Good day everyone! I’m really pleased to welcome Sandra Byrd, author of The Secret Keeper, to Peeking Between the Pages today. I’ve been a fan since reading To Die For (my review) and The Secret Keeper (my review) was another winner for me! It was again what excites me about historical fiction and that is learning something while getting a really good story in the process. Today Sandra joins us to talk about Mother Mourning: Childbed Fever and Tudor Women…
Black death. The Great Pestilence. Plague. Sweating Sickness. The very words themselves cause us to shudder, and they certainly caused those in centuries past to quake because they and their loved ones were often afflicted by those diseases. But when we survey the physical ailments that afflicted sixteenth century women there is one death that caused the deepest fear among women: Childbed Fever, also known as Puerperal Fever and later called The Doctors’ Plague.
Medieval and Tudor medicine centered around both astrology and the common belief that all health and illness was contained in balance or imbalance of the four “humours” of bodily fluids: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Therefore, the letting of blood or sniffing of urine were common manners to address or diagnose illness. Although it seems ludicrous to us today, this understanding of medicine had reigned supreme for nearly 2000 years, coming down from Greek and Roman philosophical systems. It’s been said that perhaps only 10-15% of those living in the Tudor era made it past their fortieth birthday. Common causes of illness leading to death? Lack of hygiene and sanitation.
Decades before the germ theory was validated in the late nineteenth century, Hungarian physician Ignac Semmelweis noticed that women who gave birth at home had a lower incidence of childbed fever than those who gave birth in hospitals. Statistics showed that, “Between 1831 and 1843 only 10 mothers per 10,000 died of puerperal fever when delivered at home … while 600 per 10,000 died on the wards of the city’s General Lying In Hospital.” Higher born women, those with access to expensive doctors, suffered from childbed fever more frequently than those attended by midwives who saw fewer patients and not usually one after another.
In 1795 Dr. Alexander Gordon wrote, “It is a disagreeable declaration for me to mention, that I myself was the means of carrying the infection to a great number of women.” Although they did not realize it at the time, it was, in fact, the sixteenth century doctors themselves who were transmitting death and disease to delivering mothers because the doctors did not disinfect their hands or tools in-between patients.
Because illnesses are often transmitted via germs doctors (and busy midwives) could infect the young mothers one after another, most often with what is now known as staph or strep infection in the uterine lining. Semmelweis discovered that using an antiseptic wash before assisting in the delivery of the mother cut the incidence of Childbed Fever by at least 90% and perhaps as much as 99%, but his findings were soundly rejected. Infected women had no antibiotics to stop the onslaught of familiar symptoms once they began: fever, chills, flu like symptoms, terrible headache, foul discharge, distended abdomen, and occasionally, loss of sanity just before death.
This kind of death was not only no respecter of persons, as mentioned above, it perhaps struck the highborn more frequently than the low born. In fact, fear of childbed fever is often mentioned when discussing Elizabeth I’s reluctance to marry and bear children. In the Tudor era Elizabeth of York, the mother of Henry VIII, died of Childbed Fever as did two of Henry’s wives: Queen Jane Seymour and Queen Kateryn Parr. Parr’s deathbed scene is perhaps one of the most chilling death accounts of the century, beheadings included.
Elizabeth of York, Jane Seymour, and Catherine Parr
Although Semmelweis was outcast from the community of physicians for his implication that they themselves were the transmitters of disease, ultimately, science and modern medicine prevailed. Today, in the developed world very few of the newly delivered die due to Puerperal Fever. Moms no longer need fear that the very act of bringing forth life will ultimately cause their own deaths and therefore can happily bond with their babies, instead.
1The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis, Sherwin B Nuland, WW Norton, 2004
2Oliver Wendell Homes: The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever
Thank you for this very interesting guest post Sandra. I’ve always been horrified when reading historical fiction just how scary it was for women in childbirth. They were so scared of the plague but never once thought that they could carry germs themselves to those in childbirth.
About The Secret Keeper
The author of To Die For returns to the court of Henry VIII as a young woman is caught between love and honor. Juliana St. John is the daughter of a prosperous knight. Though her family wants her to marry the son of her father’s business partner, circumstances set her on a course toward the court of Henry VIII and his last wife, Kateryn Parr.
Sir Thomas Seymour, uncle of the current heir, Prince Edward, returns to Wiltshire to tie up his concerns with Juliana’s father’s estate and sees instantly that Juliana would fit into the household of the woman he loves, Kateryn Parr. Her mother agrees to have her placed in Parr’s household for “finishing” and Juliana goes, though perhaps reluctantly.
For she knows a secret. She has been given the gift of prophecy, and in one of her visions she has seen Sir Thomas shredding the dress of the king’s daughter, the lady Elizabeth, to perilous consequence.
As Juliana learns the secrets of King Henry VIII’s court, she faces threats and opposition, learning truths about her own life that will undo everything she holds dear.
About Sandra Byrd
Sandra Byrd has published more than three dozen books in the fiction and nonfiction markets, including the first book in her Tudor series, To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. Her second book, The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr, illuminates the mysteries in the life of Henry’s last wife.
For more than a decade Sandra has shared her secrets with the many new writers she edits, mentors, and coaches. She lives in the Seattle, Washington, area with her husband and two children. For more Tudor tidbits, please visit www.sandrabyrd.com.
GIVEAWAY DETAILS (US/Canada)
I have one copy of The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd to share with my readers. To enter…
- For 1 entry leave me a comment entering the giveaway.
- For 2 entries, follow my blog. If you already do, thanks, and please let me know so I can pass the extra entry on to you as well.
- For 3 entries, blog or tweet this giveaway and spread the word.
This giveaway is open to US and Canadian residents only (no PO boxes) and I will draw for the winner on Saturday, July 7/12. Good luck!