legends demonstrate that, to the medieval mind, swaddling was seen as the norm: it was something that even the impoverished Holy Family, despite being reduced to using a stable as a birthing chamber, would still make an effort to procure and use.

Medieval babies were swaddled because it was believed that their limbs were soft and liable to grow crooked if they were not bound as infants. This belief was long-standing. Plato refers to it in The Laws, where he suggests that in Athens:

…the child, while still soft, shall be molded like wax, and be kept in swaddling clothes till it is two years old. [4]

Plato’s works were known in Western Europe from the 12th Century. Similar ideas were promulgated by European scholars. For example, the 13th Century scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus wrote in his highly popular book, De Proprietatibus Rerum:

And for tendernes the lim[m]es of the chylde may easely
and sone bowe and bende and take dyvers shapes. And
therfore chyldrens membres and lymmes ben bounde with
lystes and other covenable bondes, that they ben not croked
nother evyll shapen… [5]

Although these academic texts were highly unlikely to have been read by even upper class women, the belief that children had to be swaddled in order to grow straight and strong was a pervasive one. As with much medieval lore, it continued to be passed on for centuries. Thus, in 1540 Eucharius Rösslin wrote that:

…when the infant is swaddled and laid in cradle, the nurse
must give all diligence and heed that she bind every part
right, and in his due place and order; and that with all
tenderness and gentle entreating [treatment], and not
crookedly and confusely [confusedly]; the which also must
be done oftentimes in the day. For in this is it, as it is in
young and tender imps [saplings], plants and twigs,
the which, even as ye bow them in their youth,
so will they evermore remain unto age. [6]

A near-identical statement was written in The Midwives’ Book, written by Jane Sharp and published in 1671.

Another potential benefit to swaddlig was to keep the baby warm, as indicated by the Marian lyrics quoted above. Within the medieval context, swaddling might also help to keep the baby still and thus out of danger in the comparatively hazard-filled environment of the medieval home and/or avoid the need to make (and wash!) numerous tiny garments that would be quickly outgrown. However, neither of these arguments for swaddling are given by medieval or Renaissance authorities. The 1st/2nd Century Greek physician, Soranus of Ephesus, does give another reason: to prevent the baby from scratching its eyes.

As for exactly how medieval babies were swaddled, the medieval authorities remain frustratingly vague. Soranus of Ephesus gives a detailed description of how to swaddle a newborn [7]. In this method, the limbs and torso are individually wrapped ‘Egyptian mummy’ style using soft woolen bandages. The baby’s limbs are then padded at the joints with a little wool before the entire baby is wrapped in a long, broad piece of cloth which itself is wrapped with another long, thin bandage. This method seems exceedingly involved and one wonders whether it was indeed the common practice of the day or, instead, just a hypothetical best method espoused by a male physician.

The 14th Century mystic and saint, Birgitta of Sweden, saw the Nativity in one of her visions. She described how the Virgin Mary:

…drew out two small cloths [panniculi] of linen and two of wool,
very clean and finely woven, which she carried with her to wrap
the infant that was to be born, and two other small linens to cover
and bind his head… [8]

Although this is useful for being a rare contemporary description of swaddling clothes, unfortunately Birgitta’s vision did not include a description of how these cloths were used.

Another vague yet tantalising description of medieval swaddling clothes occurs in The Book of Margery Kempe, written from the dictation of the English mystic Margery Kempe between the early 1430s and 1438. In it, Margery recounts how she had a vision of the Virgin Mary and offered to do service for her during the Nativity:

Also sche beggyd owyr Lady fayr [for] whyte clothys
and kerchys [kerchiefs] for to swathyn in [swaddle]
hir sone whan he wer born… [9]

Perhaps the clearest medieval description of the method of swaddling comes from the treatise Regimen sanitatis, written in 1309 by the Montpellier physician and professor Bernard de Gordon. When instructing nurses, he said:

She should wrap him [the baby] in clean and dry bands,
and extend the thighs, legs and arms on the sides. The swathe
ought to be wide and without folds, and she should not tighten
it too much or too little but moderately. Then she should
extend the thighs and the legs, and if the infant is male she
should put his penis and testes outside the thighs. Then
she should put him in the cradle. [10]

However, even this does not go into huge amounts of detail about exactly how the baby was wrapped. That said, it is interesting for its emphasis on avoiding excessively tight swaddling. This was clearly recognised not only by medieval and Renaissance academics but also by women. For example, in Margery Kempe’s vision she promises Christ:

“Lord, I schal fare fayr wyth yow; I schal not byndyn yow soor.
I pray yow beth not dysplesyd wyth me.” [11]

It was also recognised that swaddled babies needed regular changing. In Marie de France’s lai Milun, a prince’s newborn travels from South Wales to Northumbria, his carers stopping seven times a day to rest, feed and bathe the baby [12]. Although this is most likely hyperbole for the purpose of demonstrating how careful they were being of the babe, it is likely that in practice at least upper class babies, with their multiple nurses, were changed regularly. Certainly, later texts emphasise the need for regular changing. For example, in 1540 Eucharius Rösslin wrote that:

…let it [the baby] be washed two or three times in the day,
and that anon [immediately] after sleep; and in the winter
with hot water, in the summer with lukewarm water. [13]

In his 1612 book, Jacques Guillemeau gave more detail, writing that:

After the childe hath well sucked, and slept, the Nurse must
shift [change] him, and make him cleane … she shall unswath
and shift him dry. If hee be very foule, shee may wash him
with a little water and wine luke-warme, with a
spunge or linnen cloth.
The time of shifting him is commonly about seven a clocke in
the morning, then againe at noone, and at seven a clocke at
night: and it would not be amisse to change him againe about
mid-night; which is not commonly done.
…And surely there be many children, that had need to be shifted,
as soone as they have fouled themselves: which I would counsell
you to doe, and not to let them lie in their filth. [14]

