Goodness, I posted my last blog back in May! I honestly hadn’t intended leaving it quite so long before writing another one but I have been somewhat distracted of late… And that distraction has not been because I’ve been tied to my desk writing the next Meonbridge Chronicle – although I AM indeed writing it, and am making good progress with it…
No, the distraction has been the long-awaited arrival of our first grandchild.
As a brand new grandmother, I am having to learn about the demands and delights of newborn babies all over again. It is of course a delicate and wondrous thing to cradle such a tiny new person in your arms, but our grandson has been born in a time and place when the advantages of the world around him outweigh the disadvantages.
All is well with our grandson but, of course, being a writer of historical fiction, I am bound to think about the babies that were born at the time of my Meonbridge Chronicles, the middle of the fourteenth century. A time when plague stalked the land; when bad weather (testing enough these days for some of us) often upset the natural cycle of food production and brought famine to many; when the sheer fact of being pregnant and giving birth posed a huge risk for both mother and child; when a new baby stood a fair chance of dying before it could even walk; and when, once a child was on the move, the risks of injury or death from accident or ignorance were manifold. Of course risks still attend our lives today but, in the Middle Ages, childhood was a time of considerable danger, and the low life expectancy overall for people of the time is reflected in the high mortality rate of children.
Nonetheless, despite all that doom and gloom, there’s no doubt in my mind that children were as much loved and cherished then as they are now, and that parents were just as grief-stricken at the loss of a child as they would be today. And I am convinced that, despite the hard life endured by Meonbridge’s working people, their children still brought them joy.
Anyway, I have been musing about the children of Meonbridge and, in particular, the babies. Because the stories of the Chronicles embrace the fullness and richness of my Meonbridge folk’s lives, babies and children are bound to feature often. Indeed, babies and children are important in each of the books.
Even if you’ve only read Amazon’s “Look Inside” for Fortune’s Wheel, you’ll know that it opens with a young boy’s death, and the recent birth of that boy’s sister. The boy’s death was an accident but it came soon after his parents had lost five other children to the plague – the Black Death, as we call it. It’s hard to imagine the devastation such a great loss would bring to the parents. Even the arrival of another baby might not be enough to stem their grief…
Grief comes again to some of Meonbridge’s parents, when the plague returns in the years ahead. But there is loss also in the form of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death, common enough occurrences in the Middle Ages, when the reasons for them were largely unknown.
But there is joy too: in an encounter with a hitherto unknown grandchild; in the discovery of a missing baby; in the survival of an infant after years of trying; in the return of a lost child; in the recovery of a child gripped by disease.
Of course all these experiences are timeless. They happen now too, the agonies and the joys. But, in medieval times, the losses were attended by both lack of knowledge and understanding, and the greater risk of them occurring.
I would like to share a few child-related snippets from my novels but, although I want to share something of the drama, fear and joy that children can bring, it’s been difficult to find extracts that don’t give too much away if you haven’t already read my books. But I hope these will give a small insight into the lives of some of Meonbridge’s children…
From The First Meonbridge Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel:
A missing baby…
The women continued along the bank of the river in the direction of the manor, walking slowly, hoping to see signs of where Joan might have slipped, and signs of the baby.
Just below the bridge was a particularly broad and deep section of the river, and its banks were thickly covered with reeds, rushes and willows.
‘Oh, Elly,’ said Susanna, ‘If Joannie fell in here, the water’s flowing so strong, she’d not’ve had the strength to get out again.’
Even if she’d wanted to, thought Eleanor, but kept her thoughts to herself. They picked their way carefully through the dense, dark vegetation, and Eleanor wished the sun would rise and bring better light to their search. But it was not long before Susanna found a patch of reeds that had been flattened into the bog at the edge of the bank.
‘Here, Elly,’ she called, and Eleanor came over and agreed it did look as if someone might have slipped into the water there. Only moments later, Eleanor came across a filthy wimple snagged on the branches of a squat willow, and Susanna said it did look very like one Joan had worn.
‘Let’s keep looking,’ said Eleanor. ‘Maud might be here.’
It was exhausting, stumbling through the gnarled trunks of an impenetrable grove of willows, but there were now unmistakable signs that someone had been here.
They were together when they found her. When they did, Eleanor felt sick when she realised it was pure chance they’d not passed her by. For baby Maud was making no sound, and was wrapped in a blanket so grimy it blended into the undergrowth, almost hidden from sight.
