Sunday, 21 December 2008
Witchcraft and Midwifery
In the year 1585 in Dillingham, Germany, Anna Hausman, a midwife who cared for countless mothers and newborn children was accused of killing them by witchcraft. She confesses under torture and is condemned to burning at the stake. The Devil has been her lover, she tells them, the babies sacrificed to him. Knowing it would mean her death, she says anything to stop the pain.
During the Renaissance, beauty was increasingly equated with virtue and a woman's beauty corresponded with her fertility. Post menopausal women were not beautiful and therefore the first to be suspected of any evildoing. So a middle-aged woman who delivers a baby that died in the morning and another at sunset who lived, must surely possess supernatural powers.
What Was A Witch?
Medieval Catholic Church misogyny regarded female sexuality the beginning of all mankind’s sin. Malleus Maleficarum* states: "When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil."
The Church taught that in intercourse, the male deposits in the female a homunculus, or "little person," complete with soul, which is simply housed in the womb for nine months, without acquiring any of its mother's attributes. The homunculus is not pure, until a priest baptises it, ensuring the salvation of its immortal soul. It was also believed that upon resurrection, all human beings would be reborn as men.
Witches were accused of murdering and poisoning, sex crimes and conspiracy— and of helping and healing. As the witch hunters Kramer and Sprengler said: "No one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives,"
The Medieval Catholic Church’s attitude to illness amongst the poor, was:
'You have sinned, and God is afflicting you. Thank him; you will suffer so much the less torment in the life to come. Endure, suffer, die. Has not the Church its prayers for the dead?' (Jules Michelet, Satanism and Witchcraft)
Kings and nobles had their court physicians who were men, sometimes even priests. Male upper class healing under the auspices of the Church was acceptable, female healing as part of a peasant subculture was not. The Church saw its attack on peasant healers as an attack on magic, not medicine. The devil was believed to have real power on earth, and the use of that power by peasant women—whether for good or evil—was a threat to the Church and State.
The greater their satanic powers to help themselves, the less they were dependent on God and the Church and the more they were potentially able to use their powers against God's order. Magic charms were believed to be as effective as prayer in healing the sick, but prayer was Church-sanctioned and controlled while incantations and charms were not. There was no problem in distinguishing God's cures from the Devil's, for obviously the Lord would work through priests and doctors rather than through peasant women.
Many herbal remedies developed by healers/witches still have their place in modern pharmacology.
• Pain-killers, digestive aids and anti-inflammatory agents
• Ergot for the pain of labor at a time when the Church held that childbirth agony was the Lord's just punishment for Eve's original sin.
• Belladonna—still used today as an anti-spasmodic—was used by the witch-healers to inhibit uterine contractions when miscarriage threatened.
• Digitalis, still an important drug in treating heart ailments, and obtained from the foxglove, is said to have been discovered by an English witch.
The witch-healer relied on her senses rather than on faith or doctrine, she believed in trial and error, cause and effect. She trusted her ability to find ways to deal with disease, pregnancy and childbirth - her magic was the science of her time.
The Church, by contrast, was deeply anti-empirical and believed the senses are the devil's tool to lure men into the conceits of the intellect rather than relying on Faith.
So Why Did Women Become Healers When It Was So Dangerous?
Widows with no means to support often fell into the practice of delivering the babies of younger women or ‘curing’ minor illnesses through knowledge of herbs and infusions gained during their life. For this service she was paid in money, food or goods.
However, if a wise woman gave advice on how to deal with tumors, warts, moles etc she must be consorting with the Devil as these were well known to be the Devil’s marks. If she owned a cat to get rid of the mice and rats in her cottage, that too was evidence enough to condemn her.
Perhaps some of these women began to believe in their own powers of healing, and if they made a mistake in diagnosis or treatment, or if a former patient didn’t want to pay his bill, they may be targeted for revenge by the ruthless or deceased relatives. Alone and defenceless, they also became victims of the witch finders, prevalent during the English Civil War who earned an income from denouncing them.
Matthew Hopkins is perhaps the most notorious of these, known as “The Witch-Finder General”. Throughout his reign of terror 1645-1646, he was paid by local authorities to commit perjury. Together with his henchman and fellow ‘Witch-Pricker’ John Sterne, in just 14 months, Hopkins was responsible for the condemnations and executions of some 230 alleged witches. By 1647, people were becoming tired of Hopkins' hunt and some villages refused him entry.
When Did Midwives Become Respectable?
Painting of Women and Newborns circa 1600
In the 17th Century, Schools for Midwives existed at the Hotel de Dieu in Paris in Delft and Nuremburg. Dutch Midwives were especially well thought of and protected by a surgeon’s guild with strict rules of practice. The rich would often pay vast fees for their wives to be attended by a ‘Hollander’
In England, it was acknowledged that midwives should train with experienced members of the profession before they were able to accept responsibility for deliveries. Midwives, of course, had a vested interest in the delivery of healthy babies to bolster her reputation, and she would also receive an additional fee from the godparents at the time of baptism.
Appointed by the Bishop’s Court, as sometimes they would have to baptise infants not expected to survive, midwives guarded their trade secrets jealously. The knife a midwife used to cut the umbilical cord was their badge of office and no one was allowed to touch it, much less use it.
William Sermon, a notorious 17th Century physician, who was put forward as a possible author of the famous manual of Sex, pregnancy and childbirth published in the late 1670’s known as Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Women were considered sexually voracious in a time period when Puritanism condemned sexuality when not directed toward procreation.
According to Aristotle’s masterpiece, a Midwife should be
..............of middle age, neither too old nor too young, not subject to diseases, fears, or sudden frights; nor are the qualifications assigned to a good surgeon improper for a midwife, viz., A lady's hand, a hawk's eye, and a lion's heart; to which it may be added activity of body and a convenient strength, with caution and diligence; not subject to drowsiness, nor apt to be impatient. She ought to be sober and affable, not subject to passion, but bountiful and compassionate and her temper cheerful and pleasant, that she may the better comfort her patients in their sorrow. ............. But above all, she ought to be qualified with the fear of God, which is the principal thing in every state and condition, and will furnish her on all occasions both with knowledge and discretion.
At a time when a bloody surgeon’s apron was a symbol of pride in his skill and experience, the first "lying-in" hospitals in the 1600’s led to the first epidemics of child-birth fever. No one really knew why, being unaware that germs introduced by the doctor’s hands caused perpural fever, but they did know that they and their child was more likely to survive if they were attended by a trusted midwife. Lister would not invent disinfectant until 1867.
Not that midwives knew everything. They would smother a dilating cervix with goose fat to 'aid brth', force open a cervix which didn't seem to want to dilate, and various other gruesome practices modern medicine condemn as dangerous.
As Midwifery became more of a profession, the superstitions connected with them and witchcraft died out, especially in the cities. By the end of the 17th century, midwives had lost their superiority over doctors and by the 18th century male midwives were common. Louis XIV engaged a male midwife to deliver one of his children.
*Malleus Maleficarum - A treatise on witches written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger two inquisitors of the Roman Church to refute arguments claiming witchcraft did not exist.