Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death

A Good Birth

Series 1 - Episode 1 A Good Birth



In an age before anaesthetic or antiseptic, death was never far from birth. But delivering a baby during the Middle Ages was also an intensely private and highly ritualised process, as Dr Helen Castor reveals in the first of her trips through medieval rites of passage.

Although men were barred from the delivery room, the physicians of the time were invariably male clerics, whose medical texts were based on scant understanding of female anatomy. Dr Castor is delighted when she gets to pore over one such archaic manuscript, known as the Wellcome Apocalypse, which makes for illuminating reading. According to this medieval manual for life, women are "effectively men inside out"; slightly toxic creatures, whose gaze could tarnish mirrors and kill fruit.


Historian Helen Castor explores life in the Middle Ages, beginning with a look at the circumstances surrounding labour and birth at the time. She reveals how childbirth was one of the most dangerous experiences a medieval woman could encounter and that it took place in an all-female environment. With little in the way of pain relief, it was believed that the agony endured was punishment for the original sin of humankind.

Cast & Crew

Presenter Helen Castor
Series Director Lucy Swingler
Series Producer Lucy Swingler