|Childbirth in the sixteenth century normally happened at
home. There were hospitals in Elizabethan England, but their
purpose was different from that of modern hospitals. The
Elizabethan hospital was primarily a charitable institution,
providing long-term care for the infirm or elderly rather than short-term
treatment of acute medical problems. Nor was a physician likely to be
involved in the birthing process. The delivery of babies was primarily the
domain of the midwife. Indeed, a number of women might be present–
childbirth was often a major social occasion for women. Yet the event was
not without risk to the mother. The rate of maternal mortality in childbirth
may have been in the region of 1%; even .8% is abnormally high in the
modern Third World.
Soon after birth, the baby would be taken to the parish church for baptism, commonly called christening: this was supposed to happen on a Sunday or holy day within a week or two of the birth. Christenings at home or by anyone but a clergyman were against church law. The only exception was if the child was in imminent danger of death, in which case it was considered more important to ensure that the child did not die unchristened. The ritual of baptism involved dipping the baby in a font of holy water in the parish church. At the ceremony the child was sponsored by three godparents, two of the same sex and one of the opposite. These godparents were considered genuine relatives; children would ask their godparents’ blessing whenever meeting them, much as they did of their parents every morning and evening. A christening was a major social occasion, and might be followed by a feast.