shakWilliam Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio
William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio

By tradition, Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day April 23rd 1564, 457 years ago. He died on April 23rd 1616 at age 52. Cervantes died on the same day. The death date is given by the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on Avon where he was buried. His baptismal record also survives at the same church and is on April 26th 1564. but we don’t actually know when he was born.

Anne Shakespeare would have ‘taken to her chamber’ about four weeks before the due date. The windows or shutters would have been fastened as fresh air was thought to be bad for the birthing process. Female friends and relatives would come round, and the room would be decorated with fine carpets, hangings, silver plates and fine ornaments. It was felt that external events could influence the birth, and any shocks or horrors were thought to be the cause of deformities and anomalies, so a calm lying-in room was clearly a good idea.

When labour began female friends, relatives and the midwife were called to help out. A caudle of spiced wine or beer would be given to the mother to strengthen her through the process. Today the maternal mortality rate is 7 per 100,000. An estimate for the 16th Century is 1500 per 100,000. So most women would have heard of or attended the birth of women who had died during or following children birth. There were also no forceps so if a baby were stuck and could not be manually manipulated out, then the only way forward was to get a surgeon to use hooks to dismember the baby to save the life of the mother. Doctors were not normally in attendance, but could be called in emergency,

Immediately after washing the baby was swaddled. The swaddling was often very tight and could affect the baby’s growth, and might have affected the learning process as movement of hands are now considered very important in the early learning process. Swaddling lasted eight to nine months, and only went out of fashion after Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote against the practice.

Detail of tomb of Alexander Denton and his first wife Anne Willison, and her baby dressed in swaddling clothes Photo Wikipedia Hugh Llewelyn

Puerperal fever killed many women after successful childbirth for example Queen Jane Seymour who died after 5 days. During these dangerous early days the mother was kept in a dark room, and then, perhaps three days after birth friends were invited to celebrate ‘upsitting’ when the mother was no longer confined to bed. This is when christening would take place.

Edward VI was christened to a huge audience in the chapel at Hampton Court three days after his birth. Licensed midwives could baptise newborn babies provided they used the correct wording and informed the Church so that the registration could be properly reported. Thomas Cromwell was responsible for the law in 1538 which insisted on a parish register to record weddings, christenings, and funerals. The law was reaffirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1558 and registers had to be stored in a locked chest in the Church. (In 1597, the records had to be on parchment not paper, and in 1603 the chest had to have three locks!).

If the Christening were in the church the mother might not be there as she was expected to stay in her chamber for another week or so.

A week or a few weeks later the mother would be ‘churched.’ This was a thanks-giving ceremony, although Puritans did not like the idea that it could be considered a purification ceremony.

Breast feeding would last a year or so and many high status women choose to use a wet-nurse, but there was a real concern that the wet nurse was suitable as it was believed that the breast milk was important for the babies development both physically and temperamentally. Poor children who lost their mothers were very unlikely to survive as, without breast milk, the baby would be fed pap – bread soaked in cow’s milk.

Thanks very much to Alison Sim’s book ‘The Tudor Household’ for a lot of the above.


Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán FROM wikipedia
Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán – she is carrying her severed breasts

She is a Sicilian Saint, who refused to sleep with a powerful Roman in the third Century AD, and was imprisoned, tortured, had her breasts pincered off, still refused to sleep with him and died in prison. She is remembered by cakes shaped as breasts eaten on her feast day of February 5th.

breast shaped cakes called Minne di Sant'Agata, a typical Sicilian sweet
Minne di Sant’Agata, Sicilian (Wikipedia)

‘She is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, and bakers, and is invoked against fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.’


It is suggested that illustrations of her severed breasts led the bell founders and bakers to mistakenly adopt her as patron saint as they thought the platter shown in illustrations of the Saint bore bells or loaves not her actual breasts. (You couldn’t make this up could you?).

If you have been reading this blog you will know of my concern about the way the early church seemed to revel in giving its martyr’s not only very gruesome deaths, but also very varied and unique modes of death. I’m wondering how this came about. My guess, is that, the rewards of having a popular saint as patron was so important to churches that they embellished early stories in order to encourage more veneration. Perhaps they also saw a market in specialising in occupation and health groups. You might call this the supply side. On the demand side medieval guilds sought divine protection, and those suffering from ailments needed consolation. So a saint who was a virgin could command a loyal general audience, (think Dads and Mums and young women), her embellished story would attract more specialist audiences such as women; young women; virgins; nursing mothers; wet nurses; women and families with health issues concerned with breasts; people who live near a volcano, and with a bit of creative confusion can also attract bell founders and bakers.

Or am I being cynical? But really why such variety in the cruelty? I personally find it sickening. I mean writing this, and the previous St Blaize post makes me feel slightly physically sick. And it is repeated in virtually all early martyrdom stories.

The fact would normally have been that the martyr was taken to the local amphitheatre and beheaded. Although, now I come to think of it, executions in the Roman period were part of the entertainment industry, and often had theatrical elements to them.

Any ideas let me know.

St Agatha's Church, Kingston on Thames
black and white illustration
St Agatha’s Church, Kingston on Thames

Sunday, I’m doing Guided and Virtual Walks on the Archaeology of London Bridge.

