This index is tied to an ever-growing data set containing the names and demographic details of 297 women (as of January 2022) who died while pregnant, in labor, or up to 90 days postpartum between the year 1044 and the year 1699 of the common era.
These women have a great deal in common. Due to the vagaries of historical record keeping, they are almost all relative elites within their societies, either due to the accident of their own status at birth or the status of the man who fathered their child. They are also primarily clustered within the borders of premodern Europe, and the vast majority (although not all) would have identified as Christians.
These women are also tightly clumped in terms of chronology. More than a third (104) of the women died during the seventeenth century; fewer than 5% (14) died before the advent of the thirteenth century. That is not, of course, evidence of different parturitive death patterns or rates, but rather a testament to the profoundly uneven documentation of women’s lives and deaths in the premodern world.
Likewise, I wish to acknowledge the arbitrary nature of the term “death in childbirth.” For while many of these women died of reproductive pathology, for others, reproduction was merely an incidental or perhaps contributory feature in their demise. Nevertheless, I have chosen to embrace a wide definition of maternal mortality because I believe it most accurately reflects the ways these deaths were memorialized, if not precisely how they occurred. While many of these women’s deaths had other potential contributory factors — rumors of poison, falls out of coaches, off horses, or downstairs, or spousal abuse— their reproductive state was reported as an intrinsic component and compounding factor of their death. Many women also suffered from chronic postpartum ailments that significantly weakened their ongoing health, making them more susceptible to further pregnancy, illness, and accident.