Thought I'd be clever and put a photograph on of a parish register...early 1700's...which shows a few burials of women described as Widow Smith without a mention of their first names...but when I transferred it to my page here it won't go any bigger so you can't read it anyway...you'll just have to take my word for it. There are children as well, with no mention of the parents...perhaps they were foundlings. Or maybe everyone knew everyone else and the vicar saw no good reason to include whose child they were...
It would have been people like the Widow, and the children apparently parentless, who'd have been buried in a communal grave...saved up for a week or more until there were enough to warrant digging a larger burial place. And they'd have been buried in simple shrouds rather than the more expensive wooden coffins. The body-snatchers didn't begin their trade until towards the end of the 1700's so there would have been no danger of the remains being stolen.
And this was in deepest Norfolk...too far away from towns and anatomy schools for grave robbers to sneak in and out without being seen.
One of the first household tasks for mediaeval women was to stitch their own shroud...so many died in childbirth or from complications arising afterwards, that a shroud was an essential part of the linen chest along with carefully pressed fine bed linens and night caps...all scented with thyme and lavender from the local physic gardens.
I don't like finding the date of a women's death coinciding with the birth of a child because then I know the poor lady died...maybe she didn't even have the opportunity to see her new baby. It's silly to worry about something which happened five or six hundred years ago after all but it does give me a bit of a jolt, even after finding dozens of such women...
The babies were farmed out to wet nurses and whether or not they managed to survive was more by luck than judgement...there are few records of mediaeval wet nurses...but it was a practice which continued to the end of the 1800's. Victorian wet nurses were notorious for collecting babies for the fees they demanded and then disposing of the children in the local river or burying them in back gardens...they'd fob the relatives off with tales if they enquired as to the child's whereabouts and then disappear to another town or area and start all over again.
When I begin to delve deeper into the past it's a wonder any child survived past babyhood...given meaty bones to gnaw on when they were teething...dosed with opium to keep them quiet...a bit of rag dipped into stew was the favoured method of weaning from milk...and they dropped like flies from simple childhood diseases. Measles and chickenpox and scarlet fever were killers...gastric upsets and violent diarrhoea leading to lethal dehydration was commonplace...the upper classes were not immune...their children also had the real risk of being 'overlaid' by the nurse who shared their bed and the poorer families babies had the same risk with being put to bed with half a dozen siblings or left too close to the open fire where they died from heatstroke...
We are presuming those babies were wanted and it was an ignorance which led to some of their deaths...but in Ireland...especially in the early 1800's...simply leaving unwanted newborns outside was the answer. Being unmarried and a mother in England wasn't easy but often the family rallied round and the new child was passed off as the granny's baby...I've often seen them on the records when the woman is sixty and described as a two years old mother....while her actual daughter is twenty.
There was no such safety net in rural Ireland...the village priest ruled remember and he'd have named and shamed without a qualm...so the pregnant girl was hidden away and when her child was born the only solution was to leave it out on the muck heap or under a tree on the haggard...the girl, having returned from her extended' visit to an aunt,' would reappear and life went on as normal.
It's too simplistic for us to suck our teeth and say but that was dreadful altogether...sewing your own shroud was pretty awful when you stop and think about it...having one child after another die within the space of days from scarlet fever seems like something from a horror story...deliberately leaving a newborn out on the muck heap is almost unbelievable...but that was life then. It was so because it was a different time with different thoughts and rules and mindsets...it was bad to us because we live in the now...but we have unbelievable situations which the people of the future will raise their hands in horror over...the death penalty and aeroplanes apparently deliberately flown into deep oceans and wars which leave men scarred for life and prone to commit dreadful acts because their minds have gone from the horrors they've seen and experienced...
Each century has its secrets and lies...we have ours...the Victorians had theirs and the mediaeval people had another set entirely...not 'wrong'...just different.