The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
“Midwives, who surpass all others in wickedness…” (Malleus Maleficarum)
The Malleus Maleficarum, the witch-hunter’s manual, devoted not one but two chapters to midwives. (See BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Sprenger.) They were accused of attempting to prevent babies from being baptized: killing the newborn or presenting it to devils deprived the baby of salvation. Witchcraft and midwifery became linked.
The Malleus Maleficarum and its contemporaries considered witches’ crimes to be seven-fold:
1. Practicing fornication and adultery
2. Obstructing the generative act by rendering men impotent
3. Performing castrations and sterilizations
4. Engaging in bestiality and homosexuality
5. Destroying women’s generative power
6. Procuring and providing abortions
7. Offering children to devils
In 1580, Jean Bodin, French philosopher, rationalist, and demonologist declared these charges true and valid. All of these charges are somehow related to reproduction, at least tangentially. Many are related to contraception. Most are explicitly related to sex and sexuality.
Witchcraft became considered a woman’s crime, like abortion, prostitution, and infanticide. In Luxembourg, words indicating “witch” were associated with those for “whore.”
In Genesis 3:16, God condemns Eve to labor with pain and difficulty. This led to Christian suspicions of easy births: is Satan responsible? Midwives, trained to ease labor pains and speed birth became regarded by some as apostles of Satan.
The politics of childbirth changed. Women were encouraged to complain about birth and focus on its pain and difficulty. Midwives who were accused of witchcraft were consistently accused of easing labor pains; this was considered a sin.
The Church developed a hardening stance toward reproductive issues:
If sex is only for procreation, then there’s no point to contraception
God determines the outcome of sexual liaisons, thus aphrodisiacs, many of which are also fertility enhancers, are wrong
Abortifacients are wrong to the point of heresy because, beyond any other issues, their use implies that you have autonomy, not God
The entire art and science of midwifery was called into question; the herbal science of childbirth would effectively be eradicated.
Reproductive (or any) herbalism is a complex art and science, not for amateurs. Not all parts of a plant have the same effect; not all preparations and routes of administration have the same effect. The skilled herbalist is an expert on all these details and often an intuitive healer.
Dosage and determining the correct frequency of administration is crucial. Depending on the plant, there can be a very narrow margin between medicine and poison: the healing dose versus the fatal dose. As an example, a small dose of tansy infusion may have no effect on a pregnancy. A larger one can cause miscarriage and an even larger one can be potentially fatal.
Instead of appreciating the traditional midwife’s artistry and knowledge, she was eliminated. It was well recognized that midwives were stubborn repositories of women’s mystery traditions:
In some Teutonic regions (and elsewhere), medicinal law and Church prohibitions decreed that a priest must be present at each birth to prevent midwives from practicing superstitious and heathen customs.
In 1494, a priest in Breslau wrote that “In childbirth the midwives are busy with a thousand devilish things as well as with the women in travail.”
The medical profession was changing; the birthing room was no longer exclusively female territory, nor was a woman necessarily in charge. Physicians were by legal requirement university trained. Women were not permitted to enter these universities and thus could not become physicians.
Physicians replaced midwives in the laborroom but they did not reproduce their role; the physician’s art was devoted to healing disease, ailments, and injury, not reproductive issues. Practical reproductive knowledge remained in the hands of midwives, wise women, old wives, sage-femmes, and witches, however these became fewer and fewer.
Midwives became associated with the poor, ignorant, and uneducated as well as those with Pagan leanings or those who were less than devout Christians. They became low-status professionals. Upscale women began to go to hospitals or have physicians attend them. Because of their low status, relatively little written information about midwifery exists. The exception is when midwives ran afoul of the law: that was recorded in detail. This offers a skewed picture.
Midwifery became a risky profession:
By the latter half of the fifteenth century, midwives throughout much of Europe were pressured to submit to licensing procedures involving an oath that they would not practice in secret. In one 1588 oath, the midwife promises “not in any wise use or exercise any manner of witchcraft.” The Paris Oath of 1560 states, “I will not use any superstition or illegal means, either in words or signs, nor any other way…”
In 1624, an English law put the onus on women to prove that an infant’s death was natural. If unable to do so, the woman might be accused of homicide and hanged. Collaborative evidence was necessary from male professionals like physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries when female midwives testified regarding the viability of premature babies. Male midwives were permitted to provide collaborative evidence.
In the late sixteenth century, Nuremburg issued an ordinance prohibiting midwives from burying fetuses or dead children without informing the city council. When an infant was buried, the midwife was expected to have several “unsuspected female persons” as witnesses of the procedure. The witchcraze was raging in German lands during the sixteenth century; “unsuspected” females were not easy to find.
In 1711, an edict issued in Brandenburg forbade midwives from selling or giving away fetuses, placentas or umbilical cords. In Würzburg, they were required to dispose of these in running water.
Spiritual conflicts ensued as well. Traditional midwives wished to perform rituals and magical acts intended to safeguard births. Pious, devout Christian mothers, midwives, and observers objected to these practices. Some objected to them sincerely, others for fear of Pagan associations and vulnerability to suspicions of witchcraft.
Henri Boguet’s Examen of Witches, written in the 1580s, observes that many witches are midwives. “These midwives and wise women who are witches are in the habit of offering to Satan the little children which they deliver and then of killing them…they do even worse; for they kill them while they are yet in their mother’s wombs. This practice is common to all witches.”
In other words, Boguet is suggesting that all witches are abortionists.