Midwives and Witches

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. Men, too, were accused as witches in history.

  2. I almost made a comment about midwifery while listening to Katherine Howe’s interview, yesterday. (I think she mentioned The Midwife’s Tale.) I have done an incredible amount of research on the midwife side (I am a child birth educator in training) and this is the beginning to quite an interesting look at the witch accusation component in the field!

    Sadly, midwives, male and female, are still suffering the consequences of such antiquated superstitions, hundreds of years later. While the historically male practice of Obstetrics is slowly becoming more female run (in research and in practice) and the field of midwifery has always housed a small contingency of men, the dividing issue between the two practices is still seen as largely male against female.

    I think the idea that midwifery is derivative of dark (or even good) magic still nestles in behind modern thought when we pick our birthing options. It pleases me, though, that New Hampshire (so close to Salem, MA) was among several states to pass recent legislation requiring big name insurance to cover midwives as they would cover OB/GYNs.

    The WITCHES, MIDWIVES AND NURSES title looks great. I’ll have to take a look at it.

    (P.S. I think I’ve already entered my email for the book drawing, but if I haven’t, I would love to be entered!)

  3. Check out a new edition of WITCHES, MIDWIVES AND NURSES, with new introduction by the Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, coming out in Spring 2010 from the Feminist Press.


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