Midwives – and witchcraft?

As Lydia, one of the principle characters (married to my detective Will Rees) prepares to deliver their first baby, my thoughts turned to births. In that time both maternal and infant mortality was high. It was not uncommon for a man to be buried in a church yard with several wives.

Most women, especially those in the country, had their babies delivered by a midwife. For one thing, it was considered indecent for a man to witness the birth. Male physicians were just beginning to make inroads in delivering babies in the cities. Thousands of women who were burned in Europe as witches were midwives and healers . Why? Well. everyone knew women, who were ill-educated to begin with,  were too stupid to learn something like this so the knowledge had to have a supernatural origin, i.e. the Devil. This in spite of the fact that midwives have been part of human history for millennia and there were less deaths when midwives delivered the babies. They washed their hands. Male doctors, according to the history I’ve read, did not and they passed bacteria from one woman to another, with maternal death following.

What did midwives do? Think about this: there were no pain killers other than alcohol and opium and anyway it was thought women should suffer. After all, they were guilty of listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden and persuading Adam to eat the forbidden apple. Queen Victoria popularized pain killers during birth. (Smart woman).

There were no stethoscopes. They were not invented until 1816 and then looked like a long tube. Forceps were invented centuries earlier but were risky. Obstetric tools discovered in 1813 included forceps used by a male physician so they were known and used by then.

But midwives helped with the breathing, cut the cord, and some experienced midwives could turn a baby who was in a breech position. After the birth, they cleaned the baby, removing the mucous from nose and mouth, and made sure the cry was robust. Usually the midwife had an apprentice or two.

Now, with an interest in ‘natural birth’, we have come full circle back to midwives.


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