Midwives In Later Historical Perspectives

In the 18th century, a division between surgeons and midwives arose, as medical men began to assert that their modern scientific processes were better for mothers and infants than the folk-medical midwives.

At the beginning of the 18th century in England, most babies were caught by a midwife, but by the inception of the 19th century, majority of those babies born to persons of means had a surgeon involved. A number of excellent full length studied of this historical shift have been written.

German social scientists, Gunnar Heinsohn and Ottor Steiger, have put forward the theory that midwifery became a target of persecution and repression by public authorities because midwives not only possessed highly specialized knowledge and skills regarding assisting birth, but also regarding contraception and abortion. According to Heinsohn and Steiger’s theory, the modern state persecuted the midwives as witches in an effort to repopulate the European continent which had suffered severe loss of manpower as a result of the bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) which had swept over the continent in waves, starting in 1348.

They thus interpret the witch hunts as attacking midwifery and knowledge about birth control with a demographic goal in mind. Indeed, after the witch hunts, the number of children per mother rose sharply, giving rise to what has been called the European population explosion of modern times, producing an enormous youth bulge that enabled Europe to colonize large parts of the rest of the world.

While historians specializing in the history of the witch hunts have generally remained critical of this macro-economic approach and continue to favour micro level perspectives and explanations, prominent historian of birth control, John M. Riddle, has expressed agreement.