Table of Contents:
Childbirth in Florence
A woman’s physical environment reflected her status within the family unit and Florentine society. When a young woman married, she moved from her family home directly into that of her husband. Childbirth typically occurred in the home, specifically the home of the father’s family, rather than in a hospital. In place of a doctor, a midwife without formal instruction but trained by experience served as the main help to a woman in labor. After delivering the baby, the midwife cut the umbilical cord, washed and swaddled the child, and announced the baby to the gathered friends and family. A hired guardadonna also attended to the mother and assisted the midwife with the delivery. In some households, slaves or domestic servants also acted as assistants.
While childbirth afforded Florentine women a rare moment of reprieve from the male gaze, certain practices both challenged and reinforced the lack of agency afforded to the typical middle- or upper-class woman. Though this space distinctly lacked a male presence, the responsibility for hiring and paying these women often fell on the husband. Without suffering through the horrors of childbirth by his wife’s side, a husband subtly influenced the process from afar.
Men happily left the women to their work during labor because childbirth came with a unique set of dangers and fears. The laboring Florentine mother walked the same tenuous line between life and death that the modern mother does, though without the aid of modern technology and medicine. Florentine women, however, created their own arsenal of aids, especially religious ones. Besides praying to the Virgin Mary, women sometimes turned to the tale of St. Margaret (who was reputed to have performed a miracle when she was swallowed by a dragon and emerged unharmed) to focus on the safe delivery of her baby through intense pain. Wine took the edge off the pain to some degree, but the screams coming from a woman’s room still deterred any curious man from entering.
Despite the many assistants, the risk of death remained high for both the woman and her newborn child. One estimate based on data from the years 1424, 1425, and 1430 claims that childbirth accounted for one-fifth of the deaths of married Florentine women. Even if both mother and child initially survived, the threat of infection, illness, or a fresh wave of the Black Death discouraged parents from getting too attached to their children. The practice of sending children to wet nurses or balia within just days of their birth and baptism contributed to the emotional separation between parent and child necessary for surviving uncertain times. This distant attitude toward young children manifested in glaring oversights in catasto records such as the underreporting of infants and generous rounding of ages. Though helpful as a coping mechanism, this separation also deprived a mother of an opportunity to exert some influence over her children, a facet of a woman’s life usually considered safely within the domestic realm and thus properly under her control.
Haas, Louis. The Renaissance Man and His Children: Childbirth and Early Childhood in Florence, 1300-1600 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).
Herlihy, David and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).
Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985).