Pain was seen as natural and even a good thing
The popular and enduring image of Queen Victoria of England is mainly that of a grumpy, dowdy and archly-conservative middle-aged or elderly lady. While this may be true for her later years, such an image does a disservice to Victoria. After all, this was the monarch who revolutionized royal childbirth. The queens and princesses of today have her to thank for breaking with the centuries-long tradition of seeing pain as a good and noble thing. Thanks to Victoria, while royal births may still cling on to some old traditions, the ladies may now accept, or even embrace, pain relief.
In the Middle Ages above all, what limited pain relief there was available was seen as unnatural and against the will of God. This was especially true in the case of royal births. After all, in the Bible, it’s stated that “in pain, you will give birth to children”, and kings and their advisers expected the royal women to make sure this was indeed the case. So, anything that might ease the pain of childbirth, including alcohol and other natural anesthetics were strictly forbidden. Indeed, legend has it that, in the year 1591, a woman of high social standing was burned at the stake for having the temerity to request pain relief in the midst of a difficult birth of twins.
Even when chloroform and ether became commonplace in surgery by the nineteenth century, the pain of childbirth was still seen as something to be not just endured but even embraced, especially for the ladies of royalty. It was only in 1853 that this situation changed. Having already given birth to seven children. Queen Victoria went into labor with the future Prince Leopold. Struggling with the pain of labor, she asked the royal physician, Dr John Snow, to help. And he did indeed do his duty to his queen. A cloth soaked in chloroform was pressed against Her Majesty’s mouth and did the trick. After the birth, far from keeping it a secret, Queen Victoria was enthusiastic in her praise of pain relief. From then on, drugs were seen as a blessing for women in labor, and for both commoners and royalty alike.