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The History of Midwifery

The popular image of the midwife in the pre-modern world is not a flattering one. Midwives are seen as fitting – or even exemplifying – an “old crone” stereotype. According to this story, midwives lived on the margins of society; they were poor, incompetent, and perhaps even dabbled in witchcraft. This unflattering portrait has its roots in part in the medieval period, with Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s infamous Malleus Malleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), which claimed that “witch midwives” would steal stillborn children for use in satanic rites, or even murder the children themselves. It is much less clear, however, how many inhabitants of the early modern world believed this, but it convinced several generations of historians.

Midwives also received rough treatment in works written by so-called “male midwives,” the predecessors of modern obstetricians. During the eighteenth century, these men asserted their authority over childbirth and, thanks in part to their ability to cast midwives as ignorant and dangerous, they pushed female practitioners out of the delivery room. Such an image found artistic expression in Thomas Rowlandson's 1811 print, "Midwife going to a Labour." (Click on the image to see it in all its glory.)

Such stereotypes found its way into the literature of the period, most notoriously in the alcoholic Sairy Gamp from Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzelwit (right). Whether these images represented anything approaching reality is unclear, but it does seem that this image became far more pervasive than been before. (Before we become too outraged at the injustice perpetrated by the male midwives, however, we should note that this transformation could not have taken place without the cooperation of the mothers. While we have much to learn about the rise of male authority over childbirth, it seems clear that many women wanted a male birth attendant.)

For recent historians' heroic efforts to vindicate midwives from such slander, read on...