Microhistory: Being a mother – exhibition in the Hungarian Natural History Museum
As genealogists, we would like to know the whole lives of our ancestors, we would like to imagine how, in which circumstances they could have lived. This way the data turn into real life humans in front of our eyes.
The temporary exhibition in the Hungarian Natural History Museum helps us just in this point: it discloses the fate of single people through births.
Of course we know that neonatal mortality was high, but it is still staggering to read that Joseph Weiskopf, a tanner living in Vác in the 18th century had 7 children from his first marriage, from which 6 died before the age of 2 and also their mother, Theresia Komp(in) died during or after childbirth. Joseph – himself already suffering from tubercolosis – remarried, Theresia Szigvárt became his second wife, they had 6 children together. They all died in their infancy or childhood.
From a Muslim cemetery of the Ottoman Hungary (lasting ca. 150 years in the 16-17th century) turned up the skeleton of a young woman with a 7 months old fetus in her pelvis. In this historical age every fifth woman died because of complications related to childbirth. But this woman didn’t even make it until that. Certainly some illness must have killed her and her unborn baby, just like many others found in this cemetery, whose bones do not show any war-time injuries. During the 150 years of the Turkish age in Hungary the plague swept six times over the land. The plague epidemic in 1655 killed nearly half of the population of the town Sopron. Additionally, also dysentery, typhus and pox took their toll. Cities were crowded, garbage, turd, dead animals lied in the streets, so the mortality was higher there than in the country.
In case of maternal death during birth our ancestors tried to save at least the unborn baby with a Ceasarean section, the chirurgeons have been able to perform this since the 16 th century – unfortunately mainly post mortem. The first documented Ceasarean section in Hungary was performed in 1829, but the mother bleeded to death within half an hour. Since 1890 both mothers and children can be saved with the C-section. Although earlier the baby didn’t live long after the mother’s death, at least his/her soul would be saved by baptizing him/her. In case of feeble newborns, we can usually read the remark baptized “in necessitate” by the midwife (obstetrix) in their birth register entry.
For long time, the profession midwifery was not taught, the empirical knowledge was passed from mother to daughter. The first Hungarian textbook with title “Bábamesterségre tanító könyv” (Book teaching midwifery) was published in 1766. The midwife Szabina Orlich living in Vác married the chirurgeon Antal Fischer, her daughters married also doctors. The bones of Szabina Orlich show the signs of the lues – she may have caught the disease during work. One can also see from her skeleton that her feet and toes difformed because of squatting or kneeling while helping birthing women through several years – she was humbly helping birthing women, she taking up uncomfortable positions for them to be able to birth in a comfortable position.
The high perinatal mortality didn’t show any favour towards the rich and kings, either. The Hungarian king Béla III. and Anna Chatillon had 7 children during the 12 years of their marriage, from which 4 grew up. Maria Theresa, the sovereign of Austria gave birth to 16 children, from which one (Maria Carolina) died in infancy and other 5 died at young age (Maria Elisabeth Amalia, Maria Josepha, Charles Joseph Emanuel, Maria Carolina Ernestina, Maria Johanna Gabriella).
Elegant ladies of this age never breastfed their babies, but instead they got a wet-nurse to do this. This way they also conceived again sooner. Moreover, Maria Theresa wanted to give the House of Habsburg as much children as possible, see also their motto “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube!” (Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry)
To work as a wet-nurse meant a possibility of making a living and of social progress on one side, but also sad fates beyond expression: often poor maidens with a child out of wedlock became wet-nurses. Of course, they had to leave behind their own babies for a long time in charge of others. These were the women caring for waifs also called angel-makers: this service was mostly lucrative for them if those babies died soon. This could have increased the already high infant mortality rate.
Based on 18th century birth registers and statistical calculations, in that period 2 of 3 children died before the age of 10. This could be changed only by the spreading of vaccination and antibiotics.
We are lucky to live in our age.
Photos and text: Judit Babcsányi based on the material of the Hungarian Natural History Museum