Old documents in Germanic speaking European areas often contain terms and idioms in multiple languages. Clerks and priests not only used the German language for a baptismal or burial entry for example. Very often you’ll find Latin terms, or idioms in a local German dialect. And in certain times and areas you’ll even find other locally used languages like French as well.
Trying to read old documents in an old foreign handwriting and an outdated foreign language can be very.very.very challenging. To be honest, even German genealogists do not only fight with the handwriting but the antiquated language as well!
Outdated foreign language
Most of you (and all of me) like to know more than just day and place of death for example. In this new series I will list German and Latin terms and idioms you’ll find in old German documents. Sooo… let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. Here’s a collection of terms and idioms dealing with pregnancy and birth back in the days.
“Planned parenthood” wasn’t really common back in those days. Therefore pregnancies often “just happened”, whether welcome or not. Prenatal care was mostly unknown. Very often heavily pregnant women literally worked until they went into labour and gave birth. Not to mention malnutrition, quite common but moreso also due to the frequency and spacing of pregnancies. So you can imagine that pregnancies and births didn’t always go well.
Terms and idioms before and during pregnancy
Probably it was awkward for the priests and clerks to talk about “female things”. Maybe that’s why they often preferred the Latin expressions over the German ones. I marked the English terms in bold black, German terms in blue and Greek and Latin terms in green.
A short note about Latin words and grammar: The suffix of a lot of Latin adjectives points to a person’s gender. The suffix “-us” is male, the suffix “-a” is female. So… if your text reads “baptizatus” it refers to a boy being baptized. If the text reads “baptizata” it refers to a girl being baptized. To make the explanations less confusing, I mainly used the male version. But the examples also apply to females, you just have to swap the “-us” for an “-a”.
- Period, menorrhea or menstruation were described as “Weiberseuche” (women’s plague) or “Mond” (moon).
- Amenorrhea or absence of menorrhea as “suppressio mensum”.
- A pregnant woman was called “gravida”. If a child was conceived before or out of wedlock, the woman would be called “impraegnata”, “stuprata” or worse, the man would be called “impraegnator” (or worse).
- A pregnancy would be described as “graviditas”, “impraegnatio”, “praegnatio” or “Bürde” (burden).
- Pregnancy cramps or eclampsia was called “Schwangerschaftskrampf” or “ecclampsia puerpalis”.
Terms and idioms for the time of birth
- “Abortus” means induced abortion as well as premature birth or even a miscarriage, so be careful with an assessment. Since a premature birth often meant death for the child, there’s no clear line between them. You will also find the terms “unartige Geburt”, “unzeitige Geburt” and “apophyora”.
- You’ll find a stillborn child as well as a premature infant as “foetus abortivus”. Infants’ causes of deaths will often be described as “extinctus in utero” (died in mother’s womb) or “extinctus ante partum” (died after birth (both mother and/or child)).
Sometimes the midwife (“Hebamme” or “obstetrix”) or even a neighbour tried to baptize a feeble child even before it was completely born. The priest would then note “Nottaufe” (emergency baptism) or “baptizatus in periculo mortis” (baptized in danger of death).
- A child with a birth mark, a malformation or a handicap sometimes was called “Ausgeburt” or “Mal-Geburt”.
- A woman in labour was called “Gebärende” or “Kreisterin”.
The latter word comes from the German word “kreischen” which means to scream. It’s an antique word, only in use nowadays as part of the word “Kreißsaal” (delivery room).
- The regular birth itself was called “partum” or “Geburt”. The labour pains were called “Wehen” or “Kreistung”, the afterpains were called “Nachwehen” or “dolor post partum”.
Terms and idioms for the time after birth
I’m sorry if it sounded as if most children died before, during or right after birth. Of course this isn’t the case. Many children were delivered in time, and mother and child survived pregnancy and birth quite well.
- The childbed was called “Kindbett”, “Wochenbett”, “Frauenunreinheit” (women’s uncleanness) or “puerperium” and lasted about six weeks (“Wochen”) until the woman in childbed (“Wöchnerin”) wasn’t “unrein” (unclean) any longer.
- The mother’s postnatal discharge was called “Wochenfluss” or “lochia”.
- A son usually would be called “filius”, “puer”, “Knabe”, “Knäblein”, “Sohn”, “Söhnchen” or “Söhnlein”.
A daughter usually would be noted as “filia”, “puella”, “Tochter”, “Töchterlein”, “Mädchen” or “Mägdelein”.
While most of these terms are quite clear about the infant’s gender, I’ve found that “puer” might be a gender-neutral “child” in some cases, similar to “infans”, “Kind”, “Kindelein” or “Kindchen”.
- Twins in general were called “Zwillinge” or “gemini”. Twin sisters were “gemellae”, twin brothers “gemelli”.
- Children born in wedlock were “legitimus”, illegitimate children were “illegitimus”, “spurius”, “infans adulterinus” (fathered through adultery) or “Bastard”. In some cases those “bastards” were later “legitimatus per subsequens matrimonium” (legitimized through subsequent marriage).
This list of terms and idioms is by no means complete, and I don’t claim that I didn’t make any mistakes and typos. But I hope it will give you a helping hand when you try to decipher church and civil records. Don’t feel shy to ask about terms and idioms you came across and can’t read or understand. I’ll try to help you to find out what that term means.