Thursday, August 07, 2008

Question from Nikki - "Taking to their chamber"

Why did women "take to their chamber" when they were pregnant?

2 comments:

PhD Historian said...

Wealthy women who did not have to earn a living through work with their own hands went into seclusion in the weeks before the anticipated delivery of a child, usually about 6 weeks beforehand. The reason for this has to do with longstanding cultural practices that touch on issues of blood and ritual purity. If you read the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible, you will find pages and pages of prohibitions that restrict the public movements and social contacts of women who were on their period or who had recently delivered a child. In Leviticus, they are called "unclean," but this does not mean physically dirty. Instead, it means that they were temporarily not pure enough to come into the presence of God (in the Temple). And any man who came into social or sexual contact with an "unclean" woman was also temporarily barred from participating in religious observances. So in order to prevent any man from even accidental contact with an "unclean" woman, women were pressured to confine themselves in the weeks before and after a delivery. Six weeks (40 days) was the usual, just in case they delivered unexpectedly early.

And they remained confined for six weeks (40 days) after delivery as well. At the end of those forty days, women underwent a religious ritual purification known as "churching," after which they were allowed to re-enter society and participate in public religious observances.

I can recommend two books related to this topic that will explain the practice in great detail. The first is Mary Douglas's "Purity and Danger: An a Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo." It is a classic work. Also, David Cressy's "Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England" provides great detail about many of the customs associated with the events named in the title. It is also very readable, and has lots of truly fascinating information.

kb said...

Another reason that royal and very elite women took to their chambers, in addition to the reasons spelled out in such detail by phd historian, was to verify the baby presented as heir was the baby delivered of the woman's body. That another baby was not switched in as heir.

If confined 40 days prior to birth, an early birth, either premature or because the 'math' was off could still be verified.

The 40 days after a birth was not so strictly adhered to in the Elizabethan court (and therefore under Church of England practice). Sometimes this period was as short as 14 days if the mother was healthy and the baby was given to a wet nurse.

However, even with this shortened post-birth confinement, elite women did not re-enter society till they had been 'churched'.

There's one more set of practices that come into play here but which I know less about. It was considered unhealthy for a woman close to term to be exposed to unhealthy 'humours' or 'airs'. It was thought that by confinement and shuttering of windows, excessive bad air and light would not adversely affect the woman and her fetus.

I also strongly suggest David Cressy's book on this.