Call the Aztec Midwife: Childbirth in the 16th Century

Hygiene and ritual marked every moment of life for pregnant Aztec women. The tlamatlquiticitl—midwife—offered those in her charge a remarkable 16th-century birthing plan, combining practical care, drugs for pain relief, and religious ceremonies.

Where do babies come from? The Aztecs’ answer to the classic child’s question was that they came from the 13th heaven—the highest heaven of all. Here, in this store of unborn souls, they waited until the gods decided to place them in their mother’s belly.

Aztec adults also firmly believed in the divine supervision of childbirth, and that from the moment of conception, a fetus’s healthy development depended on the will of the gods. Aztec society, whose powerful empire stretched over what is now southern Mexico from the 14th through 16th centuries, was suffused with religious customs. It was also highly practical and had devised a remarkable series of systems to monitor the mother and her unborn child.

Much of what is known of Aztec society comes from a book written by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish friar living near what is now Mexico City. During the second part of the 16th century, Sahagún compiled a vast compendium on Aztec customs, entitled the General History of the Things of New Spain. The lavishly illustrated manuscript, whose three volumes are now kept in Florence, Italy, dealt in its sixth book with the complex methods and rituals of Aztec childbirth.

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