This was a guest column that I did over at Catherine Delors’ Versailles and More. Just in case you didn’t see it, I’ll boldly repost.
Early-modern obstetrical manuals contained a detailed inventory of the many things that could go wrong in the birth room. And for good reason. It is estimated that one of ten women could expect to die from childbirth related causes in the Old Regime. A married women would become pregnant, on average, five or six times.Given that up to 10% of the labors were fatal, this means a woman had a 50% to 60% chance of dying during her reproductive life.
Of course, these are estimates. It is very hard to estimate death rates with precision because fertility and mortality were variable across regions and socioeconomic groups. The statistics I cite here are from Jacques Gélis et al., Entrer dans la vie: Naissances et enfances dans la France traditionnelle (95). If you’re interested in knowing more, you might take a peek at Dobie and Wilmott’s An Attempt to Estimate the True Rate of Maternal Mortality, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries. Medical History 26.1 (1982): 79-90.
Another favorite of mine is by Lianne McTavish, Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France.