Midwife : Liza, p.1
(formerly Midwyf: Liza)
Copyright 2010 by Valerie Levy
The right of Valerie Levy to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 2002
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems---except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews---without permission in writing from Valerie Levy
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously.
First edition 2010
Second edition 2012
Valerie Levy/ Midwife: Liza
The MIDWIFE series of books follows the practices and beliefs surrounding midwifery and childbirth in England from medieval through to modern times. This is the first in the series and tells Liza’s story.
Everyone - whether a pregnant, labouring or newly delivered woman, or a newborn baby – has at some point in their life needed a midwife.
The word ‘midwife’ derives from the Old English ‘mid wyf’, or ‘with woman’. Generally speaking, when the status of women is high, so are standards of midwifery, and vice versa. Studying the history of midwifery reveals how new knowledge and changing attitudes has influenced the care of women in childbirth through the ages.
When I say I am a midwife, a common reaction is ‘Oh, what a great job, it must be so fulfilling!’ And so it is – most of the time. Midwives are tremendously privileged to be with women and their families during such an important event as birth. Quite rightly, much is expected from them, by the families they serve, by their managers, by their colleagues.
Childbirth is usually a joyous occasion, but sometimes problems arise. Midwives may need to support women and families through stressful times, sometimes even through tragedy. Not only do midwives need advanced technical and manual skills based upon up to date research, they also need to be compassionate and intuitive. As well as, of course, hardworking, professional, trustworthy - the list goes on.
It is not an easy job, especially in these days of pressure, budget cuts and more pressure, but it is an essential one. If you are a student midwife, I wish you all the very best - you could not have chosen a more rewarding and valuable profession.
Everyone needs a midwife! I hope you enjoy ‘Liza’. I have loved writing about her.
Val Levy, France 2010
Note for 2nd edition, 2012 - The title ‘Midwyf’ has been changed to ‘Midwife’ to bring it in line with the more modern spelling used by subsequent books in the series (next one ‘Midwife: Beatrix’ available early 2013). Very little else has been changed, apart from a deleted prologue.
The MIDWIFE series is dedicated with great respect and affection to all midwives who are now, or have ever been.
This first book in the Midwife series, Liza, is for Pat Smith: sister and friend. Without her advice and encouragement Liza’s story may never have been told.
At the end of the book is an explanation of some of the medieval midwifery practices and medical conditions mentioned in the book, together with a brief glossary of some of the words used in medieval times.
Widows’ Cot squatted like a toad amongst the trees, a tumbledown of crumbling thatch, wattle and daub. Liza sat inside, hunched over the fire, her stool carefully positioned out of the mainstream of smoke. The old midwife sucked her wrinkled cheeks with satisfaction as the contents of her cooking pot spat and bubbled, filling the room with smells of herbs and hog’s fat. The heavy oak door sagged open to vent clouds of greasy, aromatic smoke into the forest, and more billowed out of the window opening or filtered through the mouldy thatch, sending sooty wisps skyward.
Liza had worked hard since sunrise brewing and bottling, renewing and replenishing her stores. Her sharp eyes peered bloodshot through the gloom as she gazed upwards to survey rows of newly filled flasks standing on wooden shelves - decoctions, electuaries, ointments, plaisters. Now, she would be able to treat whatever ailments beset the Hollingham villagers or their animals.
She sat back stiffly on her stool and wiped her hands on the sacking apron tied around her waist that protected her woollen gown from streaks of grease and soot. A linen cap covered her sparse hair, and pointed leather shoes cased her feet. Liza wore her entire wardrobe, except for a cloak and a dress of white wool, worn only to visit Tom, dead these many years from the red plague.
As she bent forward to stir the final brew of the day, Liza hummed tunelessly, for once at peace with the world. Bonney opened his eyes at the sound of her voice and scrutinised his beloved mistress. He sighed and fell asleep again, a nonchalant paw flung over Murrikin, the cat.
“Eh, whatever would old Liza do without her darlings?" Liza reached out a grimy hand to stroke the greyhound's muzzle. Lady Isabella had given him to Liza, grateful for her help during a miscarriage a few years ago. She straightened and Murrikin nuzzled her ankles to receive his share of attention. “T’would be a long, lonely night … no-one to keep Liza company, ‘less Judith Belling starts her travail. And they’ll all come hammering on the door to seek old Liza’s help. No peace then!”
A gust of smoke blew her way and her chuckles degenerated into a coughing fit. Bonney pricked his ears as her coughs subsided, and growled a warning. “Shush, shush, my dear, let’s see who comes visiting Liza.” She hobbled to the doorway and stood waiting.
Nicholas de le Haye, a corpulent black-bearded villager dressed in a red knee-length tunic and green woollen hose, strode through the trees. His shoulders bowed into his neck, forcing his head forward as he walked. A much shorter, grey haired man scurried to keep up with him. Liza closed the door behind her carefully and stood watching, Bonney beside her, as the men approached through her small garden.
“Liza! I have business I want to discuss with you.”
“Business? What business you got with old Liza? Is it your cow’s sick again?”
