The Future of History

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Call Ye Midwife

More from the wonderful world of Davenant research.

Liza Picard's book on Restoration London is a witty little treasure trove of stuff.  The book describes "Everyday Life in London 1660-1670" and it does so beautifully.  I was particularly struck by the section on the Medical Risks of Birth and Infancy.

Midwives, it seems, were generally in a hurry to get to their next patient.  If the mother's waters hadn't broken, the midwife wasn't going to hang around.  A specially sharpened fingernail, or the sharp edge of a coin, would slit the amniotic sac, and then the baby would be yanked out.

Such was the hurry that the midwife would be unlikely to wait for the afterbirth to be expelled.  That, too, would be grabbed and pulled out.

Midwifery was a pretty good way of killing baby and mother.  Bacteria would be transferred from one mother to another by the midwife who had just tugged baby and the afterbirth out of one womb before moving on to the next.

The skull in the crypt at Beoley Church, which I suggest in Who Killed William Shakespeare? was Shakespeare's, is rather interesting in this respect.  There is an oval depression, mid-brow, near the top of the frontal bone.  Heading down the left side of the temple, the skull is uneven, with a ridge sloping down across the brow and slight depressions on either side of it.
These features - the oval depression and the ridge - are visible in portraits of Shakespeare.  The "missing link" between the skull (which disappeared) and the portraits is almost certainly the "Death Mask of Shakespeare" in Darmstadt Castle:
The depression and ridge are present on the death mask (dated 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death), and since this was probably the model for most of the portraits, we see the same features in some of the more familiar images of Shakespeare.  They are present, for example, in the Cobbe portrait:
And, indeed, in the Wadlow portrait:

And on others.  These distinguishing features, along with other "defects" visible on the face, are what I now look for in order to determine whether or not an image of Shakespeare s genuine.
In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I focussed on the very noticeable depression high up in the middle of the forehead.  It can be seen very clearly on the Shakespeare bust in his funerary monument in Stratford Church:
In the well known Chandos portrait in the National Portrait Gallery:
And on the Davenant bust of Shakespeare at the Garrick Club:
Among others. 
But by focusing on that depression as one of the key indicators that the portraits were based on the death mask, and the death mask replicates the actual face of the man whose skull is in the crypt at Beoley, I neglected to consider the ridge and grooves to the side of the main depression.
I concluded - wrongly, I fear - that the depression was a sunken fontanelle, caused by malnutrition or dehydration in early childhood.
I now suspect, and I made the point in the paper on The Faces of Shakespeare, which I gave at Goldsmiths, University of London, a couple of months ago, that the depression near the top of the frontal bone and the ridge and grooves beside it are connected.  They are finger marks.
I had begun to think that the midwife had grasped his skull with her left hand during the delivery.  Her thumb had impressed itself into the soft bone of his cranium, and her first two fingers left their marks alongside.  The pattern of the depressions indicates that she gripped his skull a bit too tightly.  When the bones of his skull hardened, the finger marks remained; indeed, it may be that their presence caused the coronal suture to fuse a little oddly, leaving a sort of raised wiggly line running up from the sides of his head.
The description of midwifery practices given by Liza Picard in her book on Restoration London confirms the possibility, at least, that Shakespeare might have been forced out of his mother's womb by an over-enthusiastic or impatient midwife.  I've argued elsewhere on the blog that Shakespeare wasn't a very tall man (which is why his skull seems "undersized"), and it may be that he was from his mother's womb "untimely ripped". 
Quite simply, he wasn't ready.  But maybe the midwife had been called because the mother's health was at risk.  Or he was believed to be due.
Perhaps the woman nicked the sac with her jagged fingernail, reached in, gripped the skull with her left hand (the right hand underneath) and pulled.  There is no reason to assume that the midwifery profession had changed very much in the hundred years separating Restoration London from Elizabethan Stratford.
Shakespeare bore the marks of the midwife's fingers all through his life.  And they are still visible - on his portraits, on the busts, on the death mask ... and on the skull at Beoley.

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