Sunday, February 2, 2014

Churching of Women

I've fallen hard into the land of the dead.  My ancestors have taken over my life. Not being a quick learner I have made every novice genealogist error three or more times before I give in and make the same mistake half a dozen times more simply to reinforce my stupidity.  I have even invented new ways to screw up.

My family name is a common English/Irish surname.  The name was a popular choice among former slaves. The extended family pool of people sharing our last name is huge, and my research is imprecise. According to my first draft our family is a mongrel mix of anglo/irish along with a strain of black German immigrants, with the odd Asian tossed in for good measure. It was a surprise to learn my grandparents passed as black. My second draft looks markedly different. What a ride.

One point this exercise has driven home is how much safer childbirth has become over the past 100 years, for both child and mother.  Limbs from my family tree (the parts I can verify) fill cemeteries with children, stillborn or who died within days of birth.  I share the name of an older brother who died days after birth, odd yet true.  Young mothers who died soon after giving birth fill another large expanse. How many bereft young fathers remarried quickly after their wife's death, solely to have someone to mother his children?

Today is Candlemas Day on the Christian calendar. A Hebrew ritual celebration dating from the time of the book of Leviticus, a new mother was considered unclean until forty days after giving birth, after which she is presented to the congregation and blessed as part of a her purification. The Christian churches draw from that purification imagery, marking 40 days after Christmas, the day of Mary, the mother of Jesus's churching. For believers, the collected blessing of her congregation on the new mother is a welcome custom.



Anonymous said...

Childbirth, indeed. In viewing lines of my ancestry I too was struck by issues around childbirth, most notably the then-norm of the 10-to-12 child brood. That's just how it was. Every two years a new baby. There's mud on the ground, transportation is crude, housing can run the gamut, all manner of grave illnesses may or may not be survived, all endured with the certainty of a new baby [which, as you point out, may or may not live] every two years.


Janet said...

I have a 1777 Book of Common Prayer, which includes the service for churching women. Where I'm from (Virginia), the churching of women service was usually held at home, just like marriages and baptisms. The service was a thanksgiving to the Lord that a woman had come safely through "the perils" of childbirth. The cleansing aspect seems to have fallen away.

Until the modern age, childbirth was, I believe, the number one killer of women. If a woman didn't die during the birth, she often died of an antibacterial infection introduced during the birth. The family waited with bated breath to see if the mother made it to day ten after the birth without showing signs of puerperal fever.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this new word.


Lou Archer said...

I am a 1st generation Brit, my parents being Irish with good solid names. On investigation of our history my mother was mortified to learn that years back we were in servitude to another Irish family from the local church who had similarly emigrated to the UK. They remind my mother of her station occasionally. History class is now closed.