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eaglestones


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Reputed the finest amulets for use in pregnancy and childbirth, they are mentioned in English sources from at least the 13th century, though many of these will be basing their knowledge directly on Pliny (Natural History (ad 77), XXXVI. XXIX). Also known as Aetites, they were hollow stones, often brown and egg-shaped, containing sand or small pebbles rattling inside; it was said they could only be found in eagles' nests, and that without them the birds could not produce young. Worn round the neck or on the left arm, they would act like a magnet to hold the foetus in place and prevent miscarriage; English tradition adds the instruction (not given by Pliny) to tie them inside the left thigh during labour, thus quickly drawing out the baby and the placenta, but then remove them at once, for fear of bleeding or prolapse.

They were expensive, and families lucky enough to own one were expected to lend it around; in 1662 Dr Bargrave, Dean of Christchurch, Canterbury, wrote of one he had bought from an Armenian in Rome:It is so useful that my wife can seldom keep it at home, and therefore she hath sewed the strings to the knitt purse in which the stone is, for the convenience of the tying of it to the patient on occasion, and hath a box to put the purse and stone in. It were fit that the Dean's (Canterbury) or vice-dean's wife (if they be marryed men) should have this stone in their custody for the public good, as to neighbourhood; but still, that they have a great care into whose hand it be committed, and that the midwives have a care of it, so that it shall be the Cathedral's stone.(cited in Forbes, 1966: 67)

It is so useful that my wife can seldom keep it at home, and therefore she hath sewed the strings to the knitt purse in which the stone is, for the convenience of the tying of it to the patient on occasion, and hath a box to put the purse and stone in. It were fit that the Dean's (Canterbury) or vice-dean's wife (if they be marryed men) should have this stone in their custody for the public good, as to neighbourhood; but still, that they have a great care into whose hand it be committed, and that the midwives have a care of it, so that it shall be the Cathedral's stone.(cited in Forbes, 1966: 67)

Similarly, it is known that a friend of the Countess of Newcastle lent her one in 1633 (N&Q 12s:12 (1923), 189), and that a Norfolk family in 1881 had one as an heirloom (N&Q 6s:3 (1881), 327).

Forbes, 1966:64–71;C. N. Bromehead, Antiquity 21 (1947), 16–22;Opie and Tatem, 1989: 129.


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