Susanna began to shake. ‘Oh Elly, I’m so afraid of what’ll we find when we open the blanket. For poor little Maud’s not been baptised–’
Eleanor gasped. ‘Why not?’
Susanna’s face crumpled. ‘The poor little mite were only two days old when Peter had his accident, then Joan lost her wits, and Thomas too were going mad with grief, an’ it were all forgotten. So now if she’s died…’ Her lip began to tremble.
‘We have to know, Susy.’
Susanna nodded, then knelt down and reached out with quivering fingers. Gently plucking at the frayed edge of the clammy woollen covering concealing the baby’s face, she eased it away and peered inside the bundle. What she saw made her gasp and rock back on her heels. For Maud was lying quite still, her eyes wide open, red-rimmed and empty, as they were when they first found her in Joan’s cottage two months ago, thin and distressed, lying on a pile of sodden straw. Since then, Maud had recovered a little, responding to Susanna’s daily ministrations: she was no longer a bag of bones, and quite often smiled and might even gurgle if she was tickled.
‘Is she alive?’ whispered Eleanor. And clearly a sudden dread gripped Susanna’s heart, as she leaned forward again and reached out with her hand to stroke Maud’s face. But then Susanna nodded and whimpered with relief. ‘Cold, but alive.’ She reached in between the trunks of the willow, lifted out the bundle and clasped the child tight to her breast.
From The Second Meonbridge Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot:
The joy of children…
Susanna stood up and, pressing her hand against her back, gazed around at the extent of her croft, with its barns and sheds, the beds of vegetables and herbs, the orchard at the far end, running down towards the river: the river that was the reason for the relative ease of her life as Henry’s wife. She did love it here. And how much better a place it was to bring up children than the dark, damp cottar cottage where she’d raised her first family.
She glanced back towards the house. Maud was playing dutifully with her little cousin Francis, on the tiny patch of grass Henry had agreed would serve well as a play place for their growing family. But then she realised Tom had vanished, despite being left in charge. He hated baby minding, considering it one of those “girls’ chores” he thought he shouldn’t have to do. Her brow creased a moment, but she soon let it melt away. She understood.
But, when wailing burst from the baby’s cradle, she saw Maud was paying it no heed. Susanna tutted and, throwing down her weeding tool, jumped up and ran over to the children, wiping her hands against her skirt. As she came closer, she saw Maud had brought out her growing collection of wooden animals, which was kind of her as Francis was a clumsy boy, often unwilling to share toys, even when they weren’t his own. But now the two of them seemed quite absorbed, in a game of Noah’s Ark, she thought it was, for Maud had fashioned a little ship from a curl of tree bark. She stared at Maud a moment: how very pretty the child was, with her wheat-coloured curls bobbing lightly as she solemnly directed Francis in how to match up the pairs of creatures and march them into the Ark.
Susanna bent over the wooden cradle that had served all Maud’s brothers and sisters – all lost in the Death, apart from little Peter’s accident in the mill. Baby Joan was more whimpering than crying. Cooing, Susanna leaned in and lifted the baby up into her arms and, in an instant, the child ceased her whining and, cooing in return, put out a hand to touch her mother’s face.
Delighting, as she always did, in her baby’s milky smell and soft squirmy warmth, Susanna eased herself down onto the grassy patch, first to her knees then, wriggling round, she sat with Joan cradled in her lap.
Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560 (http://press.khm.at/fileadmin/content/KHM/Presse/2018/Bruegel/GG_1017_122017_vorab_Gesamt.jpg). Public Domain, by Wikimedia Commons
From The Third Meonbridge Chronicle, De Bohun’s Destiny:
An unloved child…
Gunnar took another swig. ‘I had a happy childhood at least till I was four. When Thorkell was born. Till then I’d spent my days by my mother’s side—’
‘A woman who Morys told me was an angel.’
‘She was beautiful, and loving and sweet-natured. Every boy’s imagining of the perfect mother. In some ways, a quite unsuitable wife for my bellicose father. Though I am sure that Pa adored her. When she died, giving birth to Thorkell, Pa was desolate. He and I clung together in our misery.’
‘I recall Morys telling me how she died. But what of Thorkell?’
