WHEN Dr Wurz of Hamburg dressed as a nun in order to witness the mystery of parturition he was burned at the stake. Childbirth was a women's business in 16th-century Europe. Yet men had a spiritual role to play in many societies. According to anthropologist Charlotte Hardman of Newcastle University, 'it was the total exclusion of men practised in Europe which was unusual'.

In the couvade (which means literally 'the hatching') which is practised in many societies across South America, fathers go through a symbolic birth and experience something akin to labour.

Among the Bang Chan of south east Asia, a woman gives birth standing up, held in her partner's arms. The ritual purpose is to help by harnessing the power of the wind which will then sweep through her body and help her to give birth.

Among some native North Americans, if labour is difficult, the baby's father, or the labouring woman's own father, may be invited in to help, through the ritual use of an eagle feather, to bring extra power to her aid. Sometimes the help given is outside the birthing chamber - Hardman discovered that in Nepal, fathers would go out and unwind any recently erected fences as an aid to a difficult labour.

In some Polynesian societies women deliver sitting between their father's legs. But in most cases the rituals are clearly there to encourage a sense of responsibility between father and child. According to psychologist Charlie Lewis, they are most common in societies where rights of inheritance are not clear cut and fathers need to stake their claim to the child. He believes this may be one of the reasons for the increasing participation of fathers in childbirth in our society.

However according to Sheila Kitzinger, whatever the spiritual involvement of fathers, women in virtually all societies choose female companions to take a practical role in labour; in many, the direct involvement of men is taboo. Men tend to get involved in practical ways when women friends are not available, as in the case of the North American pioneers, where couples lived in isolation.

It may well be similar isolation which forced British and American women to co-opt their male partners in the role of birth companions - a campaign which started in the 1930s, peaking in the 1970s and mirroring the increasing isolation of mothers in hospitals. Today the vast majority of fathers in Britain and America attend the birth.