More than 500 years ago, an anxious woman faced one of the most dangerous moments known to medieval medicine: childbirth. To help her survive, she wrapped a 3-meter-long belt of parchment around her heaving belly, hoping the prayers and religious symbols that covered it would deliver her—and her baby—safely through the ordeal. Now, scientists examining the stitched-together sheepskin parchment, from 15th century England, have found that she was still wearing it when she went into labor.
“Splashing blood, birthing juice—in this case, the object contains the record of its own use,” says Kathryn Rudy, a historian at the University of St. Andrews who was not involved in the research. “That an object’s biography can be self-recording is thrilling.”
In the Middle Ages, it was frighteningly common for women and their children to die in labor. Medieval texts mention girdles lent to women by religious authorities to protect them during pregnancy and childbirth. Fashioned out of parchment or paper, they were a combination of prayer book and magic charm. The charm in question—Manuscript 632—had an unusually long, thin shape, suggesting it was intended to be wrapped around the body.
Its purpose was no mystery: In addition to the names of the apostles and saints associated with childbirth, the 332-by-10-centimeter manuscript features a promise that “yf a woman travell wyth chylde gyrdes thys mesure abowte hyr wombe and she shall be delyvyrs wythowte parelle.” (“If a woman travailing with child girds this measure about her womb, she shall be delivered safely without peril.”)
To see whether the girdle might contain evidence for its use, Sarah Fiddyment, a postdoc studying ancient proteins at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues examined it. They applied a technique they had previously used to extract collagen from ancient parchments—and identify which animals they were made of.
By gently rubbing the fragile girdle with an eraser, researchers were able to extract preserved proteins without damaging the parchment. Next, they compared their results with samples from a new piece of paper and an 18th century parchment. The girdle contained dozens of additional proteins. “There were traces of honey, milk, eggs, cereals, and legumes—and quite a bit more human proteins,” Fiddyment says. Many of those, she adds, are specific to cervico-vaginal fluid, suggesting the birth girdle was used during labor itself, the researchers report today in Royal Society Open Science.
The food-linked proteins were all ingredients mentioned in medieval medical texts for treating women during labor or pregnancy. Finding them in Manuscript 632 was evidence that the texts were taken seriously, Fiddyment says. “This is a way of proving what’s on the page was actually carried out in practice.”
The girdle was probably produced by English monks in the 15th century, as part of a rise in pregnancy-related medical texts and remedies. The uptick in concern for women’s health was no coincidence: After plague devastated Europe in the 1300s, “everybody’s dealing with post–Black Death depopulation,” says independent scholar Monica Green, who was not involved in the study. “Suddenly it matters to gather up as much knowledge as you can” on best birthing practices.
Although the study doesn’t change what is known about medieval childbirth, Green calls it a “promising” proof of concept to show the extra information that scientific analysis of ancient manuscripts might yield. Nearly a dozen similar parchments have survived from England and France, and whereas some may have been used exclusively for childbirth, others may have been all-purpose talismans, lent out to pregnant women as well as men going into battle. The protein technique could be used to verify the use of those girdles, or analyze stained medical texts to see whether they were open on the operating table during surgeries.
For now, the proteins staining Manuscript 632 provide an emotional jolt and a reminder of just how perilous pregnancy was in the past. “These results throw open the curtain onto a multisensory, vivid image of birthing,” Rudy says. “They reveal the user’s hopes and fears—dread, really—about death in childbirth.”