Babbitt, childbirth, history, Margriete, women

Losing Her Cherry – what did happen to Margriete Babbitt?

“Kersen” is back in the Kindle short story charts. Which is, of course, right and proper.

But whilst I have been playing with the formatting of “Red Horse” prior to its being unveiled with its lovely new cover courtesy of Jacques le Roux, I have realised something that I think I might have always known.

You see, Margriete Babbitt – nee Gerritszen – aka the Amazon, is all of thirty-seven, thirty-eight when she marries her young mercenary. (He’s eighteen, but it’s all right… he’s tall for his age.)
And that would make her forty-five when she dies. Now Hollie never knew what happened to his first wife: he was away at the time of her death, up to the elbows in mud and blood at the siege of Nuremberg. But I think I might…

Pregnancy and childbirth were a risky business, in the 17th century. It is estimated that between 6 and 7 per cent of women could expect to die from childbirth related causes. A married woman would become pregnant, on average, five or six times.

From 1619 to 1660 in the archdiocese of Canterbury, England, the median age of the brides was 22 years and nine months while the median age for the grooms was 25 years and six months, with average ages of 24 years for the brides and nearly 28 years for the grooms, with the most common ages at marriage being 22 years for women and 24 years for men; in one parish in Devon, the aberage age of marriage fluctuated between 25 and 29 years. Interestingly, the Church dictated that the age when one could marry without the consent of one’s parents was 21 years. A large majority of English brides in this time were at least 19 years of age when they married, and only one bride in a thousand was thirteen years of age or younger. (So much for the myth of the Early Modern child bride!)

So – Griete, married for a second time, a middle-class widow of independent means, already living on the polite peripheries as the owner of a tavern. In her book In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860, Dr Judith Schneid Lewis gives details of a woman whose last surviving child was born when she was 46; Catherine Tothill, wife of William Tothill, Esq., who resided at Shardeloes in Buckinghamshire during the 17th-century, is thought to have given birth to 33 children, the last, presumably, being in her forties. Margriete at forty-four would be an older mother, but not a freakishly old one.

And it would seem that women were aware of their chances, in childbirth. Anne Bradstreet’s poem “Before the birth of one of her children” addresses her husband directly on the possibility of her death in labour, with resignation, though not necessarily with fear. It has been suggested that women possibly expected their suffering in travail as an affliction of humanity resulting from Eve’s original sin – certainly, most women expected danger in childbirth, and expected to get on with it in as well and with as much Christian fortitude as may be. The midwife, and, if you could afford one, the physician, were instruments of God’s will, and although it would be sinful to rely on them to thwart His design, it would be equally sinful to not take appropriate concern over one’s bodily welfare.

For a good, thorough reading of the 17th century woman’s approach to childbirth, I suggest Sharon Howard’s academic paper ‘Imagining the Pain and Peril of Seventeenth-century Childbirth: Travail and Deliverance in the Making ot an Early Modern World’ (2003)

And as for Margriete?
No, that won’t ever be a story in its own right, because she died without her lollopy mercenary-boy with her, and he would have held her hand if he could, and he couldn’t.

Some things are too sad for even me.

(Image of The Cholmondley Ladies copyright Tate Gallery)

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