Witch or Midwife? -- Carol-Ann


Hello everyone.

I wanted to write today about where I got my inspiration for Irin Solis, the first character that you meet in my debut novel, Sisterhood. The name Irin means ‘peace’ and the surname Solis means ‘comfort’. I thought that together they would be a good fit for someone descended from a midwife.

The birthing of babies has always been womans’ work. As far back as records go women have delivered the babies of their sisters, daughters and friends. They were usually women who were mothers themselves and so they attended these births with knowledge and compassion.

Traditionally, the treatment of illness, injuries, pre and postnatal care, were not seen as a profession. The cures and remedies were part of the culture of the area and passed down from mother to daughter and shared between certain women in the community, especially those with a knowledge of herbs and plants.

The human body was not understood scientifically and so old wives tales and superstitions in the form of charms and spells were used. In short, magic.

During the Renaissance, from the 14th to the 17th Century, medicine began to be explored by science. But as you can probably guess, only men were allowed into the universities, and these became the first doctors.

When universities began to use the word doctor, it was the first time that healers were known by the same title.

Being a doctor became a paid job and it was only available for men. Wise-women did not stop their healing work because it was still important to the community, especially in rural areas. However, as medicine became more scientific and less spiritual, it became exclusive to men and the upper classes.

Women were therefore restricted: they could not get licensed to practice medicine. Women’s work as healers did not fit with new regulations, so those who continued this practice risked being punished for not following the rules. These women were called ‘witches’ and could be hunted and killed for their traditional practices.

Apart from the exclusivity of the universities, the women healers of these times had another persecutor to contend with. The Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Witch-hunting was rife in Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Tens of thousands of victims were murdered in Germany, Italy, France and England. It has been suggested that this number is the tip of the iceberg; three quarters of the victims of torture and execution by burning were women.

The result of these hunts were well-ordered, legal witch trials. The procedures were conducted by the local Clergy or Judge of the area. The policies for trials were set out by the vicious and brutal book ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, also known as ‘Hammer of Witches’. This book was written in 1484 by the Reverends Kramer and Sprenger. How kind and compassionate these Christians were!

According to the Roman Catholic Church, that joyful and forgiving institution, midwives did not adhere to the ‘Curse of Eve’ which, according to the Bible is:

Genesis 3:16

To the woman He said:

“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;

In pain you shall bring forth children;

Your desire shall be for your husband,

And he shall rule over you.”

Not sure I’m up for any of that!

Basically, they thought that childbearing should be painful because it was a punishment and all women should withstand it. Midwives were very skilled at alleviating labour pains in women by treating them with herbs and medicine. 

I wonder what their views are on Entonox and epidurals?

The knowledge and respect that the midwives held in their communities scared the religious and medical men of the time, because how could you expect people to believe in miracles when mere women were performing them with plants and herbs. And how could you be an important, university educated Doctor, charging money for your knowledge, when again, some illiterate backwater woman could cure someone better than you could? 

Midwives knew about analgesics, provided abortions and practised euthanasia. They even helped in cases of impotence! I don’t think I would have been that kind!

Their erudite knowledge about organic medicines, learning and transference of this knowledge within the community, without holding any official medical degrees made them the saviours and goddesses for the poor and lower-class people.

And so, the title of witch was not just limited to those women accused of murder, sex crimes or conspiracies, oh no…let’s accuse anyone that we can’t control and doesn’t follow the rules. Is this starting to sound familiar? Midwives and healers were accused of being witches also.  The Roman Catholic Church believed that midwives posed a great threat to their faith. 

Those two ecclesiastical idiots Kramer and Sprenger wrote, “No one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives.”

It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, that the Church maintained its double standards; the healing of the rich and upper classes under the guidance of the Church was acceptable but the healing of the poor and low classes by midwives was not. 

So the advent of patriarchal religions really did nothing for women. We’re still having to deal with the fall out of its beliefs. In turn it has created a misogynistic society where women, who refuse to play the patriarchal game are called witches, bitches and many other derisive names. If name calling were all we had to deal with, maybe it wouldn’t be too bad, but the culture of hate speech towards women begets the violence that we endure on a daily basis.

Love and light to you all!


Peter Leyland said…
A powerful piece Carol-ann. I am reading about John Donne at the moment in Katherine Rundell's excellent biography, Super-Infinite, and two things she writes have connected with your piece. First the Jacobean belief that witches could 'magic away a man's entire groin' and second that Anne Donne had twelve pregnancies. During the last one the baby was stillborn and the birth killed her. Only 7 survived as children. Rundell does appear to like the poet but she has given me a new understanding of the man. 'She is all states and all princes I/ Nothing else is...' from The Sunne Rising has taken on a new meaning.

Thanks for the blog
Griselda Heppel said…
Alas twas ever thus. All over the world women are hunted down and executed for not conforming to a man's idea of religion. In the west we may think we've got beyond that but social media has provided wonderful new territory for violent misogynists to brand dissenting women witches and threaten them with torture and death. Just seems part of our human make up, sadly.

Thanks for this post. I had no idea the Catholic Church historically considered midwives heretics, basically. The arrogance and cruelty of men who never had to go through childbirth. Grrr.

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