As a former midwife now working as Searchroom Assistant, I am always interested in records relating to childbirth. So I was intrigued when I came across an illuminated manuscript version of an Order of Service for the ‘Churching’ of women (our reference: Par 56/7/9) in the Compton parish records.
The term ‘illuminated’ refers to the use of brilliant colours and gold to embellish initial letters, borders and small illustrations. This document, which measures 8ins X 6ins (20.5cms x 16cms), comprises a vellum case with red and gold decoration, and parchment leaves, some of which are illuminated with gold and vibrant red, green, brown and blue inks. Digital images of the manuscript are available to view on the Public Access Computers in the Searchroom using the Archangel package. Although the manuscript has no recorded date, it is estimated to be from early 20th Century.
The ‘Churching of Women’ is a ceremony for blessing newly delivered mothers. Although the practice is a Christian tradition, it is not confined to Christian religions alone. It seems that there are two main interpretations of the ceremony.
Some people regard it as a ritual thanksgiving for the woman’s survival of childbirth, an event which carried considerable risk to a woman’s life and health in times before the relative safety of modern medicine, when maternal mortality was high.
The days and weeks following childbirth, previously known as the lying-in period, was a time for newly delivered mothers to rest and recover from the ordeal of childbirth. It usually lasted 4 to 6 weeks and the Churching service was often the first occasion for a newly delivered woman to be seen out before she resumed her normal social life and activities.
However, an alternative interpretation is that it is related to the rite of purification following childbirth, possibly stemming from the Jewish practice described in the Bible, Leviticus 12:2-8 – women were pronounced unclean for a week after giving birth to a son or two weeks after giving birth to a daughter, and they would be purified after a month, or two. This period of time seems to match the traditional ‘lying-in’ period.
Although Churching has mostly disappeared from the modern Christian Church, one of our visitors to the Searchroom who saw the illuminated manuscript, recounted being ‘churched’ after the birth of her own daughter in 1961. She recalled how reluctant she had felt and how the Priest had been reluctant to perform the ceremony, too. However, it was her mother’s wish and the strong opinion voiced by her mother had made the newly delivered woman feel rather dirty following the childbirth.
I wonder how many other people remember ‘Churching’?