Monday, January 5, 2015

Witches and Midwives in Early Modern England

by Sam Thomas

English Historical Fiction Authors alum Sam Thomas is back to celebrate the launch of the third Midwife Mystery featuring Bridget Hodgson, The Witch Hunter's Tale. Return to Civil War York as Bridget faces enemies old and new, or if you're new to the series, pick up the first installment for just $2.99. But before you do that, here's the low-down on witches and midwives.

For many years, conventional wisdom has connected midwives and witches. The connection was first drawn in a 1487 book called Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) by a medieval clergyman named Heinrich Kramer. In Malleus, Kramer asserts the existence of “witch midwives, who surpass all other witches in their crimes… the number of them is so great that…it is thought they there is scarcely any tiny hamlet in which at least one is not to be found.” This accusation, coupled with a tiny number of cases in which midwives were accused of witchcraft, has cemented this into popular culture.

The problem is that the existence of the “midwife witch” is a myth – the number of midwives accused of witchcraft is vanishingly small. The truth is that midwives hunted witches, which is what I should like to discuss today.

The midwife’s connection to witches depends on a creature called the Devil’s Familiar, and even if you've never heard the phrase, you know what I mean. Imagine your typical Halloween witch. You know that black cat we envision hanging about with a witch? That’s the modern version of the Devil’s Familiar, Satan’s representative to the witch after she sells her soul. In the early modern period, the Familiar could be a cat, of course, but also a mouse, bird, mole, frog, or toad…nearly any small animal would do. According to demonologists, witches called on their familiars when they needed help, and some claimed that the witch could not practice magic without the familiar’s assistance. (Click on the image to the left for a closer look.)

So how does the midwife come into things?

According to common lore, in order to survive, the familiar had to suck from the “witch’s teat,” an unnatural growth usually found in a woman’s armpit or “secret places.” The teat’s existence was taken as evidence of a woman’s guilt, and who better to recognize such a growth than a midwife?

According to an account written in 1597, when a mother and daughter were jointly accused of witchcraft, the magistrates “agreed that certain women should search the mother and the daughter to see if they could find any such marks on them as are usually found on witches. The old woman they stripped, and found behind her right shoulder a thing much like the udder of an ewe that giveth suck, with two teats like unto two great warts, the one behind under her armhole, the other a handful off towards the top of her shoulder.”

This discovery – along with other evidence and the suspect’s confession – led officials to cast the poor woman into prison, where, “had she lived, she should have been executed.”

This is not of course to say that midwives made witch-hunting their primary business, for cases of witchcraft were both spectacular and rare. But it remains true that, as guardians of public well-being, midwives had an obligation to protect mothers and children, and in some cases that meant hunting witches.


Sam Thomas is the author of the Midwife Mystery series. You can learn more about the history and mystery of midwifery at his website.


  1. Makes sense. I note the date of the "Hammer of Witches" was the Tudor period. I believe I read that witches were not executed under the Plantagenets. Witch hunts belong firmly in the "oh so enlightened" Renaissance rather than the "dark" Middle Ages.

  2. Happy publication day,Sam and congratulations on your latest book! Really enjoyed the article- thank you.


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