‘I only realised it much later, but I think my father blamed Thorkell for our mother’s death. I, too, hated him for “killing” her, yet I also pitied him for never knowing her. But my father treated Thorkell harshly, as did the women he employed to nurse him.’
Giles raised a questioning eyebrow.
‘Pa put him, a newborn baby, into the so-called “care” of a wet-nurse. But she was a cruel woman, who often denied my little brother food when he cried. She remained in charge of Thorkell till he was almost three. Then, at length, Pa remarried.’ Gunnar snorted. ‘He brought another cold-hearted woman into the household. But it was Thorkell who bore the brunt of it for, by then, I was spending most of my days with Pa or my tutor, whilst Thorkell was still confined to the women’s quarters. By the time he was released into the tutor’s charge, he had, it seemed, learned that women were heartless, untrustworthy creatures. And he never changed his mind.’
From The Fourth Meonbridge Chronicle, Children’s Fate:
Alice set the jug of spiced ale she’d brought a little closer to the fire.
‘It’ll be warm enough before too long,’ she said to Susanna.
‘Kind of you, Alice. I could easily have made some myself.’
‘You know I’m always happy to help, especially when you’re so near your time.’
‘How I wish my time was not so far away,’ said Eleanor, patting her rounded belly. She stroked it lightly with her fingers then, looking up, smiled at Alice.
‘Did he kick?’ said Alice.
‘More a flutter, really, like a butterfly.’
‘I love that,’ said Susanna. ‘Those early signs. Not that I noticed them much with my first two, working in the fields all day till the hour they came.’
‘It must have been so hard for you then,’ said Eleanor.
Susanna looked well, rosy-cheeked and cheerful, given how close she was to her time. Alice recalled how hard she used to work, like all cottar women, and many villein goodwives, who had to cope with their swelling bellies when they also had to labour, day in, day out, in the fields, on their crofts, and in their homes. It was arduous, more so for some than for others. Susanna still worked hard, helping Thomas run the mill as well as managing the house and croft, not to speak of the children.
‘It were the way of things,’ continued Susanna. ‘Still is, for most… It’s only the gentry get to lie around all day…’ She tipped her head.
‘But I’m not gentry!’ exclaimed Eleanor.
Though, as Alice knew well enough, Eleanor’s mother, Christina, had indeed spent most of her pregnancies resting, not permitted by her husband to do anything to risk the survival of her babies. Even so, poor Christina, despite her seeming energy and vigour, did lose many.
A birth scene from The Wenzel Bible, a German version of the Old Testament made between 1389 and 1400. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Maud ran back down the steps and crossed to the cottage. She heard Ma shouting as she approached. Inside, Marye was hanging a pot of water on the fire, and Mistress Foreman was bustling about closing window shutters and doors and stuffing rags into the keyholes.
‘Must keep your ma good and warm,’ she said.
‘And protect the babe from evil spirits,’ said Marye.
Maud gulped and Mistress Foreman clicked her tongue. ‘Shut it, Marye, will you?’ She put her hand on Maud’s arm. ‘Saint Margaret and the Holy Mother ’ll protect your ma, m’love,’ she said, then murmured words Maud thought might be a prayer. ‘Why don’t you fetch the linens your ma’s set aside for today?’
Maud went to the chest where Ma had put all the things she’d got ready for the babe’s arrival. She carried the linens over to where Marye was now rubbing Ma’s back as she leaned, groaning, against the bed.
‘Put ’em down there, m’love.’ Mistress Foreman pointed to the bed. ‘Then you go an’ sit yourself down at the table. I’ll call you if I need you.’ How much Maud hoped she would be asked to help.
A long while passed, with Ma grunting and moaning from time to time, and Marye dabbing at Ma’s sweaty face. Maud hadn’t stayed with Ma, a year ago, when Harry was born. Ma’d said she needed to take her cousins for a walk, else they might be frightened. Maud had been disappointed, and begged her ma to let her stay this time. But she’d not realised how long it took for a baby to be born, and now she was getting bored, with nothing happening but Ma groaning. Yet she didn’t want to leave in case she missed the baby coming, so she fetched her two cloth poppets and pretended one of them was giving birth to the other.
And it wasn’t very much later that Ma cried out, ‘Now!’ and, turning from the bed, she squatted down, and Marye went to sit behind her. Ma leaned back against her, whilst Mistress Foreman drew up a low milking stool and sat down in front. Lifting Ma’s chemise to show her tummy, she rubbed it all over with something oily.
