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.*

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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.

 

Women in Practice: Midwife Series Part 3/4

Today, Laurie Alice Eakes continues her four-part series on her research into midwifery. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 by following the links.

The following is redacted from “Women of Power” written for and presented by Laurie Alice Eakes at the 1999 New Concepts in History conference.

In writings such as Martha Ballard’s journal, and in advertisements for their services, midwives referred to their work as their “practice” as would any professional healer.

“Ann Anmes, Lately arrived from England, is requested to practice Midwifery in this city, as she is informed many of the most experienced Midwives are infirm, and aged, and cannot attend with that assiduity, as so important an affair requires.”

In England, several midwives extended their professionalism through writing books on the art of midwifery, presiding over the childbed of queens, and campaigning for regulated midwifery colleges. Their work exemplifies education, independence, and most importantly, professionalism. Jane Sharpe, a seventeenth century midwife practitioner of thirty years, wrote in the introduction to her book:

“Sisters, I have often sat down sad in consideration of the many miseries women endure in the hands of unskillful midwives; many professing the art (without any skill in anatomy which is the principal part effectually necessary for a midwife) merely for lucre’s sake.”

Elizabeth Cellier, a midwife to the wife of James II, campaigned for a midwifery college and licensure for practitioners. Her own dubious reputation resulting from trials for treason and libel, worked against her, and nothing came of her scheme. After her death, papers emerged that outlined a system of standardized education for midwives and payment for licenses to give those practitioners the right to employ their art.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Mrs. Sarah Stone, first of Taunton, then Bristol, also wrote a book on midwifery. She had learned the art from her mother and passed it on to her daughter. In her writings, Mrs. Stone expressed that a midwife should serve no less than three years of an apprenticeship under another skilled midwife, and that seven years would be better.

These women had precedents for desiring regulation of their profession. As early as the 1450’s in the Low Country and several German cities, midwives were regulated through training by doctors and licensing by the municipal government. Under the Tudor monarchs, English midwives began to form a regulation for midwives under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. Midwives were supposed to present statements of their good character and their skill to a bishop, pay a fee for their license, then take a lengthy oath.

*Originally posted March, 2011.*
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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.

Qualities of a Good Midwife: Part 1/4

I’m reposting Laurie Alice Eakes four part series on midwifery. Today, she’ll be focusing on the character of a good midwife.

Welcome, Laurie!

The following section is redacted from the presentation I made at the 1999 New Perspectives in History Conference.  For facility of reading, I have changed the arcaic spelling into modern spelling.

“As concerning their persons, they must be neither too young nor too old, but of an indifferent age, between both; well composed, not being subject to diseases, nor deformed in any part of their body; comely and neat in their apparel; their hands small and fingers long, not thick, but clean, their nails pared very close; they ought to be very cheerful, pleasant, and of a good discourse; strong, not idle, but accustomed to exercise, that they may be the more able if need require.

Touching their deportment, they must be mild, gentle, courteous, sober chaste, and patient; not quarrelsome nor chollerick; neither must they be covetous, nor report anything whatsoever they hear or see in secret, in the person or house of whom they deliver…

As concerning their minds, they must be wise and discreet; able to flatter and speak many fair words, to no other end but only to deceive the apprehensive women, which is a commendable deceipte, and allowed, when it is done, for the good of the person in distress.”

Thus did William Sermon, a seventeenth century physician and clergyman, describe the attributes of a good midwife.

Compared with the attributes of a good woman, described in the numerous pamphlets, obituaries, and epitaphs of the same time period, a midwife in Early Modern England and the North American colonies was expected to embody the traits of a good woman as well as the characteristics of a good professional.  Though one cannot expect that midwives met the standards Sermon, his peers, and other midwives set down for childbirth practitioners, through the nature of their work, and the standards set down through the ecclesiastical and municipal laws, and the expectations of other women, midwives achieved goals superior to the ideals of mere virtuous women.

In an age when women possessed little to no authority outside the home, the midwife achieved a position of power over other women and  within society itself.

Would you make the cut?

*Originally posted February, 2011.*

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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.

Laurie Alice Eakes: The Midwife Versus The Physician

Physicians Take over the Practice

lady-in-the-mistFor centuries, even millennia, midwives served as the primary practitioners called in to assist in childbirth. Then a family of ?French Huguenots, established as “man-midwives” invented the forceps, an instrument resembling two spoons with a handle holding them together. The Chamberlain family kept this invention a secret for over a hundred years. When it was sold to, or leaked to the public, other physicians began to use it and midwives began to lose their power over child birth, except in rural areas.

At first, midwives shunned the use of forceps. By law in some places and practice in others, they possessed small enough hands to pull out the baby in difficult births. After a while, though, laws changed and Midwives were not allowed to use forceps.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, doctors were also using opiates to relieve the pain of childbirth.  Unfortunately, opium, as noted In Martha Ballard’s diary, A Midwife’s Tale, tended to prolong and even stop labor.  In the nineteenth century, ether and chloroform replaced opiates, especially after Queen Victoria allowed herself to be sedated during childbirth.

Lying –in hospitals came into practice, especially for poorer women. These were used as training fields for physicians wanting to deliver babies. Although germs were little more than a myth to medical practitioners until Joseph Lister and Louis Pasture proved their existence and harmfulness in the latter third of the nineteenth century, midwives and physicians made the observation that women who gave birth in hospitals suffered from childbed fever more often than did women who gave birth at home.  Women attended by midwives also had a lower mortality rates than did women attended by physicians.  After all, man midwives often went straight from an autopsy to the birthing chamber without washing their hands.

Why physicians strove to take over obstetrical practice is open to speculation.  Evidence, however, leads one to suspect that the motive was for financial gain.  Being men, thus having more power than women at that time, suppressing female childbirth practitioners was all too easy and financially lucrative.

Author’s Note: This article is adopted from a paper I delivered at the 1999 New Concepts in History conference under the title “Women of Power: Midwives in Early Modern Europe and North America”. My sources vary from newspapers, to diaries, to books difficult to obtain outside of a university library system, as many are hundreds of years old. If you wish to learn more, Google Books has some fine resources on childbirth practices in history.

*********************************************************************************************lauriealiceeakesMidwives historic role in society began to fascinate Laurie Alice Eakes in graduate school. Before she was serious about writing fiction, she knew she wanted to write novels with midwife heroines. Ten years, several published novels, four relocations, and a National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency later, the midwives idea returned, and Lady in the Mist was born. Now she writes full time from her home in Texas, where she lives with her husband and sundry dogs and cats.

You can read an excerpt from Lady in the Mist here and discover more about Laurie Alice Eakes at her website.

***This is a repost from December 1, 2010.***