Witches and Midwives

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early seventeenth century, which witch hunts had reached their height, midwives were often depicted as witches who communed with the devil. While there may be questions regarding the exact nature of prosecution/persecution of midwives between 1500 and 1700, description of the demonic works of the midwife-witch nonetheless abound in lay and learned writings through the early-modern era. Kramer and Sprenger's influential witchcraft book Malleus Maleficarum, first published in 1486 and reprinted no fewer than thirty times between 1487 and 1669, contains frequent reveries on witch-midwives and their horrific acts toward new mothers and their offspring. This book of witchcraft reports a woman's allegations that she was punished after she refused to allow a midwife with a "bad reputation"to assist her in her pregnancy. Soon after she went into labor, the rejected midwife went into her room, paralyzed her so that she could not speak, and vowed to avenge herself. The midwife-witch then put thorns, bones, and bits of wood in her entrails so that, six months later, the new mother would be "tortured"with unbearable pain.

From Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early Modern France
(p. 64). Author? yours truly.

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  1. Why is it that midwives were considered witches oftentimes?

  2. Actually, many midwives in Britain were respected - especially by the church. The bishop had to give licenses out to midwives in order for them to legally practice. Midwives were also used during mother's "Blessings" and during baptisms as well. It was probably more the exception when midwives were accused of witchcraft than the rule.

  3. The midwife = witch story has two basic sources.

    The first is that part of the demonological literature which followed the Malleus. There had been no emphasis on midwives before that. The author or authors of the Malleus played an important part in the shift from the medieval image of literate male sorcerors, often clerics, conjuring demons to do their will to the subsequent stereotype, adopted in much of Europe.

    The passive and impoverished women, trapped by the Devil into a pact that was characterized by physical marks or demonic sexuality, became crucial witnesses to the physical reality of the Devil. The sacrifice of infants became a core part of the perverse rituals that were alleged, as also against the early Christians and medieval Jews. Where were infants to be obtained, if not from criminal midwives?

    Midwives were obviously vulnerable to accusations of successful cursing by the very nature of their work and from their usually being past childbearing age, but extremely few were actually accused, except in those panics where almost any well-known person might be named.

    A moment's thought will show the reason. Midwives had to be drawn from among the most trustworthy women in the town or village. They were usually more literate than their neighbours and often more affluent. Large numbers did not need the money, but were taking part in the community in the same sort of way that a Protestant minister's wife would.

    The other source of the myth lies in the romanticization of witchcraft as a form of social protest or alternative religion. This has involved ignoring all the more fantastic accusations and concentrating on more mundane ones, even within the same testimony.

    The French historian Michelet saw the witches as rebels and the English Egyptologist Margaret Murray saw them as crypto-pagan healers. A notable manoeuvre of hers was the equation midwife = sage femme = wise woman = witch. However, "sage femme" was never used to describe anyone other than a midwife in France and "wise woman" was a specifically English term. Moreover, it was not healing but alleged harm that led to accusations.

    This system of thought was reinforced by Ehrenreich and English, who claimed that the Church and the medical profession wanted to take control of childbirth away from women. Churchmen had no such aim, although they wanted to ensure that midwives were respectable rather than petty sorcerors. Medical practitioners did not begin to enter the practice of assisting normal childbirth until after the era of the trials.

    David Harley


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