The umbilical cords of the Harrach family

The umbilical cords of the Harrach family
A photograph of Ernst Guido von Harrach’s umbilical cord. AVA FA Harrach © Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, Vienna (Austria)

The umbilical cords of the Harrach family

IV The passage into the world


Since the first half of the 18th century, three bizarre and rare objects have been preserved in the Harrach family archive in Vienna: the umbilical cords of three of the family’s children, Maria Rosa Josepha’s (born 1721), Josef Ernst Xaver’s (born 1722), and Ernst Guido’s (born 1723). Why did early modern contemporaries hold on to this corporeal material?

The umbilical cord had a highly symbolic meaning that reached far beyond its organic function. Umbilical cords were kept as symbols of fertility or as talismans that provided protection for their wearers. Since the mid-17th century, they were also buried together with the placenta under a tree in a bid to either shape the children’s personality traits or to influence their sex in future pregnancies. If buried under a laurel bush, for example, the baby was to become a brave and courageous adult. If the parents wished to conceive a daughter, it was placed under an apple tree; if they hoped for a boy, they laid it under a pear tree.

During pregnancy, it was believed, the baby was directly affected by certain external events, or by the presence of objects capable of passing on their attributes to the foetus in what could be called a physical analogy. The position of the umbilical cord was influenced, for instance, by the wearing of necklaces and rings. It was believed pregnant women should avoid stepping over wagon wheels or drawbars, passing under lines or ropes, or touching a spinning wheel, as the umbilical cord would then wrap itself around the baby’s neck. 

After delivery, tying off the umbilical cord and binding the navel represented a crucial moment. If this act was performed carelessly, it could easily lead to an inflammation dangerous enough to put the newborn’s life at risk.

The child nourished through the umbilical cord pictured above, Ernst Guido, lived until his late fifties. He was one of at least sixteen children of Friedrich August and Maria Eleonora von Harrach. Their numerous offspring surely suggested the powerful effects of these cords that connected mother and child. [Christian Standhartinger]