Rituals for Babies

Eric Lis

The medieval era was a time when healing traditions were dominated by ritual and mysticism. While many healers undoubtedly understood that chants, prayers, and mystical talismans weren’t absolutely necessary for healing, but the surviving texts from that period, at least from Europe, uniformly describe complex behaviours and routines which accompanied every form of health care. Most of these rituals would seem, to us today, to add to benefit to the healing act, while a small-ish number likely caused greater harm. The great thing about mindless ritual and pointless superstition is that it gives storytellers and ample reservoir of MacGuffins to draw from when they need to send a group of PCs on a quest for some lost object, rare herb, or misplaced text… and after all, in a world where most healing really does require prayer and divine aid, one can never be 100% sure which elements of a ritual really are necessary. Here is a brief sampling of actual pregnancy-related rituals from medieval England, to give you a point from which to decide what sorts of ridiculous requirements Heironeans and Hextorians might have in their own churches. Credit must be given to this recent paper both as my source of information today (although I also did some reading elsewhere) and as a go-to for your own further reading.

Childbirth rituals frequently involved amulets, girdles, or other wearable items. In one famous example of a conception ritual, Gilbertus Anglicus’ “empericum that never fails,” a man of at least twenty years of age gathers specific herbs and grinds them to make an ink with which to write ritual text onto an amulet that either a man or woman could then wear depending on whether they wanted to conceive a boy or girl.

Difficult pregnancies could be made easier by having a woman eat important phrases carved into butter or cheese, or written on parchment and drunk with wine or milk. Since the dominant religion of the region and era was Christianity, the surviving ritual phrases tend to be in Latin (often mixed with Greek) and invoke the names of Jesus and the Christian god, often commanding a child to come forth or respond to a call. Mary might be invoked to make a pregnancy easy, and many ritual prayers invoke archangels… for reasons which I don’t know enough about Christianity to understand. Similar invocations could be made into an amulet and tied to a woman’s ankle, which would then command an infant to “go out and depart; in addition may you not harm this one.” Such amulets not infrequently also included abjurations against any demons which might be causing problems. Amulets might be created out of materials representing purity, such as “wax that has never been worked,” to enhance their effect. Wax may have been a popular choice because it would be something relatively available and inexpensive even for peasants, but it was far from unheard of for rituals to require that text be inscribed into lead or other metals, or edibles such as communion wafers.

Location could also be a component of rituals, both location on the body and location where the ritual is to be performed. Many rituals seem to specify that parchments and paper be tied to a specific part of a delivering woman’s body, common the knee or finger but often the belly. For women who had previously lost a pregnancy, rituals existed to protect a new pregnancy which required the mother to recite words of power while stepping over a grave, or over a husband lying in bed. One ritual to help ensure the safety of a pregnancy required a woman to go to a home other than her home and eat something, which is clever in so far as that it potentially builds community by involving neighbours in each others’ life events.

Importantly, although these rituals are found described in respected medical texts, their inclusion by no means indicates that such texts were mere quackery. Surviving books often have the rituals written into their margins or at the bottom of pages, suggesting that they may even have been relative afterthoughts to the “better” medical information. The medical information provided was often of good quality (for its time, at least) and sometimes even cautioned of things to avoid doing during the ritual because they could be physically dangerous, such as not attempting bloodletting on a pregnant woman.

As with so many medieval traditions, all of these rituals are interesting in a magical setting because, at the storyteller’s discretion, they may actually work. As a corollary to this, any ritual with genuine power could conceivably have some negative effect for being done wrong, or for not being done. Fantasy gods tend to be temperamental, easily angered sorts, as are the fae creatures who are often the ones who bless common folk for maintaining rituals and old ways. Depending on the patron, a missed syllable or an error of ingredients could lead to disaster, and a skipped ritual could anger the wrong power and have dire consequences. Players can get involved in such situations if they are the ones who need to perform the ritual, or if their muscle is needed to help make a ritual happen (clear skeletons out of a particular graveyard, obtain a sheet of paper in a region where all the scriveners have been destroyed by a dragon, obtain the leaf of a plant that was declared extinct last year…). Players might end up balancing which elements of the ritual are worth the trouble and which aren’t, which then provides the fun of letting them deal with the fallout of those decisions. All in all, a single ritual potentially opens up new lines of story for a campaign, in addition to providing storytellers room to make up some ridiculously weird cultural elements for local churches and communities. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on January 10, 2016. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system