In the 17th Century, midwife Jane Sharp instructed women to:

Shift the childs clouts often, for the Piss and Dung, if they lie
long in it, will fetch off the skin, and put the child to
great pain… [15]

As for what, exactly, it was that women and nurses were changing, it appears to have been the whole swaddling cloth. In the medieval period, even in very detailed 15th Century Italian inventories, which recorded the clothing and items sent with children to their wet nurses, no items that could be considered nappies can be found [16]. Likewise, in medieval illustrations babies are either shown as being swaddled or naked. This suggests that, prior to the second half of the 16th Century (when items called ‘clouts’, ‘double clouts’ and ‘tail clouts’ begin to appear in the textual record), babies did not wear nappies. As to what was used, the etymology of the German word for diaper, ‘windel’ is suggestive – it originally referred to swaddling clothes, being itself derived for the word for winding. This suggests that originally the swaddling clothes themselves acted as a nappy, with no additional cloth worn.

When considering how long the child should be swaddled for, expert opinion differed. As seen above, the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato advocated swaddling for two years. Soranus, writing in the 1st/2nd Century, stated that some people remove the swaddling from the fortieth day, most around the sixtieth day and some later still [17]. He also recommended that the swaddling be removed gradually. Beyond this, there are only meagre hints regarding typical swaddling, such as in Miracle 48 of St Louis, for October 1282, where a mother discovered, whilst removing his swaddling clothes, that her three-and-a-half month-old child had a paralysed right arm [18].

Very occasionally in medieval art and more commonly in Renaissance art, partial swaddling is depicted. Based on Soranus, as well as 16th and 17th Century literature, this appears to have been an intermediate stage. For example, Jacques Guillemeau wrote in 1612 that:

As soon as the childe is somewhat growne, and that hee
cannot well keepe his hands swathes in, and hid any
longer, (which is commonly about the twentieth or
thirtieth day, according as he is in strength) then must hee
have little sleeves, that having his armes and hands at
liberty, hee may use and stirre them… [19]

The midwife Jane Sharp made similar recommendations in 1671, although on a slightly different schedule, instructing that:

After four months let loose the arms, but still roul the belly,
and feet to keep out cold air for a year, til the child have
gained more strength. [20]

Once babies left swaddling, be it at the fortieth day (following Sorano), their first birthday (following Jane Sharp) or their second birthday (following Plato), they graduated into children’s clothing. This consisted of a long cote which reached to the ankles and was worn by both boys and girls.

Please note: swaddling, particularly with the legs bound straight as in medieval imagery, is associated with several serious potential health risks. See the Lullaby Trust website and the International Hip Dysplasia Institute website for more information. The De Caversham Household accepts no responsibility if you choose to swaddle your child.

 

References:

1. In Anglo-Norman, “E quant li emfez serra neez / Coveint k’il seit maylolez, / Puis en berc le cochez / E de une bercere vous purveez.” Translation and Anglo-Norman text from Lines 1-8 of The Treatise Le Tretiz of Walter of Bibbesworth, translated by Andrew Dalby and available online here2. Found in both Grimstone’s Commonplace Book (National Library of Scotland Advocates 18.7.21), f. 126a, dated to 1372, and in BL Harley 7822, f. 135b, c. 1375. It is lyric #24 here3. Both described in pp. 51-58 of The Theatre of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages by Gail McMurray Gibson and available online via Google Books. See also The Swaddling-Clothes of Christ: A Medieval Relic on Display by Sophie Oosterwijk. 4. From Book 7, 789e, available online here5. From Book 6 c. 5, 6, translated by Trevisa and published in p. 46 of Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation by G.G. Coulton, available online here6. From p. 155 of The Birth of Mankind: Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book, edited by Elaine Hobby and available online via Google Books. 7. Described in full in pp. 84-87 of Soranus’ Gynaecology, supplemented by Owsei Temkin, published by JHU Press and available online via Google Books. 8. From The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O! by Mary Dzon and Theresa Kenney. 9. From lines 429-430 of Book 1, Part 1 of The Book of Margery Kempe, available online here10. Quoted on p. 103 of ‘Litel Enfaunt That Were But Late Borne’: The Image of the Infans in Medieval Culture in North-Western Europe, the PhD thesis of Dr Sophia Oosterwijk. 11. From lines 434-435 of Book 1, Part 1 of The Book of Margery Kempe, available online here12. From p. 104 of ‘Litel Enfaunt That Were But Late Borne’: The Image of the Infans in Medieval Culture in North-Western Europe, the PhD thesis of Dr Sophia Oosterwijk. 13. Recounted on p. 155 of The Birth of Mankind: Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book, edited by Elaine Hobby and available online via Google Books. 14. From Chapter VII of the Treatise for the Nursing of Children by Jacques Guillemeau, within his book Childe-Birthe, or, The Happy Delivery of Women, available online here15. From p. 273 of Book VI of The Midwives Book: Or the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered, by Jane Sharp and available online via Google Books. 16. See p. 66 of Growing Up in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman for the argument against nappies in the medieval period. 17. From p. 114 of Soranus’ Gynaecology, supplemented by Owsei Temkin, published by JHU Press and available online via Google Books. 18. Referred to on p. 104 of ‘Litel Enfaunt That Were But Late Borne’: The Image of the Infans in Medieval Culture in North-Western Europe, the PhD thesis of Dr Sophia Oosterwijk. 19. From Chapter VIII of the Treatise for the Nursing of Children by Jacques Guillemeau, within his book Childe-Birthe, or, The Happy Delivery of Women, available online here20. From p. 273 of Book VI of The Midwives Book: Or the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered, by Jane Sharp and available online via Google Books.

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