Monday, October 8, 2012

Of Witches and Midwives

by Sam Thomas


For many years, historians knew one of two things about midwives in pre-modern Europe. If you asked medical historians, they were decrepit old crones, with no medical training. They were untrained, lived on the margins of society, and probably dabbled in witchcraft.

If you asked (some) women’s historians, they would agree that midwives practiced witchcraft, but in this account, they were the distant heirs to a pre-Christian religion, practitioners in an early modern Earth-Mother cult. These rebellious figures rejected the Church’s authority, and for their trouble were often burned at the stake.

Both of these accounts are complete bunk.

Malleus Maleficarum
The connection between midwives and witchcraft dates back to the notorious Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for Hammer of Witches), written in 1486 by two Dominican inquisitors, Jacob Spernger and Heinrich Kramer. In Malleus, Sprenger and Kramer offer lurid accusations that midwives murdered newborn children and sacrificed them to the Devil.

While Malleus has influenced generations of historians, it is less clear that it had much influence on its readers. Kremer’s behavior at a witch trial in 1485 so outraged his fellow-inquisitors and a local bishop that they came to the defense of the accused witch, and the Spanish Inquisition(!) warned its inquisitors not to take it too seriously. More significantly, when historians have studied witch trials, they find midwives not among the women accused, but testifying for the prosecution! While thousands of women were tried for witchcraft, only the tiniest handful were in any way connected to midwifery.

If midwives weren’t witches, who were they? Just because the medical historians were wrong about the witchcraft, were they right that midwives were poor old women who lived on the margins of society?

Wrong again.

It turns out, they were not much different than women in England. Many midwives were quite well-off, often referred to with the honorific “Mrs.”, and we know that the wife of the Lord Mayor of Chester practiced midwifery. Letters written on behalf of Martha Baker describe her as “a Gentlewoman of great Judgement & skill,” and the will of Bridget Hodgson of York includes large cash gifts and refers to her family’s coat of arms. It is not uncommon to find midwives married to Anglican ministers, which is hardly the mark of poverty and disdain.

That said, poor midwives did exist. Court documents describe Anne Doughty as “very poore & hath very small employment,” and say that Johanna Thompson “is very low and poore in the world.” In some cases, there is evidence that women receiving poor-relief were encouraged to take up midwifery in order to reduce their reliance on public funds.

It thus seems that midwives were young and old, rich and poor, married, widowed, and even spinsters.

Once we have figured out who midwives were, the question then becomes What did midwives do? Sure they delivered children, but in a world before anesthetics and instruments, how did they do this? What was it that made midwives different from the other women who helped mothers when they were in labor? For that and more, you’ll have to come back next month! (Cue cliff-hanger music.)

Further reading:

David Harley, “Historians as Demonologists: The Myth of the Midwife-witch,” Social History of Medicine 3, no. 1 (1990): 1-26.
 
Hilary Marland, ed., The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe (London, 1994).

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Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery from Minotaur/St.Martin's. Want to pre-order a copy? Click here. For more on midwifery and childbirth visit his website. You can also like him on Facebook  and follow him on Twitter.

7 comments:

  1. Interesting! I always think of how women got edged out of the medical profession over the next few centuries, but in recent years seem to have made a come-back. I wonder what that new show on the 1950s midwives is like?

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  2. Nothing much better than a de-bunk thank you. I look forward to more.

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  3. Very interesting! And congratulations on your book - am off to Amazon to pre-order a copy right now.

    Btw, don't know if you'll remember we were in touch a year or so ago about York. You recommended Jane Sharp's The Midwives Book and I have found it fascinating and very useful.

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  4. I have just a finished second edit of The Midwife's Secret: The Mystery of La Belle Ecossaise, and my novels are extensively researched. My fictional midwife is a protege of Margaret Houston, the midwife who attended the birth of James VI and I, and she was a well known professional and quite well off financially. I wish I had found your blog earlier, as I had to really scrounge for information that did not focus on the witchcraft aspects of midwifery.

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  5. Hi Pamela - I do remember! You were kind enough to send me a copy of your dissertation. I honestly can't remember how much of it made it into my book, but it was a fascinating read. Congratulations on the publication of your book - that's excellent!

    Linda - Midwives are pretty hot these days, aren't they? It's good to be out in front of a trend.

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  6. I became interested in the topic when prosecuting a homicide in which the victim's wife was a well known Arizona midwife. In dealing with her over a span of several years, I became intrigued by her professionalism, and the strength of her advocacy of the profession. My novel only glosses on this"hot" topic but my interest is far from expunged by sending the book to press. I am still buying and reading research materials on the subject.

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  7. I became interested in the topic when prosecuting a homicide in which the victim's wife was a well known Arizona midwife. In dealing with her over a span of several years, I became intrigued by her professionalism, and the strength of her advocacy of the profession. My novel only glosses on this"hot" topic but my interest is far from expunged by sending the book to press. I am still buying and reading research materials on the subject.

    ReplyDelete