Witches and Midwives

by Bronwyn Backstrom (Vanderbilt University)

The ideas of witches and witchcraft have been around for centuries and were hot topics. Witches were typically identified as older single women of lower class. Throughout history, there has been a stereotype that only women, specifically midwives and other women-healers, were witches. Women were targets because of the tradition of misogyny; women's participation in folk-healing; and changes in the awareness of female nature, their family and economic roles, and ideas of women's social behavior.

Female witches were accused of three main things: female sexuality (this included every sexual crime against men), organization, and having magical powers (both good and bad) that affected one's health. Witchcraft was considered to go against the Catholic Church. It was considered a threat to God's holy order because it was not based on scripture or religion. In addition, all witchcraft was considered based off of carnal lust, or strong sexual desires, with evil spirits.

The Malleus Maleficarum, meaning "Hammer of Witches," was written in 1484 by two reverends: Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. This book contains everything one needs to know about witches and witchcraft at the time, from what defines a witch and how they become one, to the sentences they would receive because of their participation in witchcraft. It also contains information on witch-midwives.

According to Malleus Maleficarum, witch-midwives were considered the most wicked and dangerous witches, who inflicted the greatest injuries. This is because they dealt with the health of others and had easy access to newborn children, who were used in offerings for the evil spirits. Witch-midwives were accused of causing miscarriages; however, if they allowed a child to be born, they would allegedly either feast on the child or offer it to the evil spirits, allowing the witches to infect the child and turn it into a witch.

The evil spirits called the witch-midwives to offer them newborn children for several reasons. One was for their pride. Another was to disguise the act of infidelity as a virtue. By associating children with the evil spirits, the witches drew in more innocent people, making it easier for them to turn into witches. Finally, they used the children to fill their ranks. When the evil spirits infected children at an early age, turning them to witches, they could set them aside to be used in the future as needed.

There was a decline in accusations against women as witches between the 17th and 18th centuries because of the increase in male midwives. Men began to replace women, resulting in fewer women in the field who could be accused of witchcraft.

Image: Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum, 1669. (Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.)

Brauner, Sigrid. Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: The Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. Old Westbury: Feminist Press, 1973.

Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum. Trans. Reverend Montague Summers. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2007.

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  1. I've got a great copy of "Malleus Maleficarum" that I rescued from the trash about 12 years ago while working at a bookstore. One of our customers had received it somewhere and brought it into the bookstore (I don't know why) and complained that it was an "evil" book and threw it in the garbage. As soon as she left, I retrieved it, cleaned it up and put it in my personal library. Over the years, it has helped my identify, oh so many witches. :)

  2. Drew, you're quite lucky to own such a great historical book.

    When I read this post, I can't feel that it takes the concept of malpractice insurance (not that there was at the time, to a whole new level).


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