During England’s Regency period, women in childbed were advised to sip a caudle—a warm drink made by mixing a thin gruel of oatmeal with wine or ale, spices, and sugar. Although often given to sick people, caudles were enjoyed by women in labor and during their confinement, as well as by their family, friends and visitors. Even as late as 1855, caudles were still in use: “She went to see the grocer’s wife on an interesting occasion, and won the heart of the family by tasting their caudle.”1

17th century painting of a Dutch birth-room

17th-century painting of a Dutch birth-room, showing a maid offering sweetmeats to her mistress’s gossips. Although this painting does not depict the Regency period, it is interesting nonetheless. Note that while the clothing fashion changed between the 17th and 18th centuries, the custom of visiting with gossips did not. (From: Wellcome Library, London)2

Childbed Was a Social Event

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, childbirth was both a rite of passage and a social occasion. For a woman of the British aristocracy—that is, a woman married to a noble such as a Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount or Baron, or to a Baronet or Knight—traveling to London to deliver her child, especially if it were her first infant, was the beginning of her transformation from wife to mother. “Going to Town” was a signal that the child’s birth was eminent, something almost akin to a royal progress. Sometimes a woman’s arrival in London was announced in the newspapers to inform everybody of this very public event. By 1800, aristocratic women poised to deliver their second or third child sometimes chose to stay in the country, although most made the journey to London.3

Childbed was also a social event, with women seeking the comfort of family and friends. A pregnant woman’s mother, a sister or two, a close maid and a few female friends would all be invited to serve as attendants or “gossips.” Men sometimes also attended a birth. When the Duchess of Devonshire delivered her first child in 1783, her husband stood in the doorway; by 1817, some aristocratic families expected male members of the family to attend the birthing. A few husbands remained at their wife’s bedside throughout her labor.3 The purpose of this sociability was to surround the woman in childbed with family and friends who supported and cared for her.

Caudles Were Considered Restorative

The famous man-midwife Dr. William Smellie wrote in 1752 that if a woman was “spent and exhausted” after labor, she should take a little warm wine or caudle. Dr. Edmund Chapman gave particular advice on the type of caudle to be consumed immediately after delivery:

“…it will be proper to give a large quantity of nutmeg in a glass of white-wine. At the same time, the woman is to drink freely of white-wine caudle and chicken-broth; the latter of which is more necessary after a great loss of blood. If she continues to have an immoderate discharge, her caudle is to be made with red-wine, instead of a white.”4

Thus, women in childbed traditionally drank caudle as a restorative potion and shared it with their families and friends. At least one man-midwife, Dr. Thomas Denman, questioned the prudence of the practice, saying “caudle was dispensed with an unsparing hand, to remedy every temporary inconvenience. Consent is seldom refused to that medical advice which is agreeable to the will of patients or the partiality of friends”5—a conclusion perhaps as true today as in Jane Austen’s time.

Caudle Recipes

Recipes for white and brown caudle can be found online here. At least one Regency era cookbook found online provided recipes for white and brown caudle: Farley’s cookbook, The London Art of Cookery, published in 1811.6 Families likely had their own recipes for caudle. One family cook might add a large pinch of cinnamon, while another believed a little seasoning with cayenne or nutmeg was warranted. No matter the recipe, the desired result was a warm brew that revived and soothed.

1Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online: from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Newcomes. (A subscription to the OED is required.) Accessed May 21, 2012.
2Wellcome Library, London: 17th-century Dutch painting, image no. L0019348. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
3Lewis, Judith Schneid. In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986, pp. 156-157, 171-173.
4Chapman, Edmund. On the Improvement of Midwifery; Chiefly with Regard to the Operation, To which are Added, Fifty-seven CASES, Selected from upwards of Twenty-seven Years Practice. (London, 1759), EPUB p. 26.
5Denman, Thomas. An Introduction to the Practice of Midwifery. (Brattleborough, 1807), p. 439 (PDF p. 400).
6Farley, John. The London Art of Cookery, and Domestic Housekeepers’ Complete Assistant. (London, 1811), p. 375 (PDF p. 399).