Published by Education Intern, Lillian Climo
In our Obstetrics and Gynecology exhibit, many visitors are drawn to the large murals. The images are bloody, busy, and they certainly communicate the danger involved in early obstetric procedures. The paintings are densely populated, but only three of the figures depicted are women; two patients and one nurse or midwife. The lack of women present in these birth scenes is indicative of the time period of the paintings. For most of history, birth was not so male-centric. Labor was historically assumed to be a woman’s problem, and thus was attended to by female midwives (Brooke). Depending on the culture and the time period, midwives were treated in different ways – sometimes working in temples, and often recognized as a legitimate occupation (Brooke). However, midwives were not always granted this degree of respect. A moment in their history that is perhaps lesser-known, is the involvement of female healers and midwives in the European Witch Trials.
The European Witch Trials were widespread throughout western Europe, occurring in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, the U.K., and finally following colonizers to New England. The phenomenon lasted from around the 13th to the 17th century (Ehrenreich and English). Women were accused of being witches for any perceived abnormal behavior, or even a spot found on the skin assumed to be a Devil’s Mark (Le Beau). Among the many surprising and seemingly unreasonable reasons women could be tried and killed as witches, was their role as a midwife or healer.
This fact may be shocking, as today we perceive midwiving to be a positive career. What could be so wicked about helping safely deliver babies, or using herbal remedies to alleviate the pain of childbirth? However, it was likely the employment of plant medicines that posed the biggest issue for the Catholic Church during this time. For instance in Western Europe, midwives often used belladonna, deadly nightshade, and ergot ,a fungus which grows on rye, during the labor process (Lang). These remedies seemed to be generally effective in easing some of the suffering of childbirth, yet, the church likely perceived any attempt to assuage this pain as a violation of God’s wishes (Ehrenreich and English).
Major European churches enforced the belief that pain during childbirth was punishment for Eve’s Original Sin (Ehrenreich and English). Therefore, ameliorating the pain of delivery could have been equated with witchcraft. This belief may account for why the 15th century Catholic guide to witch-hunting, the Malleus Maleficarum, stated that no one did more harm to the Catholic Church than the midwife. While it is evident from this publication that the church exercised extensive control over the witch trials, they did not work alone. Another important agent in suppressing the work of women healers was the medical community (Ehrenreich and English).
The medical field and the Church were in close contact throughout the 14th century. Since the church controlled medical schooling, they exclusively approved of certified male physicians, and not female healers. Thus, by the late 1500s, women were accused of witchcraft for successfully healing patients, simply because they did not adhere to the rules of the clergy (Lang). The church’s favoritism of male physicians also allowed doctors to accuse women who they saw as potential rivals in the field. Some historians theorize that it was these events that led to the gradual distrust of independent healer at large (Lang).
Despite evidence of healers and midwives being distrusted by the church, there are still varying theories around their prevalence in the witch hunts (Green and Bigelow). While some historians stated that in New England, wise women, healers, and midwives might have accounted for up to 25% of the accused (Ehrenreich and English), it is hard to come up with an exact number. Because the numbers of healers/midwives persecuted were not widely recorded, studies may either over or under exaggerate their role in the phenomenon.
Still, there are recorded instances of midwives and healers being persecuted in the trials despite uncertainty around the exact numbers. For example during some trials in Switzerland, “peasant healers” were accused of teaching other women how to make love potions (Horsley). In 1648 in Massachusetts, Margaret Jones was executed as a witch because she worked as an independent healer and midwife and claimed that those who didn’t use her remedies would continue to feel pain. In retrospect, it seems that she was likely not threatening a curse upon her patients, but rather explaining the effectiveness of her medicines (Le Beau).
In conclusion, women practicing medicine and midwifery were not afforded the respect that they deserved for hundreds of years. While there remain questions about the role of healers and midwives in the witch trials, one can focus on the incredible perseverance of women in the field. By 1902, midwife registration was achieved in the U.K., further legitimizing the profession in the public’s eye (Hearn). Today midwiving has become less frequent with only about 8% of U.S. births attended by midwives in 2014 (American College of Nurses and Midwives). Still, the rich history of this field shows that midwives, and women healers, have persisted through great adversity.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: a History of Women Healers. Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2010.
Green, Karen, and John Bigelow. “Does Science Persecute Women? The Case of the 16th–17th Century Witch-Hunts.” Philosophy, vol. 73, no. 2, Apr. 1998, pp. 195–217., doi:10.1017/s0031819198000187.
Hearn, Jeff. “Notes on Patriarchy, Professionalization and the Semi-Professions.” Sociology, vol. 16, no. 2, May 1982, pp. 184–202., doi:10.1177/0038038582016002002.
Horsley, Richard A. “Who Were the Witches? The Social Roles of the Accused in the European Witch Trials.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 9, no. 4, 1979, pp. 689–715., doi:10.2307/203380.
Lang, Frances. “Witches, Midwives, Nurses.” Off Our Backs, vol. 3, no. 3, Nov. 1972, p. 27.
LeBeau, Bryan F. Story of the Salem Witch Trials: Second Edition. Routledge, 2017.
Brooke, Elisabeth. Medicine Women: a Pictorial History of Women Healers. Godsfield Press, 1997.
“American College of Nurse-Midwives.” Fact Sheet: Essential Facts about Midwives, May 2019, http://www.midwife.org/.
Lillian Climo is a current Education Intern at the International Museum of Surgical Science. She studies Printmedia and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her interests include the history of women in medicine and the study of art objects.