‘This’ll help the baby come,’ she said to Maud, as she kneaded Ma’s shiny tummy like it was a mound of dough.
Then Ma was panting and screwing up her face, as Mistress Foreman pressed down on her tummy. The panting and the pressing went on for ages, yet still the baby wasn’t born.
‘Must be another boy,’ said Mistress Foreman, and guffawed. Maud hoped it wasn’t. The last baby was a boy, and this time she really wanted another sister.
Ma tried to laugh, but seemed unable to catch her breath as her face bloomed red and sweat glistened on her face and neck. Her head wobbled from side to side and she cried out, calling upon Saint Margaret to help her.
When she heard Ma’s wailing cry, Maud wasn’t sure she wanted to stay here any more. Feeling hot and all quivery inside, she wrapped her arms around her own tummy and held herself tight, rocking gently back and forth. Ma was whimpering now, and Maud didn’t like it. She unwrapped her arms and slipped off the bench, thinking after all she’d go outside.
Then Mistress Foreman called out to her. ‘Maud, m’love, you can help your ma, if you go round the room and open things up. That usually helps a lazy babe.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘Shutters, doors, those two chests over there…’ She gestured with her oily finger.
Maud thought it very odd, because hadn’t Mistress Foreman gone round earlier closing all the doors and shutters? She lifted the chest lids, but hesitated by the room’s main window.
‘Go ahead, child,’ said Mistress Foreman. ‘Unfastening things helps to open up the womb, to ease the baby’s passage…’
It was a funny idea, but Maud wanted to help her ma, so she opened all the shutters and then heaved open the doors at both ends of the cross passage. The air outside was cooling. Maybe she would wait out here a while…
‘I’m a bit hot,’ she called inside, and stepped out into the garden. Yet she didn’t truly want to leave, and hovered by the door, listening to what was happening in the room.
She didn’t have to wait much longer. For Ma soon gave a shout and Mistress Foreman cried out, “It’s here!”, and Maud ran back inside. And she was just in time to see the baby slither into Mistress Foreman’s waiting hands.
‘Is’t a boy?’ Ma whispered.
Mistress Foreman laughed, throwing her head back, then held the baby up a little. ‘Nah, it’s a stubborn little maid.’
Ma smiled at that. ‘I’m glad. I like girls.’
Maud hunched her shoulders. She liked girls too.
She edged a little closer to watch what happened next, as Mistress Foreman tied a length of soft wool around a sort of fleshy cord leading from the baby’s belly and up inside her ma. Maud watched in wonder, not realising that was what the navel was. Then the cord was cut, and the baby was laid onto a towel. Marye then gently leaned Ma back against the bed, whilst she went and filled a bowl with warm water from the cauldron and brought it over to her mother.
Mistress Foreman washed the baby, rubbed her skin with oil and salt, and dried her little body. Then, wrapping her in a fresh towel, she pushed a little honey around her gums before laying her against Ma’s breast and fixing her mouth upon her teat.
‘Is it all over?’ Maud asked, but Mistress Foreman smiled.
‘Not quite, child. There’s something else inside your ma that must come out.’
Maud frowned. ‘What?’
‘What kept the baby snug and nourished when she were inside. She don’t need it now, so it can come out too.’
Maud didn’t understand, but thought she’d not ask any more.
‘Why don’t you go and tell your pa the good news?’ said Mistress Foreman. ‘I’m sure he’d like to know he’s got another lovely daughter.’
Pa was already striding along the path between the cottage and the mill. Maud called out to him and waved, as she ran towards him. ‘Pa! Pa! She’s here.’
He grinned as she reached him. ‘I heard it all go quiet, so thought I’d come and see if the babe’s arrived.’ He patted Maud on the head. ‘So, you’ve a sister?’ Maud grabbed him by the hand and pulled him towards the cottage. ‘Come and see.’
Christ blessing the children. By Lucas Cranach the Elder (https://sammlung.staedelmuseum.de/de/werk/christus-segnet-die-kinder). CC BY-SA 4.0
I do hope you enjoyed reading those extracts. If you haven’t already read the four published Meonbridge Chronicles, perhaps you are inspired to do so? I do hope so…
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