Women to be Feared: Midwife Series Part 1/4

Laurie has saved her best information for the last post in her research into midwifery. If you’re writing historical fiction, what Laurie has revealed can add conflict to any manuscript if you have any issues central to this theme. You can find Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 by following the links.

The following is redacted from “Women of Power” by Laurie Alice Eakes.

One of the reasons why midwives took an oath, the main reason why the licensure fell under the jurisdiction of the Church, was to prevent sorcery being used in the aid of childbirth.  In the event that the child died before, during, or soon after birth, midwives needed to baptize the child; thus a portion of their oath assured the Church that they would do so in a Christian manner.

By the mid seventeenth century, few midwives still performed baptisms; however, another part of their oath outlines their responsibility of learning the truth about who fathered the child being delivered.

Occasionally, women were called to testify in court for civil suits or to recount conversations they had heard or in which they had participated.  Midwives, however, were the only women who regularly appeared in court as witnesses and, in special cases, jurors.  Under both English and colonial laws, a midwife needed to learn the identity of a baby’s father.  Persons were fined for fornication, but the most important reason for the requirement was to determine who was responsible for supporting the child.  The custom was for the midwife to wait until the woman lay in the most intensive throes of labor, then ask the identity of the father, for the belief was that, due to pain and desire for aid, the woman would be compelled to tell the truth.  Martha Ballard notes thirteen such incidents in her diary.

Being the recipient of private information gave midwives unique power among and over their female peers.  Besides being called upon to testify in court regarding paternity and bastardy suits, an unscrupulous midwife could ruin a woman’s reputation with her knowledge.  Anne Johnson, a Maryland midwife, harassed her patient, Mary Taylor, into confessing an adulterous affair that resulted in a child.  Instead of going immediately to the courts as required, Mrs. Johnson waited several months during which time she attempted to obtain a bribe from Mary Taylor to keep silent about the matter.  When Mrs. Taylor physically and verbally attacked Mrs. Johnson, she went to the authorities.

A woman who failed to call a midwife and consequently bore a dead child, could be accused of infanticide. Courts assigned midwives to question women suspected of committing infanticide. Midwives examined the bodies of babies who were born in secret and died to determine whether the cause of death was natural or induced.

These posts only scratch the surface of the role of midwives in society. It is, and forever will be, a fascinating subject for me to continue to read about and explore as more and more documents from history come into my possession. If you want to read more, Google Books has a number of treatises for and by midwives. And I endeavored to cover some of the issues with which midwives dealt in my midwives series from Baker/Revell.

*Originally posted March, 2011.*

Since Laurie Alice Eakes lay in bed as a child telling herself stories, she has fulfilled her dream of becoming a published author, with more than two dozen books in print and several award wins and nominations to her credit, including winning the National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency and being chosen as a 2016 RITA®

She has recently relocated to a cold climate because she is weird enough to like snow and icy lake water. When she isn’t basking in the glory of being cold, she likes to read, visit museums, and take long walks, preferably with her husband, though the cats make her feel guilty every time she leaves the house.

You can read more about Eakes and her books, as well as contact her, through her website.


2 thoughts on “Women to be Feared: Midwife Series Part 1/4

  1. I learned a lot reading Sam Thomas’s series about a midwife in Puritan England. The are murder mysteries but the main protagonist is a noble midwife. Very informative and clean books even though secular.


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