Early Midwifery

This image is by Abraham Bosse (ca. 1602-1676), whose engravings offer detailed glimpses into the daily life of early France.

Male midwives-surgeons did not enter the birthroom regularly until the late seventeenth century. More on that in another post. Until then, a new mother was surrounded by women and, occasionally. her husband. In this illustration, that would be the anxious man who looks out directly toward us, the viewers. He is clearly wondering what he got himself into!

At the first signs of labor, a fire would be started in the fireplace to keep the birth room warm. The fire would also ensure that no evil spirits could enter the space and wreak havoc on the labor. The windows would also be shut tight for that very reason.

The midwife carried just a few tools and supplies: butter, scissors, needle, and thread. The butter would be used to grease the wheels, so to speak, as the child emerged. The remaining items were for cutting and tying off the umbilical cord.

Speaking of umbilical cords...the talent of the midwife in this area was crucial for the future fertility of the family. For a girl, it was important to tight the cord off very closely to the baby's body. This would ensure that the girl's womb--as an adult--would hold tight to her fetus and allow her to take a pregnancy to term. And for boys, a good amount of cord should be left to dangle. Yes, you guessed it, so that his "yard" would also be nice and long. In the past as is now, size matters, I suppose.

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  1. The importance of butter and belly buttons in birth -- boy, am I glad that times have changed!

  2. Hi Kristen. Thanks for your post! Keep an eye out for tomorrow's post of Midwives and Witches too.

  3. Great post! I remember reading that in the 17th century women in childbirth fared much better in the hands of midwives than in those of physicians, because the latter came straight to the birth room from handling cadavers or infectious patients. I believe it was Guy Patin who made that observation, and admonished doctors to wash their hands before a delivery.
    Do you happen to have the reference?
    In any case, I will link to this post from my blog.

  4. Hi Catherine. Nothing comes immediately to mind... Patin's letters are available online on the Bibliotheque Nationale's Gallica site:

    My sense is that this would an unusual reference, indeed. We're well before germ theory. Which means I really want to try to find it!

    Across the midwifery texts that I've worked with, there is always a concern a midwife infecting a woman with the sexually transmitted disease of another. Or, of a midwife breaking the hymen during an exam and rendering her unmarry-able. If you're interested, I can pull up some references for you.

  5. Well, it might not have been Patin then, but it struck me because it was indeed long before germ theory.

    I am sometimes amazed by the extent of (accurate) scientific knowledge in the 18th century. Take for instance the description of the mechanisms of conception in "Therese Philosophe" which was a pornographic novel, not a medical text. You wouldn't explain things any differently in a modern sex ed class.

  6. Great post. And I love your blog!

    Catherine, I believe you are thinking of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis who told all those nasty doctors to wash their hands after disecting cadavers. His associates refused and thought he was crazy. Washing off the blood and gore was considered unmanly. Sadly, doctors ended up spreading germs to new moms that led to puerperel fever and usually death. (of antibiotics yet)

    I would take the butter over dirty hands any day.

  7. I'll go for the butter too! I think, at an intuitive level, I would have preferred a midwife any day. They received specialized training, and might have experienced childbirth themselves.

    I posted a midwife's diploma from 1784 France on my blog:

  8. Loving your blog - will tell my midwifery students about the great work you're doing.

  9. A great read that I found is "The Midwives Book" written in 1671 by Jane Sharp. She seemed like a midwife that had a lot of experience in the birthing chambers. She frequently speaks out against the male physicians of her time - very bold move for a woman in 17th century Britain...

  10. As we have forgotten humoral medicine, it is easy to suppose that closing the room or covering any mirrors was merely superstitious. Among the seven non-naturals which were held to affect the physical body from outside were airs, such as the miasmatic vapours which caused epidemics, and the imagination, which was responsible for hare lips and birthmarks.

    No account of childbirth before the arrival of the manmidwife as a regular feature, rather than an emergency resource, should omit the presence of the gossips -- from "godsiblings". These local worthies, friends and family were all women. The husband was excluded for the duration of the lying-in period. Our sense of the word "gossip" arouse from male speculation about the conversations in this women's space.

    In principle, anyone attending the birth was invited by th mother and / or midwife. In practice, however, there were often neighbours who felt they were entitled to be present, drinking posset and exchanging views. This could lead to anxiety and ill will, whether or not they were admitted, and even accusations of witchcraft on occasion.

    David Harley


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