Richard Reeve intervened. “Better I explain. No, Mistress Cooper, it’s something else.” Liza waited for the reeve to catch his breath and continue, her whiskery chin quivering in anxiety. "Master de le Haye requires more land, another virgate at least. At the Manor Court this morning Lord Roger agreed to rent him the land, this here - that is, if you will agree -” Liza’s eyes narrowed. “Mistress, could we perhaps discuss this inside?”
“Outdoor suits me well enough, I’m busy indoors.”
“As you wish. As I was saying, Master de le Haye requires more …"
Nicholas interrupted. “Enough, Richard, ‘tis time for plain speaking. Old woman, I want this part of the forest to clear and add to my fields. I need you to be off the land, out of here.” Bonney growled. “And watch that bloody dog of yours, I've told you before, keep him away from me.” Bonney growled again, louder this time, ears laid back and hackles bristling. Liza muttered a few words and he grunted and flopped down beside her, eyes still fixed upon Nicholas.
“Liza, be reasonable. You will live in Widow Tanner’s old cot, and I’ll make sure that your possessions are moved tomorrow, or the day after.”
“But old Liza don’t want to go away from here, I’m content here. All my herbs ...”
“This hovel’s ready to fall down.” He kicked one of the walls and a cloud of dust and rotten timber flew out. “Look at that!”
Bonney sprang to his feet and Liza laid a restraining hand on the dog's neck. “But old Liza don't want to live in the village. I'
“You’ll do much better at Widow Tanner’s cot. Come now, Liza, it's bigger than this, and empty for long enough since she died. Look, I’ll even pay you something towards your rent?” The offer tempted Liza for a moment. At Mary Tanner's old cot there would be far more space to store her medicines, and it had a proper fireplace and chimney. The smoke would be led up and out of the cottage instead of into old eyes and lungs. But it meant giving up the peace and privacy of the forest.
“I don’t want to go. Old Liza don't want to live next to them prattling busybodies in the village. They'll all yammer on about this," she gestured towards the smoke trickling through the window. "They’ll come bothering me about the stinks an’ all, I’ll get no peace. Much better to stay put. Don’t want no new cot. Old Liza thanks you, but she says NO. Now, I got work to do so if you’ve finished with me - ”
Nicholas pulled a leathern flask from his belt and drank. He belched, replaced the flask and stepped towards her, the palms of his hands upwards in supplication. Bonney growled another warning and he took a pace back again. “Look, Liza, you know my son’s marrying soon. I want this land for him. He’ll assart the woodland and build his own dwelling place here. He'll do good here, he'll make the most of it. You wouldn’t begrudge him his own fields and home, would you?”
“Old Liza's cot, everyone knows it’s here, in the forest,” she swept her skinny arm round in an arc. “Folks know where to come when they need me. And in private, Master de le Haye, not like in the village. Anyway, I’m an old woman, not long for this world and if you wait a few years I'll be gone for good. Then you can have whatever you want."
“It’s now I want the land."
“I've been driven out of my home once before. I'll not leave it again. My Tom built it. He even built my table and stools. And cradles for my babies. And they all went ...” Her voice faltered. Three boys there had been, fair and slender like their father, and little Posie, their last-born and closest to her heart, just four years old when the red plague took her. All of them gone in the space of one terrible week so long ago. Posie, plump and adorable, hair a riot of light brown curls above a chubby face, always laughing, always happy, until those final days when she screamed with the unremitting pain of the pustules and there was no more her mother or grandmother could do, except hold her as her little life departed. Afterwards, the cottage had been burnt to the ground. It could not be allowed to stand; too many had died inside; too many foul miasmas lurked in the walls and thatch.
Liza tried to speak calmly. “Tis here old Liza lives now, and it's here she'll stay. It's taken me years to get my garden like this, all my herbs, setting them in the right places, seeing to them, making them grow. I'll not leave them.”
Nicholas shrugged. “You’ll not get a fairer offer. Anyway, Lord Roger has consented to all this, so don’t you make trouble, old woman. You've got no choice.”
“Lord Roger? He wouldn’t harm old Liza, not after all she’s done to help the Lady Isabella.” She felt her eyes fill with tears as she turned towards Richard. “Lord Roger wouldn’t turn me out, would he? Would he?”
“One detail Master de le Haye has overlooked to tell you,” Richard glanced coldly at Nicholas, “is that Lord Roger agreed to rent out the land only if you agree from your own free will to give up Widows’ Cot.” Nicholas muttered an oath and turned away as Richard continued, unperturbed. “Lord Roger's a just man, Mistress, he won’t deprive you of your home, won’t make you move unless you want to. And even if he wanted you out, the Manor Court would uphold your rights of Freebench. This is your cottage, you're a widow, you've never remarried, so you’ve got rights here. It's for you to say.”
“Then Liza says no! Why does he come here, making an old woman cry? Cruel, oh, cruel!” She hopped from one foot to the other.