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

My next walks – virtual and guided are here:


1375, French Caesarian Birth, (most likely to have killed the Mother or be performed when the Mother is dead or is dying.)

When Britain reluctantly joined the Gregorian Calenda, in 1752, we lost 11 days, so if you add 11 to 31st December you get to New Year Old Style. You can do this with any date, and when celebrating feel you are being really authentic.

So, anything you do on the New Style 31st Dec. you can do on the 11th – except convince your boss that you have a legitimate reason for not coming to work because of the hangover! In case you have forgotten what you should be doing look here to look back on New Year’s Eve, New Style.

It is probably a particularly ‘witchy’ evening because its the traditional Eve, not the new-fangled one. So, according to Reginald Scot in his ‘Discovery of Witchcraft’ 1584 all you need to do to discover a witch (who has bewitched your cow) is to put your breeches on the cow’s head, and beat the poor animal out of the field with a good cudgel (best done on a Friday). The cow will run right to the witch’s door and strike it with her horns. It does make you wonder whether they really believed this nonsense. Clearly, the cow is most likely to go to the house that is nearest the exit from the field? And why the breeches and not a blindfold? and why be so cruel to the cow? I guess the people who believe this sort of thing are the same type who believe QAnon?

It is also Carmentalia, the festival for the Roman Goddess of prophecy and childbirth. She was a much loved Goddess in the Roman pantheon but little is known about her perhaps because she has no clear match in the Greek.

She has a long history in Roman history being said to be the mother of…. well this may surprise you because I didn’t know this before, she was the mother of Evander and Evander is the founder of Pallantium, which was a City on the site of Rome that predated Rome!

Who knew that? (the people at Vindolanda Roman Fort know and they have a great page on Carmenta here. ) She also commanded one of the the fifteen flamen. These were priests of state sponsored religions. They prohibited anyone coming to the Temple wearing anything of leather.

Carmenta had two sidekicks who were her sisters and attendants. Postvorta and Antevorta, They might be explained by Past and Future. (in fact, after and before). Or dedicated to babies that come out head first or legs first.

Vindolanda make the point that 2% of births in the past are likely to have caused the death of the mother, and, because of a high mortality in the children, to keep a population stable a mother might have to have 5 children on average, giving her a 12% chance of death by giving birth.

Good reason to have a Goddess on the Mum’s side.


Crack Willow Trees on the Oxford Canal, August 2021

On the sixth day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
6 Geese a Laying; 5 Golden Rings; 4 Calling Birds[ 3 French Hens; 2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Nature provides many plants that can soothe headaches. One of the best documented is willow bark. Here is a record of how simple it could be to use:

‘I am nearly 70 years old and was born and bred in Norfolk… My father, if he had a ‘skullache’ as he called it, would often chew a new growth willow twig, like a cigarette in the mouth.’

‘A Dictionary of Plant Lore by Roy Vickery (Pg 401)

In the 19th Century Willow was found to contain salicylic acid from which aspirin was derived. As a child I remember chewing liquorice sticks in a similar way, although supposedly for the pleasure and the sweetness not for the many medicinal virtues of the plant.

Yesterday’s weather on the 5th Day of Christmas was warm and damp in the early part and sunny later on. This means, according to Gervase Markham, that the 5th Month, May will begin warm and damp and then later on will be lovely and sunny. ‘The English Husbandman’ of 1635. Today, the sixth day foretells Jume. So far, unusually warm and damp.

The Day of Nymphs in Greece dedicated to Artemis, Andromeda, Ariadne, Ceres. (according to the Goddess Book of Days by Diane Stein.)

Only 4 days to go to my ‘Ring in the New Year Virtual Walk.’ Click here to book.

Sex in the 15th Century – Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles

The Monk-Doctor the 2nd story based in London about a merchant’s daughter with piles. After many unsuccessful ‘cures’ a monk takes on the task. He in blowing a medicine through a tube to cure the piles but he spends too long examining the girl through a hole in a cloth that has been draped over her bottom. She tries to stifle a fit of giggles which becomes a fart and blows the corrosive medicine into the Monk’s one remaining eye and blinds him. The case is taking to the courts and becomes a celebrated and much discussed case.

This is a 15th Century French collection of bawdy tales. The illustrated version in the Hunterian, Glasgow has some marvellous illustrations.

To read the stories follow this link to the Project Gutenberg.

Life Scientific vindicates Florence Nightingale’s Wards

Cath Noakes, an expert on ventilation and Covid talking on Life Scientific today on BBc Radio 4 ( reported on experiments using a Nightingale Ward design and found it was likely to cut down the spread of infection by 4 times.
This was by

1. use of high ceilings

2. Big Windows that could open top and bottom

3. Radiators with ventilation grills behind them

She noted that most Florence Nightingale wards have since been modernised with low ceilings, smaller sealed windows and radiators replaced.

Her message was that ventilation is, with distance, one of the best ways of cutting the spread of infection.

Here is an image of Dorcas Ward st St Thomas’s Hospital, London.

Black and white photograph of Dorcas Ward, St Thomas Hospital showing high ceilings.
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