Midwives in The Christian-Era Europe

Midwives, during this era, were said to be so important as to attract the regulation of the Roman Catholic canon law. Existing literature narrates that in medieval times, childbirth was believed to be so hazardous and, in fact, deadly that the church had to advise pregnant women to prepare their shrouds and confess their sins in case of death in the process of labour and childbirth. The church had recourse to the Bible to firmly blame the pains and perils of labour on Eve and her transgressions against God in the Garden of Eden. It viewed women as the sisters of Eve, and the pains and dangers experienced by them during childbirth were God’s punishment for Eve’s sins. Therefore, according to the church, women had to, by law, bear the pains of labour without doing anything to get such pains assuaged by relying on professionals to assist them in the proves of childbirth. Therefore, any effort to relieve women’s pain in labour was regarded as witchcraft. This situation is aptly buttressed by the medieval Christendom popular adage: The better the witch; the better the midwife. To guard against this witchcraft, the bishop had to licence midwives and make them swear to an oath against using witchcraft when helping woman through labour.

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 Steigers 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.