Richard moved between Liza and Nicholas. “So be it, so be it. I’ll tell Lord Roger of your decision, don’t be afraid, Mistress, he’ll not let the land go, he won't turn you out …”
“Come now, let’s not be too hasty. Think well, Liza,” Nicholas pushed the reeve aside and smiled ingratiatingly, revealing stubs of black teeth. “Perhaps - if you will move out tomorrow - we could agree you occupy Widow Tanner’s cot rent free. Rent free, Liza! I'll pay all the rent for you.” She shook her head.
“Don’t push me too hard, Liza, I can only go so far.” Nicholas turned his back, took another swig of the weak small ale from his flask, and spun around again. “Very well. If you agree to leave Widows’ Cot in the next seven days, I'll arrange for your possessions to be moved to Widow Tanner’s old cot, you'll live rent free - and, all right, I'll even make you a gift of five shillings every year for the rest of your life! I cannot say fairer.” He scowled as she shook her head once more. “Stupid old crone, do you not know a bargain when you see one?”
Liza faced him, her voice shrill. “Don’t you call me names, Nicholas de le Haye. I don’t want Widow Tanner's cottage, or any money, all old Liza wants is to be left alone by the likes of you. And don’t you come here bothering me any more or I’ll go to Lord Roger. He'll put paid to your troublemaking, he'll see you off.”
Nicholas’ face flushed. “Don't threaten me, old woman. I’ll not give you a moment’s peace till you and your mangy animals are gone from here. Not a moment.”
Liza stepped back at the venom in his voice. As Nicholas finished speaking, she drew herself up to stand as tall as her humped spine would allow and wagged a bony finger in his face, her other hand resting on the agitated Bonney’s head.
“Get off my land, Nicholas de le Haye, leave me be. Otherwise you'll find out what old Liza can do. Make him go away, Master Reeve, I don't want his sort upsetting me!” She turned to go back into her cottage.
Richard took Nicholas' arm. “Come, you heard her, she said no.”
“Piss off, reeve.” He shook Richard's arm off. “I'm not leaving here till the old bitch agrees.” Nicholas kicked Liza’s precious savin bush, and broke several of its branches.
Liza stopped in her doorway, her chin working in fury. “Go, Bonney!” The dog launched himself at Nicholas and ripped off a mouthful of red wool. Nicholas ran back through the garden and down the woodland path, shreds of tunic flapping, as Bonney barked and snapped at his legs.
“He's nothing but a bully, that one, trying to turn an old woman out of her home, I won't be having it, Richard Reeve. I won't be having it. Tell him to stay away. Look what he's done to old Liza," she held out her hands so he could see them shaking.
“Don't let him upset you, Mistress Cooper,” the reeve said, trying hard not to smile. He clasped her cold hands between his for a moment. “I'm glad you stood up to him, though. He won't be back any time soon, not as long as you have that dog. I don't think he's been seen off in such a manner ever before. I won't easily forget the sight of him running away like that.” He was laughing as he turned to follow Nicholas back to the village.
Liza bolted the door behind Nicholas and Richard Reeve and leaned for a moment against it, overwhelmed with loneliness. A tear trickled down her bony face and fell to the earthen floor.
“What I wouldn’t give to have my Tom here to stand up to him,” she muttered. “I must find Tom. I must find him, else I’ll go as mad as they say I be. ‘Tis time enough, old Liza's not been to him since before the snow lay on the ground.”
Her spirits revived a little as she planned for her journey. Tom would be in the secret part of the forest tonight, waiting to love the comely young wife she had once been, not the withered hag she sometimes saw reflected in still-water pools. She thought rapidly. If Mistress Belling starts they’ll have to do without me till morning. She won’t be quick, anyhow, not that one, not with those hips and it being her first birthing.
Liza’s passports to Tom were cinquefoil, nightshade, henbane and aconite. Excited now, she hobbled a few yards into the forest and chose a small branch, fallen onto the ground, and then to her garden t
Liza bolted her door again, but left the window opening unshuttered. She poured hot water from the pot hanging over the fire into a bowl and washed herself with gillyflower water and fragrant herbs. As she combed her sparse grey hair she thought how pretty it had been when she was a young girl; unbound, shining copper almost to her knees. When they were children Tom would often tug her plaits, teasing her ... but if any of the other boys, especially Septimus Wilkins or Osbert Miller, dared do the same he would be quick to defend her. At the thought of Tom, Liza's wrinkled face softened in the light of the fire. Very soon she would be with him. Her old limbs trembled as she inhaled from the ointment jar, drawing the sharp herbal tang deep into her lungs.
Liza sat on her stool for a while and looked out of the window opening. As soon as the evening star shone through the trees, then she would go. Near to her, Bonney also waited, tense and silent, ears pricked, panting from the heat of the fire. At last, it was time. She shook, excited, as she rubbed the ointment into her skin, and put on her white gown. She moved to the straw pallet and lowered herself down, joints creaking and stiff. She pulled up a blanket, and waited, eyes closed, clasping the branch to her chest. It always began slowly - a gentle tingling sensation starting from her feet, spreading throughout her body. Once warm with the ointment's heat, she would rise from the pallet and squeeze through the window, up and away to freedom.